Graduate Students ‘NSPIRED’ by Nitrogen Policy Research
WSU graduate student Christopher Gambino is measuring emissions of ammonia, a form of nitrogen released through cow excrement that causes an all-too-familiar smell when driving past a feedlot. Measuring ammonia emissions is a task mandated by the EPA, as too much ammonia in the atmosphere not only makes noses cringe but may also threaten biodiversity and the ecosystem. Gambino is using new technologies to help him pinpoint the amount of ammonia released from feedlots in Washington state and the correlation with the animals’ diets, weather conditions, and manure management.
“Decision makers right now want concrete answers, and science in most areas is seeking to mitigate unknowns,” Gambino said. “Determining ammonia emissions in feedlots and what helps with the different proportionalities of these emissions needs to be done before we can come in and regulate the industry.”
Gambino is just one of several students who has been accepted into WSU’s competitive IGERT-NSPIRE (Nitrogen Systems: Policy-oriented Integrated Research and Education) program, a prestigious doctoral fellowship that prepares students through rigorous coursework and research to communicate science to policymakers and the public.
“When you look at a whole system, you need to look at it from a lot of different perspectives and we are doing a much better job at that now,” NSPIRE project leader Bill Pan said. “What makes it really trans-disciplinary is integrating hard sciences with social sciences and looking at policy implications.”
In the second of the five-year National Science Foundation grant, the multi-disciplinary program has brought together students from WSU’s colleges of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences; Engineering and Architecture; and Sciences to tell the bigger story of nitrogen cycling on earth: how nitrogen molecules interact in the atmospheric, aquatic, and terrestrial systems, and how those interactions are influenced by human activity.
“Nitrogen is like the unknown elephant in the room. People focus on carbon all the time and how it affects climate and the atmosphere,” said NSPIRE fellow Sarah Anderson, a graduate student who spends her time searching for nitrogen in the soils of snow-packed ground. She is looking at the nitrogen system as a whole and is interested in the intersection of landscape ecology, biogeochemistry, and human impacts. “The thing is, everything we do interacts. Scientifically, we like to draw nice boxes around things, but in the great scheme of things you can’t box anything like that. It creates a block between science and policy.”
The rolling hills of the Palouse provide soil science graduate student Tabitha Brown with an ideal landscape to research no-tillage agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. No-till is an agronomic technique for growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil. She is researching how terrain allows plants to absorb nitrogen and how to reduce the amount of nitrogen in soil, while still producing sufficient yields.
Brown said nitrogen fertilizers are applied uniformly across fields. But a farmer’s fields are not uniform from one side to the other and thus retain nitrogen at differing rates. Brown is using state-of-the-art GIS and other technologies in her search for ways to help farmers apply fertilizer at variable rates. That way, nutrients will go where they are most needed and not be wasted where they can’t be used. The result will be reduced costs for the farmer and less runoff into valuable water systems.
Brown said nitrogen fertilizer production began during World War 1. Since then, 75 percent of reactive nitrogen has come from those fertilizers. Without the advent of this fertilizer manufacturing, 40 to 60 percent of the world’s population would not exist today, she said.“It’s a chicken and egg thing in the sense that to feed ourselves we relied on nitrogen fertilizer. Now we are trying to figure out how to wean ourselves off them in order to be sustainable without starving.”
Tai McClellan, a graduate student in crop science, is studying nitrogen processes in cropping rotations–the crop planted between seasonal crops–in legumes. She said that legumes such as spring peas are unusual in that they can host root-inhabiting bacteria that fix nitrogen in the soil, which means they essentially produce their own fertilizer. For farmers, using springs peas as a rotation crop means a potential reduction in their application of nitrogen fertilizers.
“The really interesting thing about legumes is that they have a relationship with a certain type of bacteria and that relationship results in the creation of nitrogen,” McClellan said in describing the symbiotic process by which some plants are capable of fixing nitrogen in the soil. Like Gambino, she begins her field and greenhouse work in the spring, comparing how much nitrogen plants are pulling from the atmosphere into the soil and how much legumes are fixing in the soil.
McClellan’s work is an extension of her colleague’s research. Ashley Hammac, in his second year of the NSPIRE program, has been studying cropping rotations as well. Instead of legumes, he uses canola to research nitrogen cycling and the implications for biofuels.
Hammac found that nitrogen fertilizer recommendations for canola may overestimate the plant’s needs. He said that knowing the true nitrogen requirements of a crop is important information for farmers trying to minimize not only costs, but the threat to aquatic systems from nitrogen runoff, and the rate of increasing greenhouse gases. “In our world, we are trying to minimize the amount of energy input in the form of fertilizer to get the maximum yields that we can,” he said.
Each NSPIRE student will ultimately want to tie their research into policy either at a local, state, or national level, and take on a fellowship with either a national or international agency. “We want to be able to talk to anybody, and that’s a huge part of the program,” Anderson said. “We talk in words that are ten syllables long, and nobody can spell them, and who knows what we are talking about. Sometimes we get stuck in that mindset.”
Anderson said having the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., to work with governmental and non-governmental agencies to explore potential career and research options was phenomenal and contributed greatly to the NSPIRE mission of preparing scientists to help communicate science. “Nitrogen is everywhere,” she said. “It’s like having several holes in a leaking dam. We just have to figure out which ones to plug right now and so I hope that our research can help play a role in that.”
by Rachel Webber, WSU CAHNRS MNEC
More information about the NSPIRE project is available online at http://bit.ly/nspire.
The Fabulous Field Days of Summer Focus on Fuel Crops
Will Washington landscapes be dotted with more bright-yellow fields in the future? Existing and emerging oilseed crops will be highlighted at several Washington State University field days and tours throughout the state this summer. All events are free and open to the public.
“Oilseed crops such as canola and camelina offer great opportunities to cereal producers across the state to diversify their operations. This enables more effective weed and pest control, improves rotational nutrient and water use efficiency, and enhances soil quality,” said Bill Pan, professor and scientist with WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “Competitive canola pricing and an evolving regional biofuel infrastructure over recent years are encouraging.”
Oilseed crop research will be discussed at the following field day events:
- June 9, 8-11 a.m. (meet at 7:30)—Western Whitman County Research Tour—McGregor Plant in Lacrosse. This tour includes an 8:45 a.m. stop at Steve Camp’s farm near Lacrosse to see camelina variety trials and biodiesel processing. More information is available by contacting Steve Van Vleet, (509) 397-6290.
- June 9, 9 a.m.—AgVentures Northwest Spring Wheat Variety Trials, Winter Canola Field Tour—Curtis Hennings farm south of Ralston. Hennings has several different winter canola planting dates and varieties and will share his observations on this year’s crop following the spring wheat variety trials tour. The WSU Cereal Variety Testing program will continue at 1 p.m. with a tour of the winter wheat variety trials west of Ritzville. More information is available by contacting Paul Porter, AgVentures Northwest, (509) 348-0060.
- June 15, 10 a.m.—Spring Canola Field Tour—Ed Townsend farm southeast of Okanogan. Program highlights include spring canola in rotation, row spacing and seeding rate study, comparison of Roundup® and LibertyLink® weed control systems, results of early and normal season Roundup Ready® varieties, and Ed Townsend’s personal experience growing winter and spring canola in Okanogan County. More information is available by contacting Curtis Beus, WSU Extension educator, at (509) 422-7245 or email@example.com.
- June 16, 8:30 a.m.—Lind Field Day—WSU Dryland Research Station north of Lind. A complimentary lunch and program will follow the field tour. Bill Schillinger will show and discuss results from the long-term camelina cropping systems experiment that started four years ago. In this experiment, the traditional two-year winter wheat-summer fallow rotation is compared to a three-year winter wheat-camelina-summer fallow rotation. More information is available by contacting Schillinger, WSU research agronomist, at (509) 235-1933 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 22, 7 a.m.—Lincoln County WSU Research Plot Tour—Hal Johnson farm near Reardan. Tour stops will include winter wheat, spring wheat, spring barley and winter canola variety trials. Meet at the winter wheat plots on Janette Road about one mile north of State Route 2. More information is available by contacting Diana Roberts, WSU/Spokane County Extension, (509) 477-2167 or email@example.com.
- June 23, 7:30 a.m.—WSU/USDA Precision Farming and Direct Seed Field Day—Cook Agronomy Farm. A complimentary lunch and program will follow the field tour. Bill Pan, Ashley Hammac, Megan Hughes and Kate Painter will discuss oilseed production in the annual cropping region, including winter canola frost tolerance, spring canola in rotation, canola fertilizer recommendations and economics of spring canola production. More information is available by contacting Scot Hulbert, (509) 335-3722.
- July 7, 7:30 a.m.—Spillman Agronomy Farm Field Day—Spillman Agronomy Farm. A complimentary lunch and program will follow the field tour. Stephen Guy will show small grain, legume and oilseed spring crops that can be grown in rotation with winter wheat. Learn about their relative productivity and rotation effect, and see winter wheat grown with variable nitrogen fertilizer rates after the same spring crops. More information is available by contacting Guy, (509) 335-5831.
- July 14, afternoon (TBD)—WSU Mount Vernon NWREC Field Day—WSU Mount Vernon NWREC. Biofuel will be one topic at the afternoon field day. The second year of the spring camelina and mustard trial testing different seeding and fertilizer rates will be featured. More information is available by contacting Tim Miller, firstname.lastname@example.org.
These are only a few of the field days scheduled for the summer of 2011. For a more complete list, please visit the Web site of the WSU Agricultural Research Center at http://bit.ly/fdays2011.
Descriptions of some of the research farms mentioned in this article can be found at http://bit.ly/lt4nhe.
An interactive Google map of WSU research farm locations is available at http://bit.ly/farmmap.