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Research Project: Sustainable Agricultural Systems for the Northern Great Plains

Location: Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory

2019 Annual Report


1a. Objectives (from AD-416):
Objective 1: Develop strategies to increase production and selected non-provisioning ecosystem services while increasing socio-economic performance of grazing, crop, and integrated crop/livestock systems. Objective 2: Develop options for integrated agricultural systems that reduce production risks, and enhance economic viability and ecosystem services under extreme weather conditions. Objective 3: Assess the effects of management strategies aimed at enhancing ecosystem services on the nutrient content of crop and livestock products. Objective 4: Operate and maintain the Northern Great Plains LTAR network site using technologies and practices agreed upon by the LTAR leadership. Contribute to the LTAR working groups and common experiments as resources allow. Submit relevant data with appropriate metadata to the LTAR Information Ecosystem.


1b. Approach (from AD-416):
Agriculture not only faces the challenge of meeting growing needs for food, feed, fuel, and fiber, but also providing non-provisioning ecosystem services while adapting to variable weather conditions. This project builds upon previous research at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory (NGPRL), by continuing and expanding research on how management scenarios can impact ecosystem services, but also evaluating the effect of management on nutrient concentrations and providing ways to scale the research to landscape and national levels. The project will continue to develop sustainable management strategies for crops and livestock while using this knowledge to develop more efficient crop-livestock systems (Objective 1). Through collaboration with other ARS locations, NGPRL will determine how different management strategies affect nutrient concentration in crops and carcass quality in livestock (Objective 3). Modelling will be used to scale findings at the plot or field scale to landscape or regional levels and to explore potential management options for producers under variable weather conditions (Objective 2). Finally, NGPRL is involved in multiple national networks, including the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and the Long Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network, which allow network collaborations to leverage local expertise and scale and share research findings at a national level. The NGPRL is uniquely suited to conduct this multitier research because it has a diversity of landscapes and disciplines in which conduct these multiple approaches to sustainably intensify agriculture. We anticipate that completing this project plan will produce contributions to network databases and also guidelines for developing sustainable integrated agricultural systems. Outcomes from the project will benefit producers, the scientific community and policy makers by producing guidelines and management options.


3. Progress Report:
The research project Sustainable Agricultural Systems for the Northern Great Plains was certified on October 25, 2019. Research is progressing on all objectives. Under Objective 1-Subobjective 1.A, plots were established and baseline soil seed bank were taken and Whittaker plots were established on two of the blocks. Additional statistical consulting suggested a staggered start approach would be the most powerful statistical method for this project. Subobjective 1.B utilized existing projects; however, after evaluating labor needs and statistical power, the Soil Quality Management study was seeded to a perennial mix of alfalfa and intermediate wheatgrass. This provided an additional replication and will provide flexibility when a new research agronomist is hired. This is the first year that the Organic Transition Study will be certified organic. Organic oats were planted on all treatments this year. Work on the Integrated Crop/Livestock project is continuing. This project has been in place since 1999 and this is current Phase III of the project. Cover crops establishment was poor in 2018 and, therefore, millet was seeded in the cover crop portion in 2019. The three-year soil sampling was completed this year. Subobjective 2.A utilizes data from long-term projects located at Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory. Kentucky bluegrass was sampled bi-weekly on the historical pastures for biomass, leaf area index and height. These data were used to develop growth curves for use in the Agricultural Policy/Environmental eXtender (APEX) model. Under Subobjective 2.B, the rain intercept shelters have been built and fenced and baseline soils and vegetation data are being collected. A Headquarters Funded Post-doc was hired to initiate research on Subobjective 3.A. Connections have been made with the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Laboratory and the Edward T. Schafer Agricultural Research Laboratory in Fargo, North Dakota to help develop this research project. In Subobjective 3B, the steers were too small to be finished prior to December. Therefore, as described in the project plan, the steers were still placed on the integrated crop-livestock system pastures and the control native range pastures but only average daily gain was recorded. Treatments for the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network common experiment were established at both the plot and field scales. Baseline soils data were collected and relevant metadata was sent to the LTAR Data Management Team. The location is also part of the National Wind Erosion Research Network (NWERN) and site data were collected and shared with NWERN. Agronomic data from the Area IV Soil Conservation Districts research farm were collected and sent to collaborators on the Crop Categorization Project. The location also has long-term grazing data. Therefore, it was decided to become involved in the grazing land portion of the LTAR network. The treatments described in Subobjective 1A of the research plan will be used for the plot level scale. As the treatments separate, field scale treatments will also be implemented.


4. Accomplishments
1. Threats to grazing land soils summarized. Maintaining soil health in northern Great Plains grazing lands in the face of anticipated land-use and climate change represents a serious challenge for land managers. In response to this challenge, ARS researchers at Mandan, North Dakota, documented threats to soil health from agricultural intensification, energy extraction and development, and climate change that could compromise the delivery of ecosystem services in this important agricultural region. Anticipated responses to threats were categorized into seven outcomes (soil organic matter decline, reduced physical stability, soil erosion, compaction, localized nutrient accumulation, acidification, and salinization), thereby facilitating deployment of targeted mitigation measures. Because restoration of soils in the northern Great Plains is inherently slow, grazing land managers should conserve existing soil functions by managing forage resources conservatively, applying management strategically when modifying vegetation composition or soil conditions, and using effective restoration and conservation practices when grazing lands are converted to other uses. Facilitating these efforts will likely require the adoption of flexible management paradigms by grazing land managers given the complexity of interactions between land use and climate change impacts.

2. Net uptake of greenhouse gases by no-till cropping systems is difficult in semiarid regions. Climate change is creating significant challenges for farmers and ranchers through warmer and more variable weather, increased pest pressure, and loss of land in flood-prone areas. Accordingly, increasing the resilience of agricultural production systems to climate-induced change is increasingly important, as is the development and adoption of practices that decrease the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere. In response to this need, ARS scientists at Mandan, North Dakota, documented GHG emissions from three no-till cropping systems using a combination of management records and associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emission estimates, measurements of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) fluxes over a 3-year period, and changes in profile soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks over 18 years. When estimated and measured factors were summed, GHG emissions were positive for spring wheat-fallow and continuous spring wheat (implying net GHG emission to the atmosphere), and negative for spring wheat-safflower-rye (implying net GHG uptake). However, total GHG emissions were not statistically different among cropping systems. Transitioning all semiarid cropping systems to GHG sinks will require new technology and methods to improve efficiency of nitrogen use by crops and adoption of cultural practices known to increase soil carbon stocks well above accrual rates typical of continuously cropped, no-tillage systems.

3. Reduced sampling uncertainty to improve detection of aeolian sediment transport. Aeolian sediment transport, including wind erosion and dust emission, impacts agricultural production and food security, nutrient cycling, water resources, and climate. Measuring aeolian sediment transport is, therefore, important for developing an understanding of its impacts on Earth systems and society. However, little consideration has been given to how many samples are needed to measure aeolian transport and detect its change over space and time. ARS scientists from the Mandan, North Dakota, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Pullman, Washington, along with scientists from Cardiff University (United Kingdom), the U.S. Geological Survey Southwest Biological Science Center in Moab, Utah, and the Bureau of Land Management investigated how sample size, experiment design, and decisions about the precision of change detection affect aeolian transport monitoring. They showed that traditional approaches in aeolian research with small sample sizes and selective placement of equipment are often unable to detect change and support robust inferences about aeolian processes. These results are useful for improving field sampling in wind erosion and dust emission research and for wind erosion modelers determining minimum sampling requirements for adequate model parameterization.

4. Increased predictability of seasonal fire windows in the northern Great Plains, U.S. Use of prescribed fire to manage grasslands is limited by local weather conditions. Changing climate in North Dakota could be affecting opportunities for use of prescribed fire. Our understanding of the time periods that are suitable for prescribed fire within the Northern Plains is lacking. A scientist from Mandan, North Dakota, ARS along with scientists from University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University identified that suitable burning times during the spring and fall have shifted over the last decade. While the total number of days acceptable for burning has not changed over time, the number of days within the spring fire season (April) has decreased across the state. Results suggest that there is ample and more consistent opportunity for fall burning in the region. These results are useful for land managers and policy makers in making decisions for consistent fire management in the region.

5. Determined the effects of grazing and prescribed fire on hydrology of Kentucky bluegrass dominated rangelands in the northern Great Plains. Kentucky bluegrass is in over 85% of sampled areas in the U.S. northern Great Plains. This grass can develop a dense thatch layer and root mat near the soil surface, which affects how water infiltrates and runs off a site. ARS scientists from Mandan, North Dakota, and Reno, Nevada, used rainfall simulators and water droplet infiltration tests to determine whether Kentucky bluegrass affected water infiltration and runoff in Kentucky bluegrass dominated areas. Rainfall simulation on dry soils showed that runoff occurred sooner, and more runoff occurred as the amount of Kentucky bluegrass increased. When dry, Kentucky bluegrass litter tends to repel water and is more repellant than thatch, root mat or mineral soils. However, bluegrass litter is less water repellant after it has been wetted. Results are useful to ranchers and grassland managers in making decisions to reduce accumulation of Kentucky bluegrass litter to make better use of rainfall.

6. Identified strategies to affect landowner burn behavior in North Dakota rangelands. Kentucky bluegrass is a concern on many rangelands in the northern Great Plains of North America. Re-introducing fire may be one of the best ways to combat bluegrass invasion in the northern Great Plains. But, people’s ideas about risks and barriers to fire implementation currently limit its use. ARS scientists from Mandan, North Dakota, along with researchers from North Dakota State University, showed that fire is generally acceptable to many North Dakota landowners. Landowners see lack of time and access to resources as more important factors than risk when deciding whether to use fire. Prescribed burn associations are an effective approach to overcoming barriers to prescribed fires. Prescribed burn associations may help gain support for prescribed fires in North Dakota and may provide the resources to safely and effectively conduct prescribed fires.

7. The ‘BARN’, a graphical tool to determine the impacts and benefits of livestock farming. Negative public perception of the livestock industry includes concerns about environmental degradation, animal welfare concerns and potential negative consequences of meat consumption on human health. However, livestock also provide numerous beneficial goods and services such as jobs, carbon storage in grasslands and landscape aesthetics. An ARS scientist at Mandan, North Dakota, along with collaborators from Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in France, developed a graphical tool called the ‘Barn’ to summarize the tradeoffs and synergies involved in livestock production. The tool evaluates livestock production interactions with the social, economic and physical environment along five interfaces. These are 1) markets, 2) employment, 3) inputs, 4) environment and climate and 5) social and cultural factors. The tool can graphically show differences in services and impacts between systems in an area, between areas or at multiple levels within an area. The ‘Barn’ can be used by university professors, extension agents and others to educate students, stakeholders and consumers, and is currently being used for these purposes in Europe.

8. A synthesis of the benefits and future research opportunities for targeted grazing. Targeted grazing is a grazing system that places greater emphasis on manipulating rangeland vegetation rather than livestock production. Currently knowledge about how and when to apply targeted grazing is expanding rapidly, but a synthesis of targeted grazing research and knowledge has not been done. ARS scientists in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Mandan, North Dakota, along with scientists from New Mexico State University, Montana State University, California Polytechnic State University, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension, University of Idaho and Utah State University collaborated to develop a synthesis paper highlighting the origin, ecological principles, animal strategies, obstacles and challenges to a more widespread application of targeted grazing. The paper also focused on current uses of targeted grazing on rangelands and highlighted future research needs to address issues that limit the application of targeted grazing. Targeted grazing is expanding as vegetation management tool and producers, land managers and the public need to understand the potential and limitations of this unique grazing paradigm.

9. Identification of challenges to northern Great Plains grasslands. Plains are diverse, resilient and highly productive. However, their existence is being challenged by land use change, invasive species, loss of biodiversity and more recently, managing for endangered and threatened species. ARS scientists from Mandan, North Dakota, along with scientists and land managers from North Dakota State University and USDA- Natural Resource Conservation Service, identified and highlighted these challenges. The quality and productivity of northern Great Plains rangelands provide opportunities to maintain these grasslands, primarily by maintaining economically viable ranches on the landscape. In order to accomplish this goal, efforts to maintain grasslands in the northern Great Plains need to focus on improving ranch profitability.

10. Impacts of intensified cropping systems on soil water use by spring wheat in south-central North Dakota, U.S. In semi-arid rain-fed farming regions such as central North Dakota, effective use of water is critical. ARS scientists from Mandan measured soil water at various depths, and together with precipitation and yield data, determined the efficiency with which different crop sequences, under two tillage treatments, stored and used water. Soil water at planting and harvest was higher under no-till than minimum tillage for continuously grown spring wheat compared to most other crop sequences. Continuously cropped sequences stored more precipitation over the winter but had lower seasonal water use and average spring wheat yields compared to sequences with fallow. Water use efficiency was lowest for spring wheat-fallow or continuous spring wheat compared to other sequences, but continuous cropping resulted in markedly more efficient use of precipitation over the period of the study. These results are useful to producers in selecting crop sequences and tillage practices to best utilize precipitation in the northern Great Plains.

11. Winter cover crop and relay-crop options to maintain productivity and economic returns. Growing crops to maintain cover over the winter could provide environmental benefits, but it is challenging in Northern climates with added costs of winter crop establishment and potential negative crop yield impacts. ARS scientists in Morris, Minnesota, and Mandan, North Dakota, along with scientists from the University of Minnesota and University of Wyoming evaluated yields and economics of four winter cover options compared to two winter fallow treatments in a spring wheat-soybean rotation at three sites in Minnesota. The winter cover options included camelina and pennycress that were relay-cropped with soybean and harvested over the soybean canopy, and traditional cover crops winter rye and forage radish that were not harvested. Total seed yields for the relay-crop options were similar to and sometimes exceeded those of soybean grown alone in the traditional winter fallow treatments. Net incomes for the relay-crop options were also similar to soybean grown alone, so these may be the most economically favorable winter cover options for producers. This information is useful to producers in selecting winter cover practices.

12. Oilseed suitability for western wheat-growing regions. Oilseed crops belonging to the mustard family provide rotational benefits to wheat and are being targeted for biofuel feedstock production in the western U.S. wheat-growing regions. However, little is known about which species produces the greatest yield or is best suited for a given region across the dryland wheat producing area of the U.S. ARS scientists from Morris, Minnesota, Pendleton, Oregon, Peoria, Illinois, Sidney, Montana, Mandan, North Dakota, Ames, Iowa, Temple, Texaz, Akron, Colorado along with scientists from the University of Idaho investigated the productivity and drought tolerance of 12 modern mustard varieties from six different species across eight different environments spanning four ecoregions within the U.S. Environment greatly affected oilseed performance. Both seed and oil yields increased with increasing seasonal rainfall. Generally, commercial varieties of canola (Brassica napus) and Indian mustard (Brassica juncea) produced the greatest oil yields, in part, because of their high seed oil concentration. However, some species such as Ethiopian mustard (Brassica carinata) performed very well in certain environments but poorly in others. Research identified varieties well suited for certain environments but also showed that more work is needed to improve the oil concentration of some high seed yielding varieties to make them more useful as biofuel feedstocks.

13. Variation in chemical composition of grass-fed beef can affect its healthfulness. There is considerable public interest in ‘grass-fed’ beef, but the term ‘grass-fed’ is vague since there are many plant species included in the category of acceptable forage for grass feeding. Many of the acceptable plant species are not actually grass species (e.g. alfalfa) and can contain secondary chemicals (or phytochemicals) which may influence the quality of beef, for example improving its ability to resist oxidation. An ARS scientist from Mandan, North Dakota, along with a scientist from Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand and a scientist affiliated with Utah State University evaluated multiple studies to determine if grass-fed beef might be healthier for people under certain conditions. They determined that there is considerable circumstantial evidence to support the hypothesis that phytochemical richness of cattle diets (from their intake of many plant species, including forbs such as alfalfa and native forbs, tree and shrub leaves) enhance the biochemical richness of beef, which then is positively linked with human and environmental health. This information can be used by nutritionists as they evaluate the composition and health benefits of grass-fed beef.


Review Publications
Liebig, M.A., Archer, D.W., Halvorson, J.J., Johnson, H.A., Saliendra, N.Z., Gross, J.R., Tanaka, D.L. 2019. Net global warming potential of spring wheat cropping systems in a semiarid region. Land. 8(2):32. https://doi.org/10.3390/land8020032.
Gesch, R.W., Long, D.S., Palmquist, D.E., Allen, B.L., Archer, D.W., Brown, J., Davis, J.B., Hatfield, J.L., Jabro, J.D., Kiniry, J.R., Vigil, M.F., Oblath, E.A., Isbell, T. 2019. Agronomic performance of Brassicaceae oilseeds in multiple environments across the Western USA. BioEnergy Research. 12(3):509-523. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12155-019-09998-1.
Ledo, A., Hillier, J., Smith, P., Aguilera, E., Blagodatskiy, S., Brearley, F.Q., Datta, A., Diaz-Pines, E., Don, A., Dondini, M., Dunn, J., Feliciano, D., Liebig, M.A., Lang, R., Llorente, M., Zinn, Y., McNamara, N., Ogle, S., Qin, Z., Rovira, P., Rowe, R., Vicente-Vicente, J., Whitaker, J., Yue, Q., Zerihun, A. 2019. A global, empirical, harmonized dataset of soil organic carbon changes under perennial crops. Scientific Data. 6:57. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41597-019-0062-1.
Webb, N., Chappell, A., Edwards, B., McCord, S.E., Van Zee, J.W., Cooper, B., Courtright, E.M., Duniway, M., Sharratt, B.S., Tedela, N., Toledo, D.N. 2019. Reducing sampling uncertainty in aeolian research to improve change detection. Journal of Geophysical Research. 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019JF005042.
Pokharel, K.P., Regmi, M., Featherstone, A.M., Archer, D.W. 2019. Examining the financial performance of agricultural cooperatives in the United States. Agricultural Finance Reviews. 79:271-282. https://doi.org/10.1108/AFR-11-2017-0103.
Ott, M.A., Eberle, C.A., Thom, M.D., Archer, D.W., Forcella, F., Gesch, R.W., Wyse, D.L. 2019. Economics and agronomics of relay-cropping pennycress and camelina with soybean in Minnesota. Agronomy Journal. 111:1281-1292. https://doi.org/10.2134/agronj2018.04.0277.
Stewart, E., Beauchemin, K., Dai, X., Christensen, R., MacAdam, J.W., Villalba, J.J. 2019. Effect of tannin-containing hays on enteric methane emissions and nitrogen partitioning in beef cattle. Journal of Animal Science. 97:3286-3299. https://doi.org/10.1093/jas/skz206.
Ahmadpour, A., Zarrin, M., Christensen, R., Farjad, F., Ahmadpour, A. 2019. Temporal fluctuations of C 16 and C 18 fatty acids in dromedary camels during the transition period. Tropical Animal Health and Production. 51(6):1651–1660. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11250-019-01860-y.
Ferreira, J.F., Sandhu, D., Liu, X., Halvorson, J.J. 2018. Spinach (Spinacea oleracea, L.) response to salinity: nutritional value, physiological parameters, antioxidant capacity, and gene expression. Agriculture. 8(10):163. https://doi.org/10.3390/agriculture8100163.
Kronberg, S.L., Ryschawy, R. 2019. Negative impacts on the environment and people from simplification of crop and livestock production. In: Lemaire, G., Carvalho, P. C. F., Kronberg, S., Recous, S., editors. Agroecosystem diversity: reconciling contemporary agriculture and environmental quality. London, UK: Academic Press. p. 247-256
Provenza, F.D., Kronberg, S.L., Gregorini, P. 2019. Is grassfed meat and dairy better for human and environmental health? Frontiers in Nutrition. 6:26. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00026.
Faust, D.R., Liebig, M.A. 2018. Effects of storage time and temperature on greenhouse gas samples in Exetainer vials with chlorobutyl septa caps. MethodsX. https://doi.org/10.1016.j.mex.2018.06.016.
Mallinger, R., Franco Jr, J.G., Prischmann-Voldseth, D.A., Prasifka, J.R. 2018. Annual cover crops for managed and wild bees: Optimal plant mixtures depend on pollinator enhancement goals. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. 273(1):107-116. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2018.12.006.