Farmers provide pivotal role in educating consumers about genetically modified organismsWritten by Saige Albert
Cheyenne – Wyoming Farm Bureau members came together on Feb. 25-26 for the organization’s annual legislative meeting, where they heard from a variety of speakers.
Western Sugar Cooperative Research Agronomist Rebecca Larsen was on the group’s agenda for the event. Larson looked at the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the public’s perception on GMOs.
“We don’t have to look far on the internet to find a lot of negative publicity about GM crops,” Larson said. “While we are busy farming food, a number of anti-GMO organizations are busy farming fear. They are trying to convince the American public that GMOs are unhealthy and bad for the environment.”
Larson explained that anti-GMO organizations are funded by several methods.
“The first is through organic industry,” she said. “It’s been a big deal for them to get people to derive value from organic products, so they’ll pay three times the premium for it.”
Additionally, anti-GMO organizations scare consumers into believing that GMOs are harmful.
“The Center for Food Safety is the most aggressive anti-GMO organization in North America,” Larson continued. “They file so many lawsuits on behalf of the American public, and whether they win or lose in these fear campaigns, our tax dollars go to pay their lawyers.”
She added, “Unfortunately, these campaigns are working.”
While campaigns against GMOs are working, data from Pew Research shows that there is stronger consensus for the safety of GMOs among scientists than the fact that humans are responsible for inducing climate change.
“We can’t just trust scientific consensus when it fits our ideology,” Larson said. “We need to believe it all the time. Consensus doesn’t come about overnight. It evolves over time as experts get together, talk and challenge one another on different principles to come to conclusions about safety.”
The biggest gap in what the American public believes and what scientists believe relates to GMOs.
“Only 37 percent of the American public thinks that GMOs are safe to eat, whereas 88 percent of scientists feel they are safe to eat,” she said.
There are also efforts within the American public to mandate labeling of GMOs, and Larson explained that surveys that show Americans are in favor of GMO labeling are often skewed.
“When surveys ask about GMOs, they ask, ‘Do you want to see GMOs labeled?’ An overwhelming number of people say yes because they don’t understand it,” she continued. “However, Rutgers University did a study where they asked, ‘What would you like to see on your food labels that currently isn’t there?’ Only seven percent of respondents voluntarily said GMOs.”
Later in the survey, when asked if people wanted to see GMOs labeled, 88 percent of people answered yes.
Oklahoma State University built on the survey with their own research. The survey showed that 82 percent of respondents wanted to see GMOs labeled.
“They followed that up by asking how many people wanted to see DNA labeled,” Larson explained. “Eighty percent of those respondents wanted to see DNA labeled. Everything contains DNA, but the American public is so misinformed about the basics of biology.”
Coming from farmers
Larson noted that the information from consumers means that more advocacy is necessary.
“Everyone needs to realize that farmers are the second most trusted source of information in the eye of Americans, with the number one being physicians,” she said. “The voice of farmers is very powerful, and Americans want to hear their story.”
While farmers don’t have the time to read every GMO study out there, she said that farmers see the benefit of GM crops every day.
“Farmers know that they are using 50 percent as much fuel and 30 percent less water than with non-GM crops,” Larson explained. “These are important things to realize.”
Focusing on points
While farmers don’t have time to memorize hundred of studies, Larson said that Western Sugar Cooperative encourages its growers to focus on a few simple points.
“When we think about sustainability, we need to realize that farmers are the environmentalists,” Larson commented. “We made a list and counted over 25 different environmental benefits from reducing use of herbicides, as well as the impacts of soil health and water usage.”
Over the last 10 years, she added that producers are producing the same amount of sugar on 30 percent fewer acres because of the increase in productivity.
“We’ve also had fewer crop losses,” Larson explained.
GMO technology also allows more focused weed control and pest control, as well as use fewer on-farm fungicides and insecticides.
“Our farmers release 83 percent less carbon dioxide from the soil than we do with conventional sugarbeets,” she added. “When they looked at organic production, they found it was five percent worse than conventional.”
Larson continued, “The environmental impact of using glyphosate-resistant sugarbeets is over 90 percent lower than using conventional beets.”
Many people also focus on the idea that glyphosate causes cancer, as was indicated by the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC).
“IARC says glyphosate probably causes cancer,” Larson said. “However, their own monograph said they don’t have evidence of that happening in humans.”
While IARC is a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), WHO does not agree with the IARC ruling.
“IARC is one of four scientific research bodies that support WHO,” Larson commented. “The other three don’t agree with IARC, so WHO still says glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer.”
At the same time, Larson emphasized that IARC also classifies eating French fries and pickled foods, using lotion containing aloe vera and using a cell phone is in the same category for likelihood to cause cancer as glyphosate.
“Glyphosate is less likely to cause cancer than being exposed to the sun, drinking a cup of coffee, drinking a beer or eating bacon,” she said. “We can’t pick and choose our science.”
Soil mapping, photosynthetic technology combined to improve crop yieldsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Worland – “I get to work with a lot of different crops and a lot of different crop advisors on technology and also on fertility and specialty products,” remarked Mike Griffel, technical service representative at J.R. Simplot Company, during WESTI Ag Days in Worland on Feb.19.
Griffel and his team have been focused on integrating precision agriculture with science and agronomy in the last few years to help producers make better decisions about the inputs they add to their fields.
“A lot of growers have the capability to collect field data, they just don’t. They don’t want to deal with it,” he explained. “Our program ties everything together, looking at the whole field and the whole 12-month cycle.”
The program is centered on “The Four R’s of Nutrient Stewardship,” a program that was developed by The Fertilizer Institute to reflect sustainability in agriculture.
“The Four R program was developed as a way for the fertilizer industry to help us steward ourselves and hold ourselves responsible. It involves putting the right inputs in at the right time, at the right rate and at the right place,” he described.
By ensuring proper application, producers get better value out of their nutrients, seeds, water and other resources while also being more environmentally sustainable.
Evaluating a field
When producers are preparing their fields and creating nutrient prescriptions, there are a number of ways to evaluate the land. Zones and grids are two common tools used to investigate the properties of an area.
“Zones are basically little fields within a field where we look at what’s different, based on soil texture, topography or other attributes,” noted Griffel.
A grid system uses samples at evenly spaced intervals to collect similar information.
“The grid system is utilized in a few very specific areas, but people typically shy away from it,” he said, explaining that a typical field has a high number of soil samples that can be very costly. “But, there’s a phenomenal data set when we go to look at future management.”
In a zone system, the number of zones depends on the individual field. They can be developed in a number of different ways, including a system based on electrical conductivity within the soil. After a map is created to represent variance in electrical conductivity, soil sampling is done to identify the properties of each area.
“We can make zones out of topography, photosynthesis or yield. Zones are living and breathing, so there are a lot of options. We also build a system to archive and track those zones as they evolve in the field,” he remarked.
Building the zones to match the needs of the producer is the most important part of the system, according to Griffel.
“The challenge is there is no set rule,” he stated. “We rely on specific geo-statistic algorithms. We reduce data into zones, and then we send it to the grower to find out if it makes sense.”
Soil samples are typically the first part of measuring field data, but Griffel and his team can also use photosynthesis to evaluate the needs of a crop.
“During the grow phase, satellite imagery is a big component of our program,” he commented, explaining how light wavelengths can be measured to evaluate plant health. “We measure photosynthesis and pick out patterns.”
By mapping patterns, areas with unhealthy plants can be identified and investigated further to improve management practices.
“We run statistics to identify what is significant. The beautiful thing is, we can quantify acres and rank fields as we process the data so agronomists and growers can immediately prioritize them,” he noted.
The power of combining soil, photosynthesis and yield data is being able to produce a game plan, Griffel added.
Plant growth is limited by the availability of the scarcest resource, meaning that balance is an important part of field maintenance.
“With yield modeling, we can correlate soil samples, and we can identify which maps have the strongest relationships to yield data in our fields,” he explained.
In one example, combining data sets revealed that too much phosphorous was lowering yields in some areas of a particular field, leading to changes in fertilizer application at that operation the next year. Fewer inputs were added and plant health improved.
“This helps us understand what the limiting factor is,” Griffel continued. “Sometimes, we don’t see strong correlations, and the problem might be with water, seed or something that isn’t measured in the soil test, but we continue to aggregate the data.”
Griffel challenged producers to consider using technology in their own fields, asking their agronomists and crop advisors about options that fit best with their own operations.
“I don’t look at technology as an extra cost. We apply it to find savings and to get more out of our field,” he said.
Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
North Dakota researcher discovers differences in wheat phosphorous useWritten by Natasha Wheeler
“About 25 years ago, I observed that some wheat varieties require less phosphorous than others for proper development and growth,” notes Jay Goos, professor of soil science at North Dakota State University.
Before he retires, Goos is revisiting his discovery to unearth further data about phosphorous in wheat.
“I made a list from USDA of wheat varieties that had achieved about 20 percent acreage planting in North Dakota,” he explains.
Seeds were obtained and increased from 47 historical varieties from the USDA inventory.
“We tested the varieties to see which ones require the least phosphorous for the proper growth and development. There are great differences in regards to phosphorous needs in wheat varieties,” Goos states.
Although it might have been expected that the fastest growing plants would require the highest amount of the nutrient, this is not what Goos discovered.
“We did not find that varieties that grow the fastest require more phosphorous,” he says. “What we have found is that the varieties that develop the fastest tend to require more phosphorous.”
These plants, Goos explains, are those that require the fewest growing degree-days to create a new leaf on the main stem.
“Rapid development has more to do with maturity. If it takes fewer growing degree-days to produce a leaf, it is going to head earlier and so on,” he comments.
His data shows that varieties that have more sensitivity to day length, growing more slowly in the spring, tend to require less phosphorous for proper growth and development.
“We have tested the historical varieties, and our next step is to look at about 50 current and future varieties,” Goos adds.
In a typical plant breeding scenario, a grower may not be able to detect which plants require the highest levels of phosphorous, since crops are grown in high quality soils.
“A normal plant breeder wants the best land possible that’s been heavily fertilized so they can find varieties that have the most productivity, and that’s logical,” he states.
But Goos believes that farmers should be as informed as possible about the crops they are growing.
“A farmer is going to grow a given variety for a whole list of reasons, but I think a farmer should know whether that particular variety has a really high need for phosphorous,” Goos comments.
For example, in the 1990s, wheat was plagued by a disease called Fusarium head blight. A wheat variety known as 2375 seemed to be the only one with some resistance to the disease.
“Those farmers were going to grow that variety,” Goos says, “but now we know that variety is one of the biggest phosphate hogs in the world.”
Soil tests show that phosphorous levels are dropping, but fertilizer prices continue to increase.
“It will probably become more expensive in the future because there is a finite amount of rock phosphate in the world,” he remarked.
Farmers hoping to reduce inputs or costs may find Goos’ research to be important when choosing which variety of wheat to use.
“More knowledge is always better,” Goos notes. “This has been a fascinating subject to learn, and farmers seem to be interested in it. Hopefully we can characterize current and future varieties.”
Soil bacteria, fungi studied for potential cheatgrass control in WyomingWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Riverton – “Cheatgrass is an annual grass that is wreaking havoc over the entire western United States, causing millions of acres to become degraded,” noted Fremont County Weed and Pest Supervisor Aaron Foster at the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) Area IV Meeting in Riverton on Sept. 3.
Cheatgrass is an invasive weed that alters the successional changes of sage steppe communities, decreases biodiversity and changes the structure and function of rangelands.
“In Wyoming, we are lucky. We are not nearly as impacted as the Great Basin and the sagebrush steppe regions further west of us. We have a potential opportunity to get cheatgrass in check,” Foster commented.
Currently, there are limited options for eliminating the weed, and land managers are searching for new solutions.
“We could really use some other tools in the toolbox for managing cheatgrass,” he stated.
One potential tool may be the use of biocontrol – the use of organisms, such as bacteria, insects or other species, that will drive out the undesirable grasses.
“One biocontrol option that is probably closest to becoming something we can use is a naturally occurring soil bacteria. A strain has been isolated to specifically target cheatgrass,” Foster explained.
The bacterium reduces cheatgrass root elongation, which reduces the vigor and growth of the plant, causing it to be less competitive with other species.
“It also reduces the amount of seed load that comes from cheatgrass in the area. With enough reduction over time, it might allow desirables to come back,” he continued.
Foster believes that the bacteria will be available as a product this fall, marketed as a biological soil amendment.
“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t gotten through the approval process yet to market it as a bio-pesticide,” he noted.
EPA approval for pesticide status will affect product labeling and how it can be used to manage cheatgrass.
“Hopefully, with pesticide labeling, we can use the product on a large scale,” he commented.
Biowest Ag Solutions, a company in Idaho, is producing the product to be sold in one gallon per acre application rates at an estimated eight dollars per gallon.
“The drawback right now is that they are only going to make it available in a minimum of 250 gallon totes,” Foster mentioned. “We also want to use it quickly. We can’t put it in storage like some other products because the bacteria will die.”
Application of the product also introduces some challenges. The manufacturer recommends application when the air temperature is less than 50 degrees.
“Aerial applicators don’t want to fly when it’s less that 40 degrees because they have freeze issues. We have a narrow window between 40 and 50 degrees on a day with no wind,” Foster explained.
It is also important to incorporate the bacteria into the soil as quickly as possible since UV light destroys them in a short period of time.
“We really want it to rain or snow as soon as possible after we apply the product to get it into the soil,” he said.
Once the product is applied, it takes a number of years for results to appear.
“It takes two or three years to see progress or impact on cheatgrass. The first year, the area will look pretty much the same, so we have to give it some time,” Foster commented.
Also, other herbicides can be used in combination with the bacteria application to manage cheatgrass areas.
“Another one of the biocontrol options that may also come about for cheatgrass management is a combination of four fungi,” Foster added.
Each of the four types of fungi attacks a different component of the cheatgrass, from dormant seeds to germinating seeds and young plants.
“The hypothesis is that there is a complex interaction between microorganisms in the soil and the fungi, related to a carbon influx in the soil,” he explained.
Although a predictable pattern has not yet been seen, areas of the Great Basin and Utah are experiencing mass cheatgrass die-offs in areas where the specific fungi are found.
“If we can learn to predict the die-offs, maybe we can be there in those areas to reseed with native grasses,” Foster noted.
He explained that cheatgrass control will likely require incorporating biocontrol, herbicides and land management practices to eliminate the weed.
“With these bicontrol options, we have more tools in the toolbox, which means we have more integrated programs which will hopefully increase our likelihood of success,” he said.
University of Wyoming research explores seeding ratios for grass and alfalfaWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Basin – “If we look at the hay crop, we see it contributes $390 billion to the Wyoming economy,” noted Dhruba Dhakal, a recent PhD student working with Assistant Professor of Forage Agroecology Anowar Islam at the University of Wyoming.
Winter wheat, the second largest crop in the state, contributes about $50 million to the state’s economy.
“From this data, we can say that hay is the most important crop in Wyoming,” stated Dhakal. “Also, crops harvested as hay are one of the important components of cattle farming, and cattle farming contributes to more than 50 percent of Wyoming’s agricultural economics.”
Although many studies have explored grass and legume mixtures that may be grown for hay, producers are still challenged by the stem persistence of legumes.
“Because grass may be more competitive, if we continuously grow a grass-legume mixture, grass might choke out that legume. After three or four years, we might have only grass,” he explained.
Over the last several years, Dhakal has been studying grass-legume mixtures, looking for the best seeding ratio.
“The major objective of this research is to find out, and recommend to the forage grower, the optimum ratio of grass to legume, especially in regard to seeding proportions in the state of Wyoming,” he said.
The first objective of the study was to compare forage quality in grass-legume mixtures with different seeding ratios. The second objective investigated stem persistence, and the third objective was to determine which mixture was the most economical for the grower.
“For the first and second objectives, we conducted a field experiment using two perennial, cool-season grasses, meadow brome grass and orchard grass, and one legume, which was alfalfa,” Dhakal explained.
Nitrogen fertilizer application was also a variable in the research.
“We had in total, 16 treatments, in two locations in Wyoming – Lingle and Laramie,” he continued.
In Lingle, mixes were planted in the fall on Sept. 20, as well as in the spring on May 14. In Laramie, mixes were planted only in the spring, also on May 14.
To collect data, Dhakal commented, “We harvested our crops three to four times each year. After the clipping, we separated the grass component and alfalfa component and put them in different bags.”
Sample weights were measured directly after they were cut and also after they had been dried, to obtain dry matter weight data. The dried samples were then ground and tested for various quality measures.
Looking at data from fall planting samples in Lingle, Dhakal remarked, “The 50/50 mixture of alfalfa and meadow brome grass had the highest dry matter yield within three years. It was followed by the mixture of 50/50 alfalfa and orchard grass.”
Other samples contained different seeding ratios, including plots of 100 percent grass grown with and without applied nitrogen fertilizer.
“If we mix legumes into a 50/50 mixture, we can create an increase in dry matter weight compared to the 100 percent grass with nitrogen fertilizer as well as the 100 percent alfalfa,” he noted.
In spring planting samples from Lingle, the 50/50 mixture with orchard grass yielded the highest dry matter, and the 50/50 mixture with meadow brome grass yielded the second highest quantity. Similar results came from the Laramie data.
“From these findings, if we plant in the fall, I would prefer to plant meadow brome grass. If we are planting in the spring, we can plant either meadow brome grass or orchard grass,” stated Dhakal.
Data also showed that the 50/50 mixtures were beneficial for stem persistence, meaning that both grass and alfalfa were yielded from the crop mixture.
“Stem persistence was consistent over three years from the highest yielding mixture, which is the 50/50 mixture of alfalfa and meadow brome grass,” Dhakal noted.
Overall, he concluded that data for the first and second objectives of the study indicated a mixture of 50 percent alfalfa and 50 percent grass to be ideal.
“Our third objective was the effect on total economic return. From our 16 treatments, we selected five for this study,” Dhakal remarked.
The study included 100 percent alfalfa, 50/50 mixtures of alfalfa and meadow brome grass or orchard grass, and two mixtures of 100 percent grass, with and without added nitrogen fertilizer.
“We started the study in 2011 and finished in 2014,” he noted.
Each year, costs were evaluated based on inputs, and final yields were based on market data from the Nebraska Feed Guide and USDA.
“The highest net returns were obtained from the 50/50 mixture of alfalfa and meadow brome grass from fall planting and the 50/50 mixture of alfalfa and orchard grass from spring planting,” Dhakal stated.
In further data, the 50/50 mixtures also showed the most favorable results in regard to soil carbon, soil nitrogen and micro-biomass levels.
“From our four years of study, we can say that the 50/50 mixture may be more beneficial as compared to the nitrogen fertilized grass or alfalfa,” concluded Dhakal.
Dhruba Dhakal presented his research findings at Forage Field Day in Basin on June 11.