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First Year BIOAg Funding Produces Valuable Results

Posted by Seth Truscott | September 7, 2007

The first direct legislative funding for Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) yielded significant outcomes.

Of the $225,000 appropriated for grants, 13 projects were selected in six priority areas for research. These areas – livestock, nutrient management, alternative crops/bioenergy and bioproducts, food quality, economics, and demonstration farms – were chosen in an effort to explore ways to improve the sustainability of Washington agriculture.

Cooperating farmer Ron Jirava near Ritzville in newly established winter canola.
Cooperating farmer Ron Jirava near Ritzville in newly established winter canola.

One project, production and quality of winter grown organic vegetables, showed encouraging results. Field studies in Pullman and Vancouver, Wash. evaluated 26 organic leafy green vegetable including lettuces, spinach and Asian greens in unheated, unlighted hoophouses. All varieties survived winter conditions but productivity varied with yields ranging from less than half an ounce to more than three ounces per plant. Asian greens were higher yielding than spinach, while lettuce varieties were the lowest yielding.

WSU crop and soil scientist Rich Koenig said nitrate levels, a critical component in the testing, varied.

“The majority of varieties grown in Pullman had nitrate concentrations below the European standards (the U.S. has no standards for leafy green vegetables). Certain varieties grown in Vancouver had levels about the standard but lower light intensity and higher soil nitrate levels at that site may explain the higher concentration,” said Koenig.
Additional studies in 2008 will further explore optimizing winter organic vegetable production.

Replicated plots of winter canola and winter wheat near Ritzville in mid May 2006.
Replicated plots of winter canola and winter wheat near Ritzville in mid May 2006.

Livestock carcass composting is a concern to many Washington farmers. Finding a low-cost, immediate disposal and low-odor solution is of primary interest to WSU BIOAg Coordinator Dr. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs. Seven on-farm sites were started around the state as part of this project in Whitman, Grant, Skagit, Snohomish, Adams, Whatcom and Yakima counties. A carcass is covered by at least a two-foot thick layer of composting material consisting of woodchips, manure, sawdust and/or straw. The finished pile is left undisturbed for a minimum of two to six months, turned with large equipment like a backhoe, and left to compost another two to six months before it is ready to use.

“This process minimizes biohazards since it can be done on a farm and does not involve transferring a carcass. It also recycles the nutrients from the carcass into usable soil amendment,” explained Carpenter-Boggs.

Additional workshops at larger sites and with the Washington Dairy Federation are planned during the next several months.

The ability to evaluate the impact of livestock management practices on rangelands and pastures is a critical need for ranchers, land-owners and agencies responsible for managing range leases. A third project funded was a three-day training using the Land EKG ä ecological monitoring system for ranchers and range managers. This process uses a set of score sheets to characterize the landscape, identify biological inhabitants and activities, and rate ecological functioning in water, nutrient and energy cycling.

Harvesting winter canola near Ritzville in July 2006
Harvesting winter canola near Ritzville in July 2006.

In order to complete the scoring a person must get down on knees, peer under bushes, interpret and become familiar with the location at depth. The 23 people who attended this training included ranchers, and state and federal land management agency personnel who are responsible for approximately 1.15 million acres in Washington State. Don Nelson, WSU Extension Beef Specialist, said this training helps build collaborative relationships and develop a shared vision of what the land owners and managers want the landscape to look like now and in the future.

“This provides a means to monitor and evaluate the ecosystem response to use of tools such as grazing, animal impact, rest, fire, and technology and to adjust management accordingly to stay on track to achieve the landscape goal,” said Nelson.

Exploring winter canola as a rotation crop is underway in Eastern Washington. This project studies analyze the impacts of adding canola to the wheat-fallow cropping system and determine the potential for canola production. So far, some farmers have experienced substantial yield improvements in wheat crops planted after canola.

“Winter canola is one of the few crops that can compete economically with winter wheat in the low-precipitation zone of the Inland Pacific Northwest,” said WSU research agronomist Bill Schillinger.

Additional funding for these projects and others will continue. The Legislature approved $400,000 for BIOAg in fiscal year 2007 and an additional $200,000 in fiscal year 2008 as part of College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences’ Unified Agriculture Initiative.

By Betsy Fradd, Washington State University Extension