Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

University of Minnesota Student Reflects on his “Vern-alization” while Studying Agriculture

University of Minnesota Profressor Vernon Caldwell

University of Minnesota professor Vernon Caldwell is retiring after 45 years.

By Nick Peterson

This past winter one of my professors at the University of Minnesota retired after spending the last 45 years with the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics. It was bittersweet, since I had learned a great deal from him through my time with the Crops and Soils Club, Crops Team, and his classes.His name is Vernon Cardwell, previous professor/advisor/researcher at the University of Minnesota for the better part of the last century. As he spoke during the retirement party, he recalled the different “vern-alizations” he had witnessed with undergraduate and graduate students. With vernalization meaning acquisition of a plants ability to flower following cold periods, it was a metaphor of his students.Growing up on the family farm it was not difficult to realize that agriculture is what I wanted to continue to pursue in my career. However, the agricultural industry is a very broad field with many opportunities. As I was accepted to the University of Minnesota, College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, I was still very uncertain as to where I wanted to end up following graduation.

As I attended my first Gophers Crops and Soils Club meeting, I met and talked to Vern, who was the faculty advisor for the club. Soon after, following persuasion from Vern, I decided to join the crops judging team, where we competed against students at other schools in weed and crop identification, grain grading, and seed analysis. Since the 1970’s Vern has been leading the University to top ranked finishes, although participation had been waning in the last few years. This is when my Vern-alization began.

As I spent more time looking at plant and seed mounts and taking in all the information that Vern was spewing out, I couldn’t help but notice him slowly having an effect on me. The vast amount of agricultural knowledge that he had acquired over his many years of research, extension, and interaction with students was a little intimidating. I tried to soak up as much of it as I could.

Looking at my Vern-alization, though, it wasn’t so much the knowledge but the activism that he inspired in me that I would attribute to it. What makes him such a successful mentor to students is his ability to inspire this activism.

So, as I look towards graduation and opportunities in the agriculture industry in agronomy or seed representative roles, I continue to look back and use his contagious personality as a template for myself. I have no doubt this outlook will not only strengthen my commitment to clubs and organizations that I put my time into, but it will enable me to see the best in people as well.

The agricultural community was lucky to have a man like Vernon Cardwell influencing its students for the last 45 years. And so my Vern-alization proceeds, as I am ready to follow in my mentor’s footsteps and do what I can to better agriculture and the people within.

Nick Peterson is a participant in Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s Agvocate program.

Forgotten river plays key commercial role

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Billions of bushels of Minnesota farm products have started their journeys to world markets with a 14.7-mile ride down the Minnesota River. At that point the Minnesota joins the Mighty Mississippi, and barges continue 1500 miles, where their cargoes are loaded onto freighters and sent into the Gulf of Mexico and from there to all points.

The Upper Mississippi Watershed Association, a group representing both commercial and recreational interests on the Mississippi and its major tributaries in Minnesota and Iowa, organized a paddleboat tour on August 22 to help focus attention on the importance of the Minnesota River.

Since 1982, what is now CHS, Inc., has operated one of the four elevators located at the Port of Savage on the Minnesota River. Since that time 29,000 barges have departed from the CHS slip, carrying 1.6 billion bushels of corn, beans and increasingly distillers dried grains and solubles, according to Clint Gergen, a representative of CHS who took part in the river tour.

Gergen noted that farm product traffic on the river has slowed, but he hopes that strategic changes might reverse that trend, in particular an effort to develop capacity to deliver non-GMO products to markets like Japan. A key to this, and to access to all world markets, is the imminent conversion of the Panama canal to make it serviceable for the current class of ocean-going freighters. (Currently, such freighters must offload their cargo onto smaller ‘Panamax’ vessels, in order to use the canal, and then reload onto larger vessels on the other end of the canal).

The touring party included journalists, government officials, academics and citizen volunteers who are concerned about river issues. The tour was funded by MNDOT, Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Upper Mississippi Watershed Association.

Minnesota Department of Transportation sent several representatives, to speak to the importance of the river as part of the intermodal approach—meaning roads, rail, air and water transportation must all work in concert in order to achieve the highest efficiency. One of the effects of intermodality is that the various forms of transportation compete for customers, keeping the cost lower for all users.

“We keep the railroads honest,” said Greg Genz, with Kaposia Marine Service, and a representative of Upper Mississippi Watershed Association. Genz and Gergen describe the capacity at Savage, which CHS and Cargill continue to maintain. The two companies can load 40 barges daily, though current use has fallen significantly below that mark.

“If the river shippers weren’t there, the farmers would be getting hit with a lot higher basis for transport. That’s because the capacity is still there, hasn’t gone away.

A group of soil and water scientists led by University of Minnesota Prof Satish Gupta, and Warren Formo, director of Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center, both spoke to the question of sediment loading in the river. Gupta’s current research focuses on the role of groundwater seepage in the undermining of riverbank soil structure along the Minnesota. This seepage leads to slumping of riverbanks and huge volumes of clayey soil enter the river in this way and become suspended sediment. The tour took a run upriver to a bluff in Eden Prairie where the location of several high value homes has become increasingly precarious, due to this seepage-slumping effect.

The effect of the 2012 drought was very evident as the tour made its way both up and down the river. Along the entire length, it was clear that the river is well below its high water mark. Because of the reduced flow, the normally cloudy brown look of the river has become a light green—reflecting increased algae production due to how stagnant the water is.

One university scientist remarked that the high sediment load in the Minnesota River is a function of the relative youth of the river—it was only formed about 14,000 years ago, after the retreat of the most recent glacier sheet to cover Minnesota. The slumping of streambanks is the river’s natural process of achieving dynamic equilibrium. Left to its own devices, the river would eventually become much wider and shallower and the sediment load would drop dramatically. The scientist pointed out that riverside private property and other public uses make it undesirable to leave the river to its natural process. The science of managing streambanks, however, is also young.

When someone asked if anyone had considered riprapping the whole length of the Minnesota River—riprapping being the method of controlling erosion by putting a layer of rocks over that streambank—the scientist noted that the US Army Corps of Engineers studied a potential project to riprap 1,000 yards of the river near Rice Lake, and found that the cost for that one segment would be $1 million dollars.


Drought + Resistance = surge in rootworm numbers and damage

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Alarming signs that the corn rootworm is developing resistance to major GMO corn traits, along with the impact of increasing drought stress and booming rootworm populations, adds up to potential trouble for Minnesota corn producers, according to Prof. Ken Ostlie, a University of Minnesota Extension entomologist, based at the St. Paul Campus of U of M.

Now is a critical time, according to Ostlie, for getting a handle on Bt performance in your fields, and assessing corn rootworm populations. 

“Corn rootworms have been emerging over the last ten days to two weeks, with root injury nearing completion” Ostlie said. “The drought may be aggravating this situation in a couple of ways. Corn rootworm survival is better under drought conditions. Insect feeding on the roots will increase moisture stress and its yield impacts. Also, without thunderstorms, the typical lodging that would be a telltale sign of corn rootworm problems may not be happening, so producers need to get out into the field, dig roots and scout for beetles.

Besides looking for beetles on plants, especially on the ear silks, dig up plants, wash the roots and carefully examine for signs that the worms fed there. “Growers should be concerned when root injury is occurring to a node or more of the roots,” said Ostlie. “In these drought conditions, even loss of half a node may lead to yield loss. Time scale wise, the next week will be crucial to assess what is happening.”

Another concern is that high corn rootworm beetle numbers can trim corn silks so severely that pollination fails. Spraying for corn root worm beetles to prevent ‘silk clipping’ is warranted only on the leading edge of pollination when scouting uncovers the presence of eight-to-ten or more beetles per ear that are keeping silks chewed to within ½” of the ear tip. Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council sponsored a radio interview with Ostlie that aired recently on the Linder Farm Network to alert growers to this threat.

For the past six years, with critical funding from the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council, Ostlie has investigated the potential for corn rootworm to become resistant to the main genetic traits used to combat it– genes taken from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and spliced directly into the genetic make-up of “Bt” corn varieties. These Bt genes produce a protein in the plant which is toxic to the rootworm alone. In order to assure that the protein remained effective, producers have planted refuges of conventional corn where the insects could feed. Difficulties in maintaining refuges may have led, in part, to the current resistance, Ostlie said.

“It’s important for farmers to know how the traits are working in their fields,” Ostlie noted. “Scouting how these traits are working in their fields right now will be critical to making good decisions for next year. Producers are beginning to plan what additional root protection measures to take, which seed varieties and pest management resources to purchase for the 2013 growing season.”

Since 2009, Ostlie has tracked a growing resistance problem in Yieldgard VT Triple and Triple Pro, but it may be only a matter of time before resistance impacts other Bt varieties like Herculex Xtra, AgriSure 3000GT or even SmartStax.

“We suggest the fields most at risk are going to be corn planted after corn with a multiple-year history of the same trait,” Ostlie advised. “Those especially would be the ones growers should check–number one looking for signs of excessive moisture stress, number two looking to see if corn rootworm beetles are especially prevalent in a field, and third, digging up plants and washing roots off to see if they had been attacked by the worms.”

Ostlie is working with pest management scientist Bruce Potter, at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, to develop maps and other information to help growers assess potential rootworm activity in their regions.  We’re particularly interested in reports of performance problems with Bt rootworm traits, Potter says.

Go to this web page to get additional information, or to report Bt hybrid performance problems:

What state TMDL reports sweep under the carpet: rainfall increases

(“Warmup has cities rethinking waterways” article published by Star Tribune)

Communities across the metro area and beyond are putting their heads together to figure out how to handle the increases in storm water that a warmer climate is expected to bring.

Public works officials, hydrologists, water quality monitors and others have embarked on a study to find where vulnerabilities exist and devise new solutions in the face of increasing — and increasingly intense — rainfall that has been both documented and projected by climate analysts.

The work is funded in part by $300,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and coordinated by the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District. It will continue into the summer of 2013.

…annual precipitation in parts of south central and southeast Minnesota has increased up to 15 percent in recent years; normal annual rainfall for the Twin Cities is 4.25 inches greater than it was in the 1980s. Statewide, Minnesota’s average rainfall topped 34 inches in 2011 for the first time in 121 years of record-keeping. The Upper Midwest saw a 31 percent increase in “intense” rainfalls — the statistical 1 percent events — from 1958 to 2007, over previous decades, according to the National Climactic Data Center. An increase in intense rainfall is regarded as one of the signature trends of a warming climate, due to warm air’s ability to hold more water.

Our Take:
It’s not just future increases–this Star Tribune article documents the incredible increase in precipitation Minnesota is already experiencing. Certain state agencies and special interests are so busy pointing the finger at farm drainage tile systems that they fail to mention the most significant source for increased volume and energy in our waterways (leading to greater stream bank erosion and cloudiness in the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin). 

It is raining more than in the recent past, and not just a smidgeon. The Cities have seen an increase of 4.25 inches in annual rainfall–at 34 inches average, that’s an increase of 14 percent since the 1980s. And multiply that by all the residential and commercial development in the seven county metro area–more than a third of its land area is now impermeable or semi-permeable–and so you’ve got an incredible increase in the volume of water racing into our rivers. Then there’s that pesky figure about the increased intensity of rainfalls–a third of our rainstorms are not just gentle, soaking rains, but the kind of rains that for instance dumped 6-inches plus of rain in a matter of hours in southwest Minnesota in early May.

Farmers want to work together with all stakeholders to solve our state’s water planning challenges. The next important step will be recognizing the significant change in our climate and what that means for plans to try to control what happens to rainwater.  Finger pointing and unrealistic expectations won’t get us where we want to go.

Minnesota research team presents work on Bio-Oil and Biochar processing at CUTC

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

A Minnesota –based research team has achieved positive test results in the initial phase of a promising new technology that uses microwave energy to process farm-based feedstocks into bioenergy and other advanced products.

Microwave Assisted Pyrolysis (MAP) would be an add-on technology that would take today’s ethanol plants closer to the conception of biorefineries, by allowing them to produce a number of chemical compounds, including bio-oil and biochar, in additional to transportation fuel and animal feed products they currently produce, according to Kurt Spokas.

Spokas, a research soil scientist with Agricultural Research Service (USDA), serves as the lead scientist of the project. U of M Prof. Roger Ruan and Prof. Bob Morrison are co-lead scientists on the project. The project has been underwritten with funding from Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

“A good real world example of the possibilities is the Dasani™ (PlantBottleTM) plastic bottles used by Coca Cola,” said Spokas. “They use plant-derived polymers versus the usual non-renewable fossil fuel sources, in order to make the PET plastic. The produced bio-oil from the MAP process could provide some of these building blocks for plastic polymers or other uses.  The possibilities could be endless. This MAP technology could improve the overall bottom line for ethanol plants. This is not something that would displace any of the plant’s current ethanol production–it would supplement it with higher value products.”

Spokas travels to the 2012 Corn Utilization and Technology Conference in Indianapolis on June 4 and 5 to present the initial findings.

One of the most promising aspects of the MAP technology is that it eliminates the need to dry down any distillers grains utilized in the production of the bio-oil and biochar. Trials have determined a mixture of 75 percent biomass (corn stover was used in the trials) with 25 percent distillers grains achieve the optimal yield of bio-oil.

“This potential utilization of a wet feedstock by MAP significantly reduces processing time and required energy inputs,” said Spokas.  “MAP has also been shown to positively influence the distribution of end-products to more liquid (bio-oil) products. “

Bio-char is a black carbon byproduct of the MAP process that could offer a high-value soil amendment product. Spokas noted that a major concern in the development of crop-residue based bioenergy production is the loss of nutrients. Bio-char could be a part of the means for replacing those nutrients, he said. It also serves as a stable form of carbon and offers the additional benefit of reducing atmospheric carbon emissions.

“The one unique aspect of DDGS is its nitrogen content,” said Spokas. “It’s a function of the protein present in the processed grains. MAP takes the parent material through chemical and thermal transformation, and renders the nitrogen and the carbon in a more stable form, compared to both residue and conventional fertilizer products—while the nutrients from untreated biomass residues lasts from 0 to five years, we estimate that biochar has a longer lifetime in the soil of 10 to 20 years or even longer.  This could provide the closed soil nutrient loop we are looking for so that processing crop residue for energy doesn’t lead to unsustainable nutrient loss from farm fields.”

TMDL study–public money chasing the wrong solution?

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

It may be frustrating, but seven years studying the southern reaches of Minnesota’s Mississippi River basin is just a start in understanding the workings of the river, including the level of cloudiness and the rate of sediment deposition.

However, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has concluded its South Metro Total Maximum Daily Load Total Suspended Solids study, a study that covers the stretch of the river that includes Lake Pepin.

Similar TMDL studies covering the Greater Blue Earth River Basin and the Minnesota River Basin–tributaries whose waters ultimately flow into the Mississippi–have also been published. The PCA has opened public comment periods for all three studies–the 90-day comment period concludes May 29.

The studies will likely direct state projects that attempt to reduce turbidity (cloudiness) and sedimentation in Lake Pepin, among other water quality goals. These projects would be funded by the Legacy Amendment state sales tax revenue over the next decades.

Farm leaders had hoped for a more cooperative and comprehensive state about water quality challenges and potential solutions, and find instead that it focuses narrowly on agricultural contributions to the sediment load, excluding all other sources as seemingly insignificant.

Asked about where the TMDL study falls short, Steve Sodeman, a passionate agricultural water quality advocate, ticks off a list of items not included in the study: the increase in rainfall since the 1940s, the increase in groundwater consumption which generates wastewater entering the Mississippi, the outright dismissal of a notion that there is a background level of natural turbidity and sedimentation (in the past 11,000 years sedimentation and erosion have moved Lake Pepin from Saint Paul to its current location south of Red Wing), the increase in impermeable surface area in the seven-county metro and throughout the Basin, and finally the sheer size of the Mississippi River Basin, which drains more than two thirds of Minnesota’s land area.

Even with all three TMDL studies, significant portions of the Mississippi River basin have not yet been considered. The Mississippi River in effect drains everything in Minnesota, except for a line of counties along the Dakota border, which drain into the Red River of the North, and the northern tier of counties, which drain into either the Red River or Lake Superior. A few counties in the southwest corner of Minnesota drain into the Missouri River. 

Another significant blank spot is the role that increased precipitation plays.

“Since the 40s, average annual rainfall in the Basin has increased from 27 inches to 31 inches–that four inches is an incredible volume of water,” said Sodeman, who is a crop consultant in southern Minnesota. “When they talk about solutions, it makes me think of the CCR song ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain?'”

Water volume is at the heart of the issue because this volume increases the amount of energy in the river and serves as the main mechanism for putting sediment in the water–stream bank erosion.

Climate experts like Mark Seeley talk about a trend toward increased energy in rainfall events as part of an overall global climate change. Ten-inch flash floods, formerly considered to be once-in-500-year events, have occurred a number of times in the past decade, precipitating an incredible amount of stream bank erosion.

The PCA study focuses on the increased volume from farm tile system outlets to the exclusion of other sources of increased water volume.

Yet, PCA documents note that water consumption in the state of Minnesota has grown constantly and that about a fifth of that volume comes from groundwater. All that groundwater eventually ends up in the wastewater stream placed in the Mississippi by 14 Metropolitan Council operated treatment plants and a host of community wastewater treatment plants throughout the Basin. The Water Sustainability Framework Report (also funded by the Legacy Amendment) cites this startling figure: water consumption in Minnesota rose from 1,238 billion gallons in 1998 to 1,476 billion gallons in 2005–a 19 percent jump in seven years. Some 315 billion gallons in 2005 came from groundwater–in other words new water introduced into the river system when it entered the wastewater stream.

“It starts to feel political when this major source of increased water volume is ignored and the only source found to be significant is farm tile drainage systems,” said Sodeman.

University of Minnesota Soil Physicist Satish Gupta believes much of the dynamics of sediment transport remain poorly understood. He noted that more than 30 percent of the surface area in the seven county metro region is impermeable or semi-impermeable, and this figure represents dramatic growth since 1940. Despite holding ponds and other engineered features, it would appear to be reckless to claim that runoff from all this developed land does not contribute to increased stream bank erosion.

Sodeman said research has not yet provided a comprehensive picture of the way the river works and if it did, it might make for more realistic goals, he and other farmers feel. When it comes to halting sedimentation in Lake Pepin, he points to the case of a doctor who built his multimillion dollar home at the top of a bluff along the Minnesota River outside Mankato, and then spent another $350,000 to stabilize the stream bank–An incredible expenditure of wealth to assure that a piece of land several hundred feet between the bends of the river, would remain intact. Can Minnesota taxpayers support really make a dent by fighting a natural force that has been in operation in this region since the end of the last ice age? Spending on that scale along the length of the Minnesota is an impossibility, and Sodeman and others wonder whether it is in the end desirable to so forcefully counteract a natural process.

“There’s no debate when it comes to conservation–farmers are interested in keeping soil and nutrients on our land and out of our streams, lakes and rivers,” said John Mages, a farmer in Stearns County and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “Our worry is that these goals, as worthy as they are, will be seen as a solution where they can’t possibly deliver that solution. Our hope is to head off false leads and find real world, practical solutions where possible, but also to accept conditions that are natural and not easily changed, to accept them for what they are.”

The next big revenue stream for biorefineries–carbon dioxide?

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

From the very start ethanol companies have produced co-products that are essential to the bottom-line. It began with distillers grains, which has grown to a major animal feed industry in its own right. Lately, many ethanol plants have retrofitted equipment to extract corn oil from the distillers grains, for use as a value added feed, industrial or energy product. On the horizon, a new market is developing that could turn one of ethanol’s waste products–one that is accounted a liability by some ethanol critics–and turn it into a new source of cash: carbon dioxide.

A white paper from the National EOR Initiative–a joint effort of Minnesota’s Great Plains Institute and Washington DC-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions–makes the argument for an incentive to help build an industry around the capture of carbon dioxide for use in what is known as enhanced oil recovery. The gas can be injected into geological formations that hold oil that cannot be captured by conventional well drilling technology. The EOR Initiative brought in oil and coal industry representatives, ethanol producers, electric generation utilities, labor and environmental groups–who all see a win-win in the use of industrial waste carbon dioxide for enhanced oil recovery.

“The best estimate I’ve seen is that 26 to 61 billion barrels of oil could be economically recovered with today’s EOR technology,” said Brendan Jordan, director of Bioenergy and Transportation Programs for Great Plains Institute. “That would more than double America’s proved reserves. Next generation EOR technology could bring that up to between 67 to 137 billion barrels of oil.

Oil companies are already paying cash on the barrel to major CO2 producers to capture, purify and pipeline the gas to oil fields where it can be used in EOR.

“From an environmental perspective, where there’s concern about an industry’s carbon footprint, all of the CO2 used in EOR remains permanently sequestered deep underground in a properly managed project,” said Jordan.

This has implications for ethanol opening markets where carbon intensity of fuel is a factor. California’s low carbon fuel standard has been suspended, pending a court case, but British Columbia and European Union both have rules in place that either require reduced carbon intensity or pay a premium for fuel produced with less net carbon released to the atmosphere.

“The ethanol industry’s interest in minimizing its environmental impact has always gone hand-in-hand with a natural interest in efficiency and profitability,” said Greg Schwarz, chairman of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. He is a corn, soybeans and turkey producer as well as a longtime investor/leader in farmer-owned ethanol production. “The CO2 market may not be economical for Minnesota ethanol producers to participate in next year, but it’s possible that the transportation infrastructure could develop quickly, and when it does, it will be one more way that our homegrown energy production companies can contribute to Minnesota’s economy and help the environment at the same time.”

According to Jordan the limiting factor for ethanol companies’ participation in this emerging industry is the economics of developing a pipeline over any distance in order to get the CO2 to market. Electric generation utilities produce enough CO2 to justify the expense, but ethanol companies produce far smaller quantities of CO2.

Currently, one ethanol company, Arkalon Energy in Kansas, has installed carbon capture and transport infrastructure. Its location fairly close to Oklahoma oil fields makes the move economical. Jordan observed that as the industry develops, particularly if an incentive is put in place, major CO2 producers will have major pipelines crossing territories close enough to ethanol plants to justify building trunk lines between the ethanol plants and the main CO2 pipeline, in a set up somewhat analogous to how electricity and natural gas are transported.

“We were able to organize a bipartisan press conference in Washington announcing the recommendation of the National EOR Initiative–a bipartisan press conference is a rare thing these days, so we were proud to get to that point,” said Jordan.

Senators Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, John Hoeven, Richard Lugar, and Congressman Rick Berg, Congressman Michael Conaway all issued statements of support for the concept. The National EOR Initiative is now working on introducing a bill to create the incentive.

“(Using CO2 for EOR) is great from an environmental perspective, but it is also great from the perspective of increased domestic oil production–that’s why the concept attracted broad support and we are hopeful that we can create a policy around this use for carbon dioxide which succeeds both economically and environmentally.”