Tuesday, 23 July 2013
Back on campus for the last day of this Nuffield trip, and an early start with the Conservation Tillage and machinery team. We met Jelle Van Loon at the conservation tillage plots looking at different rotations and cultivation techniques. Three main take home points from Jelle was keeping residue on the fields, cover crops with different rooting depths and rotation. Lots of crops are grown on permanent beds so that they can be flood irrigated. A few growers are starting to use trickle tape irrigation strips, requiring much less water but a higher set up cost. Periodically these beds need fortifying, or edging up and Jello and the team have been working on new machinery designs to complete this task.
One thing we were very impressed with was the way the team worked with local blacksmiths, engaging them to create machines conceived at CIMMYT. The machines, when at the prototype stage, are then tested at CIMMYT and only when they are happy is the final design, drawn up on 3D software. These intricate designs down to the size of the nuts and bots are then made available and distributed Free of charge to any local farmer that needs them. You can just image the type of machines being built and ideally suited to very local conditions.
Later in the morning we met up with Thomas Payne, who is head of the Wheat Germplasm Bank. This is where all the previous varieties of wheat and maize are stored. The store also includes wild varieties that are being stored to potentially extract the germplasm (genetic's) later to see if they can help with a future problem. There are 144,000 varieties stored here and of these 50% have undiscovered germplasm. The picture above is a diagram of a CIMMYT variety of wheat's genetic parentage and is made up of wheat varieties bred from all over the world. This vault was at about zero degrees C but downstairs at the lab, the deep freeze is at -18 degrees C and it's used for long term storage of germplasm. It is estimated tat varieties of wheat here will remain in viable storage for 100years at least!
Next up was Susanna Dreisigacker, who works with the Molecular Wheat and the Seeds of Discovery Project. This project is aimed at identifying varieties that haven't really been looked at yet. There is a target of 120,000 accessions to be analysed over the next 10 years.Susanna and her team are effectively marking specific genes with the plants that are linked to specific traits that are required by the breeders. There is new technology helping the team out, such as 'SNIP' markers. These genes and traits are being recorded and logged so that the are identified and so can be used in the future.
After a further meeting with Pawan Singh on wheat pathology, which was very interesting and we heard about the long term history of rust resistance breeding within the CIMMYT. Other diseases the breeders are targeting are Tan Spot, (increasing incidence with min-till), Fusarium Headblight, Septoria nodorum and spot blotches grouped together as blights.
Our last meeting was with Javier Pena who heads up the Grain Quality Laboratory. One of the key breeding requirements is for the end use. Can the wheat variety be used for chapatti's, nans or flat breads? Javier is looking for varieties with medium to hard endosperms with good protein levels. The softer breads tend to make breads that go stale too quickly, an important trait when you think about where in the world these varieties are going to be grown. It was a great way to round up the tour, actually seeing what eating qualities are targeted, so soften missed in communication to the end users. In summary the whole team are focused on four areas, high yield, disease resistance, environmental stress and end use quality.
To round off our time in Mexico we hired a taxi and headed out to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Here we climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, thought be be built around 100AD. It was a great way to spend the last evening before we headed home early the following morning. Once again I can't thank the staff at both of the CIMMYT sites for organising a tremendous visit, being so open and forthcoming with their work, ideas and future thoughts.
Thursday, 18 July 2013
The final location for this Nuffield Trip is at the Head Quarters of CIMMYT in Texcoco called El Baton. It is where Dr Borlaug had his office, which now forms a great little museum in his honour. Norman Borlaug died in 2009 aged 95 and was still involved at CIMMYT until he was 93. Next year is the anniversary of his 100th birthday so many celebrations are planned! The meetings that were organised for us today contained may eminent worldwide scientists and we were all very grateful for the time they gave us.
Our first meeting was with an Australian, Dr David Bonnett, who had been working at CIMMYT for the past 5 years. David's involvement is on the Global Wheat Program as a senior scientist looking a t wheat breeding. We talked about the aims of the organisation which is to increase food security by increasing farmers efficiency, keeping food affordable to people living in the cities. This makes sense to me. If the farmers are more efficient and produce more food their income will remain the same or increase and it will increase supply of food therefore reducing the cost. It was also interesting to here that by increasing productivity in the developed world it will help the developing world by creating a surplus of food lowering the cost. Hybridisation of wheat was mentioned as a way of increasing production although very hard to achieve as the male and female parts of the wheat plants are close together. It was also very enlightening to hear that there are more dollars spent in one week on maize research by one company than the global research on wheat! David also pointed out that about half of the wheat varieties in the developing world come form CIMMYT and that a further 25% of varieties have CIMMYT varieties in their parentage. There is a huge contribution to modern wheat varieties being developed here. The double cropping, i.e. planting and harvesting in Obregon and then moving the seed to El Baton is a master stroke to double up the genetic selections of these spring wheats. Effectively two crops are grown in a every year. The plants have 2 years of selection this way before being sent to over 200 research centres around the world to make sure they are suitable, in other climates, before returning to El Baton for the final selection. It is a fascinating process. Obregon is also key as they can simulate many different climates conditions in one place. Wheat varieties bred in drought, heat stress and with irrigation mean they get the best genetic potential for many areas around the world from one place. There are 1.5 and 2.5 million individual plants in the first year of selection, which get whittles down to about 500 over 5 years to be sent out to research centres around the world.
Next up was Dr Gemma Molero who comes from Spain and is working with Matthew Reynolds on a number of projects.
Gemma is currently working on a subject that little is known about, which is all about spikelet photosynthesis. There is a theory that the awn's and spikelets contribute significantly to yield, but little is known about this. Gemma is conducting experiments to look at 3D modelling of the spikelet to work out its respiration and how it can photosynthesise. If these areas of the plant can create starch it could be easily moved to the grain due to its close proximity. This would require less plant energy to move the carbohydrate in to the stored grain. There also seems to be a significant correlation between awn length and yield. It was a great session and one that I will need to go and do some more research on with reference to critical times to manipulate grain sites and grain size. The genetic potential is to have 11 grain sites per spikelet and in reality we rarely get over 4!
After lunch we met Enrique Autrigue who showed us a presentation on the challenges we face as farmers and breeders over the next few years. By 2050 wheat yields must increase by 70% across the world. When the average world wheat yield is 3t/Ha we need to get it to 5T/ha, that is quite an ask especially with the aspects of climate change and water availability looming. Enrique estimates that 50% of this yield increase will come form plant breeding and 50% will need to come from crop husbandry. We talked with Enrique about the chromosomes the wheat plants have and how they were formed many years ago from natural crosses of grasses. We talked about the major elements that all CIMMYT wheat varieties need to have in them, namely high and stable yield, durable resistance to rusts (UG99), water use efficiency and drought tolerance, heat tolerance and end use quality. One interesting fact we talked about was water use efficiency (WUE) and irrigated wheat in norther India with flood irrigation needs 1300L of water for every 1Kg of wheat grown. With new technologies in drip irrigation this can be reduced to 500L/Kg.
Next up was Dr Masahiro Kishii from Japan who is looking at wheat cryogenics. This is basically crossing wheat with other grass types to through up genetic differences. It is these differences that the geneticists are looking for to see if they will throw up new and exciting traits. Masahiro is looking at Ancestral wheat (old cultivars- similar to modern wheat), Alien Species (translocation in from other types further removed from wheat) and even crossing wheat and maize to see what appears. A good example would be crossing grass species living on sand dunes near the sea. they would be tolerant to salinity and have good drought resistance but poor yield. can these genes be selected and bred into modern wheat to provide a higher yielding variety that is more drought tolerant than varieties currently used.
Our last meeting of the day was with Dr Ivan Ortiz-Monasterio who is looking at using remote sensing to gain yield improvements whilst reducing environmental impact. Ivan has worked out that in area of the Jakie Valley the Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) can be as low as 31%! The system of farming here needs to be updated and less nitrogen applied with better accuracy to maintain the same or even better yield. Ivan has developed the green seeker (as described in an earlier post) and is now looking at ways of using that technology to measure phosphate variability within plants, before stress symptoms are visible to the naked eye. We talked in depth about thermal imagery and how that can be used to monitor water stress in plants. As we know water is still the limiting factor to UK yields, so can we try and understand what the plant is going through when it is water stressed? It was a great day today with so much information that needs to be processed over the next few weeks and months, hopefully it will become clearer as time goes on!
Wednesday, 17 July 2013
Our second day at the CIMMYT Obregon site started with Matthew Reynolds who is a wheat physiologist. It was very interesting to meet Matthew and to talk about the wheat research being completed here at Obregon but also at the other CIMMYT research stations around the world. There are close ties with India as some of Dr Borlaug's original varieties were used there. All of the wheat varieties had been harvested and were all bagged up in the new laboratory space in preparation for cleaning and processing over the coming months. There must have been several hundred brown bags, all labelled up in this one area.
CIMMYT produces about 1,000 new genotypes each year to be distributed around to approximately 200 test sites. There are three main aspects that the breeders here are looking at. Firstly the new varieties must have disease resistance. Many farmers in the developing world do not have access to or the finance for fungicides so the plant has to fend for itself. It is self pollinating so no matter what situations it grows in it will do it's best to produce seed. This is unlike Maize who if in doubt releases lots of spores to try and recreate that way. The second aspect of their breeding is for quality. There's no poin in a great variety that can not be used for japatti or bread. Finally there is the yield. It was interesting to hear the order that these traits are placed.
We had a drive around the farm to look at Matthew's field where the trials are to be planted next season. Matthew had instructed the farm manager Rodrigo to subsoil the field twice and there was poultry litter waiting to be applied. We talked about zero tillage and if it had a place in the cycle of the wheat and what came out was that we really didn't know much about wheat plants and the way the behave in certain systems. I did find out that the most critical influence on yield is the period between booting and flowering. That's when the plant needs to be pushed to create lots of grain sites and it will nearly always do it's best to fill those sites form there.Dr Norman Borlaug himself. I hadn't realised that he only passed away in 2009 and up until that point was still very interested in what the next generation of plant breeders where doing.
After our eventful journey to Obregon in Sonora, Mexico, we headed to our hotel and set up ready for the next day. We arrived by taxi at CIMMYT the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre. We met up with Maria Elena Cardenas, who knows all about crop nutrition. In conjunction with OSU (Oklahoma State University) the team here developed the first Green Seeker device for measuring the crop biomass (NDVI- Normalised Difference Vegetative Index). From this measurement an algorithm can be worked out to give a value and fertiliser can be adjusted accordingly. Fertiliser and water quality is a huge issue in Sonora, with water for crops being used from a series of wells and one major the Alvaro Dam. Here I am pictured (left t right) Maria's team, Jose' Cynthia, Marisol, Maria, Lorena and Alberto. They are currently working on a similar project to the green seeker but measuring the levels of Phosphate in the plants to give fertiliser requirements.
After Maria and her team we headed around the corner to meet Manuel R. Velenzuela from PIEAES. This is a farmers research organisation, located at the Obregon site. Manuel gave a really great insight into the issues affecting the farmers of the Sonora area and specifically in the Jaqui Vally. Water is a crucial issue here in the area with crops having to be irrigated from either wells, down to 250m, or from the Arvaro Dam. There are issues between the two counties about the ownership of the water. We talked about land values and land ownership after the revolution, and the links with CIMMYT. We talked about the fact that some farmers are still growing varieties that are 20-30 years old but recently they have been growing newer ones resulting is higher yields, breaking their yield plateau, is that something we should look at in the UK? Rust is a major issue here and newer varieties have to have this as the first goal for new varieties, then comes end use quality and finally yield. Much of the wheat grown here is Durham wheat and is exported through Africa to Europe. Average yields of 7.2 were recorded last year although the common average would be about 6.8t/Ha.
The soil was quite sandy in Obregon and with very little organic matter. The fields are still cultivated with minimal or full cultivation and it reminded me of the situation in the Dakota's I heard about from Dwayne Beck the previous week. Would cover crops and zero tillage help, leaving the trash on the surface to keep the soil cool when the weather is hot as Steve mentioned? It's all starting to come together!
The soil has very low organic matter in the area so where possible cover crops are being grown. Here Rodrego was showing us a little about the crop called Sesbania. This is a legume that will grow to 2m tall in 12 weeks, with great nodulation and a fantastic tap root. These crops were only 4 weeks old and had already grown to about 50cm. The crop will be flailed off later in the season and spring wheat will be planted into the residue. Although its a spring wheat it get planted in the winter and will grow for just 5 months, from the middle of November. The crop may have 3-4 passes with the irrigator, each time delivering between 80-100mm of water.
In the afternoon we headed out to the Alvaro Dam. The key for agriculture in the area is held in these waters and I can see why there are starting to be issues. The water must have been at least 20m below the full level although it is at the end of the season. This part of Mexico gets 300mm of rain over 3 months, July, August and September (summer). The Dam was very low and as a result many of the summer crops were not being grown as farmers could not get the water to enable further cropping. It was very good of the CIMMYT team to take us out and show us around the local area.
Sunday, 14 July 2013
Well as the title suggests this blog is made up from the events over the last two days. The reason that they are over those two days is that for me they are one and the same! Things started well getting to Denver, my bogey airport and yes the delay monster strikes again! The force is not with me today! The lightening came down and the floods came up and we sat, sat and then sat some more. At this point I really didn't mind. Strange you might have thought and Nuffie not to be in a hurry, but I had bigger fish to fry! I would have had to wait in Chicago anyway so with free wifi and 'airport bingo' nearly with a full house I was content! The e-mails kept coming adding to the delay but I knew I was safe, for now!
I arrived in Chicago, to be reunited with my starting Nuffield colleague Andy Williamson who had been travelling around Indiana, Illinois and Iowa the previous few weeks. We found the terminal and waited. Eventually we boarded the plane and prepared for take off. I knew the day was going to be brutal as we had been scheduled to leave at 01.55 (Sunday). By 4.30 we had already spent almost 3 hours on the plane and hadn't even moved off the tarmac, a mechanical fault. Now it's hard to be cross at something like that, far better it is identified at 0 feet above sea level than at 37,000 feet. What annoyed us the most was the lack of clear information in Spanish or English. Everything was an agonising 20 minutes away! By 6.30 we were off the plane and by 7.30 we had re-gathered our luggage and fortunately been re booked on to a United flight to Mexico City rather than Guadalajara. We still missed our connection to Obregon, so our lazy catch up by the pool and some sight seeing was blown from the cooling water.
The flight into Mexico City was interesting to say the least. A huge sprawling smoggy, smoking, pulsating community crammed into every inch. We landed, collected our bags; changed clothes, as the old ones were, how do I put this politely, "walking through customs on their own" and headed back through security to continue our journey! We blagged our way in the International VIP lounge and were gratefully fed and watered.
It's great to know that you have the support and comments, some entertaining from twitter and Facebook followers, eavesdropping in on our journey and the things we are finding out. It's also great to know the support from our families is also there, backing us all the way. So to you all, here's a Corona (yes I know it's light - DLWG is too big) and a thank you for the support and comments, it is very much appreciated.
Saturday, 13 July 2013
Well what a day Friday turned out to be! Two great hosts showing very detailed knowledge and appreciation for the farming systems they are using and how it interacts with the environment. Farming holistically with nature and mimicking the natural methods used by mother nature to produce density rich quality food. We started of at Brown's Ranch where we met Gabe Brown. Gabe farms about 5,000 acres with his son Paul, and some hired help. The system is split into two main areas, cropping on out lying fields where there is no water and high intensity short periods of grazing on permanent but improved grasslands. The groups of cows are moved twice a day into tall pasture, they graze the nutrient and carbohydrate rich seed heads and trample the rest back into the soil. This is not wasted but consumed by the billions of mycorrrhizae and soil bacteria that feed on this carbon. It is a great system that complements the cow and calf system. Not fertiliser is used on these fields. The grass gets grazed once a season, mimicking the grazing patterns of the migrating Bison. A herd of about 400 cows range these pastures and all of the beef is finished from grass into a premium market.
We also looked and dug around in very different soils. Some from neighbouring farms with very standard practice. We looked a soils that just grew spring wheat one year and flax (linseed) the next, and that was very poor. A little better was a corn, spring barley, sunflower rotation all with zero tillage. Then we moved on to Gabe's soils which integrated zero tillage, diverse rotation, cover crops and livestock and the soil was incredible. Gabe has not used inorganic fertiliser, insecticides or fungicides for a number of years. He rarely uses a herbicide, but will do in certain situations, hence he is not organic he's better than that!
The soil fractured so well, was alive with roots, and smelt almost sweet. It really was a terrific visit, standing in a winter triticale field with grasshoppers leaping every where. There is very little cost to this farming system which Gabe developed after 4 years of drought in the 1990's with no crops to sell and therefore little money to invest. It was truly inspirational.
We met up with Jay Fuhrer over lunch and afterwards to his office. Jay in the County NRCS advisor, funded through the USDA. Jay also looks after the Menoken Demonstartion Farm. At the office we performed an inflitration and slake test on two soils. On the left was Gabe Brown soil and on the right was soil from another farm. The soil in dried out and then crumbled a little before being put into the large centre plastic jars. The water is then poured into the top yogurt poy with holes and drains through the soil profile and out of the bottom into the silver tray. Gabes soils passed this water in a minute or so showing fantastiv infiltration. Just what you need during periods of high intensity rain fall. The soil on the right took almost 10 minutes to start to drip. Had this been on a slope the soil erosion would have been incredible, taking soil, attached pesticides and fertilisers into the nearest road or ditch. Why is it so better? It's all due to soil structure and the airspaces within the soil. The spaces between the soil particles allow water to pass safely through. Yes the water did run through the soil but due to the way the nitrogen is stored in the soil only a small percentage was leached. In fact the poor soil leached twice as much nitrate. The slake test also clearly demonstrated the ability of Gabe's soil to stick together. This is due to the root exudates, simple sugars given off by roots, binding the soil together making it more stable and able to withstand traffic and heavy rain fall.
In order to keep the soil healthy it needs to be fed carbon and protein. THis is added into Jay's system at the research farm by using cover crops. The one shown below contains; peas, oats, phacelia, wheat, radish, canola, turnips and clover. The insect life it was supporting was incredible, honey bees everywhere. This cool season cover crop is just grown through the early part of the summer but it would be great to try this at home after harvest and before a spring crop. All of these roots are releasing sugars, moving nutrients around and making locked up nutrients available to the plants. N fertiliser has been applied since 2009 on this plot.
Another interesting idea was a type of companion cropping. IN the picture below, the crop is sunflowers, planted at 30" spacings and inter-seeded between them, so at 15" was a cover crop. This broadleaved cover crop had buckwheat, flax, soybeans, cow peas, peas, radish and turnip. The idea was that the cover crop would grow along side the main 'cash crop' and they would provide make available nutrients the nutrients required. For instance the buckwheat would release Phosphate from the soil and the legumes would provide a proportion the nitrogen required. THis is an experimental farm so no extra inorganic fertiliser is applied but in a commercial scenario it is thought that fertilser's could be reduced by 50%. Are we mining these soil by getting the bugs to harvest the locked up nutrients? An interesting thought so an inclusion of compost, manure or sewage cake might be a good inclusion.
The whole day was a real eye opener to look at what can be achieved. Should be be aiming slightly lower, taking the cost out of the system and making us more resilient to future changes in or climate? I don't know but this has mad me look at things a different way. In conclusion, the best most sustainable farming system would be, zero tillage, diverse cropping, cover crops, manure applications and livestock. So not much research there then! North Dakota was definitely worth including on the tour and a huge thanks must go out to Gabe Brown and Jay Fuhrer.
Friday, 12 July 2013
After the very hectic day yesterday with Dwayne Beck at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm today was a more relaxed day driving the 200 miles north to Bismark in North Dakota. We took our time to stop off several times along the way to 'poke' around in many different field and machinery dealerships along the way. Our first place to stop was Ohae Dam It was started in the 1940's and is used to generate hydro electric electricity for the region. There was also a plan to move the lake water 200 miles by canal to the East to irrigate crops when there rotation was wheat, summer fallow, wheat summer fallow etc. This rotation caused the dust bowls, similar to those at Oklahoma and Kansas in the 1930's. With zero tillage adoption pushed by Dwayne among other reasons the plan (thankfully) was scrapped. We called in to kick some tyres along the way. This is the flag ship Quadtrac, weighing in at 600 hp it was quite a beast! The keys were just sitting in the tractor cab, unlocked, so we had a sit in and marvelled at the size and the power, bristling with gadgets and the latest technology.
Along the way we stopped at a few fields, of biotech soybeans, very clean crops, no sign of weed resistance and zero tilled helping reduce that problem. I've learnt that by not disturbing he soil surface, you get less weed germination, so you can reduce herbicides, incur less costs and improve the environment buy not applying herbicides all the time for weed control, which we have to do.
We also stopped at some spring wheat, zero tilled into corn stubble and it looked fantastic. The corn stalked had mulched the wheat seeds, reducing weed development and retained the rain, reducing soil erosion and keeping the water where it's needed for these crops, the soil. The wheat was very clean and I suspect it had not had any fungicides as there were no tramlines to be found. You can see the previous crop residue at the bottom of the picture. You need a special drill/planter to get through that kind of trash.
We headed up the road still further to find more examples of late night country entertainment. This one is shooting at the road signs, as shown above, with the numerous bullet holes peppering the sign. This wasn't the only peppered sign, they were everywhere!
On the outskirts on Mandan we found the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery so we spent a few quiet moments wandering around reading the grave stones of people who had served the United States over the last 100 years. It was very hot by now, over 90 degrees Fahrenheit so we got back into the car and headed north. It was a lovely site and was perfectly manicured and laid out.
We headed onwards and stopped one last time to watch some cows and calves relaxing in a watering hole. It was so hot I felt like hopping in and joining them! There seemed to be plenty of water and the cows and horses seemed quite able to cope in the warm weather. Once through Bismark we headed East out to Brown's Ranch where our journey into soil health continues tomorrow morning.
Thursday, 11 July 2013
After breakfast Tom Sewell (no-till Tom) and myself headed out to the Dakota Lakes Research Farm to meet Dwayne Beck. Dwayne is the Farm Manager, Chief Scientist and Tour Guide at the farmer owned and run research centre. We hopped into the car on arrival and headed out to a field meeting about combinable peas hosted by the County Extension Officer, Ruth Beck (Dwayne's Wife). The State used to grow more than 40,000 acres of combinable peas but now the total stands at 4,000 acres, but the area is growing. A pea/lentil/chickpeas splitting, processing and bagging plant has just organised funding, (backed by the Federal Government) to build a facility in the local town of Harrold.
We drove over to Harrold to look at further development in the Agricultural Industries with a look around a huge grain/corn storage facility. There is space to load trains with 120 rail cars, each capable of carrying 80 tonnes each. A possible 9,600T could be shipped out on each train. Dwayne has concerns that it's a good way of shipping nutrients out of the state, which I would have to agree with. Utilising the railway was a Monsanto distribution hub where Roundup is delivered, also by the rail car load. Each of these held 78,000L and there was at least 8 of them! Agriculture is huge in America.
After lunch we headed back to the farm. The farm has about 480mm of rain per year with 1/3 of that coming in the form of snow during the winter. Moisture capture and conservation are key reasons for the no-till system. No cultivation, other than seeding, means the macro-pores the 'night crawlers' create are not disturbed, so drainage into the soil profile is fast and efficient. The water seeps down these tubes in the soil until they find a dry area and then move over soaking the soil at depth, rather than running off. This was well demonstrated when 37.5mm of rain is applied in 6 minutes and you can walk on the field in your shoes. I know because I did it! Cover crops especially Linseed (Flax) also play a roll in providing little snow fences stopping snow blow across the Northern Great Plains during the winter. The crop residue also plays a vital role in recirculating the soil nutrients, keeping the soil cool, actually fairly damp, and by protecting the soil surface from wind erosion. The trash will disappear in a relatively short space of time. These issues have created many problems for the area in the past but now with this method of crop establishment, yields are increasing, the environment in improving and farmers are actually making money.
The soybeans above have been direct drilled into corn (maize) stubble's after a cover crop of fox tail millet and oats and looked great.
A similar story for the maize shown above. Direct drilled as a second crop of maize. These will be followed by two years of wheat (potentially one winter and one spring) and then a broad leaved crop of soybean, flax or peas. The rotation is key and is one of the main reasons for the success of the system. We just need to work out a way to use some of these techniques in the UK, with the crops we are able to grow. There should be space for a perennial crop in the UK system that will occupy the soil for more than a year, draw up deeper nutrients and create organic matter. Just need to work out which one it is!
Many thanks to Dwayne and the Dakota Lakes Research Farm for organising the day for Tom and myself. We really enjoyed it and have come away, as normal, asking more questions than finding answers!