Our group has developed a high-quality research program in sustainability and resilience of forage and perennial grain systems in the Midwestern United States and the world.
Using the science of Agroecology we aim to understand, predict, and develop sustainable agricultural systems with emphasis of exploiting the multiple benefits of perennials and crop diversity.
Our research program is oriented in three interacting directions:
- agronomic management of new perennial dual-purpose crops for forage and grain, like Kernza intermediate wheatgrass, with an emphasis on optimizing crop mixtures (legume-grass polycultures).
- methods to understand and assess resilience of crops and cropping systems to climate change.
- agroecological intensification of beef and dairy grazing systems internationally.
- Agronomic management of perennial dual-purpose crops in polycultures
The fundamental challenge for agriculture now and in the future is how to reconcile food production with environmental sustainability. Current annual crops (e.g., corn, soybeans, wheat, rice) are the basis of human diets but have negative environmental impacts like soil erosion, water pollution, and pesticide toxicity, despite the high investment in research to mitigate these. Perennial species have extensive root systems and provide continuous soil cover, which could eliminate these environmental problems and radically transform the relationship between food and environment.
Intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) is the first perennial grain crop in the world, currently marketed as “Kernza”. We are researching this new perennial crop to develop a dual-use, grain and forage system, which will increase profitability, reduce adoption risks for farmers, and facilitate a landscape-scale transition to perennial agriculture in the US Upper Midwest and the world.
We are evaluating forage yield and nutritive value of dual-use Kernza systems, identifying agronomic management practices that optimize grain and forage yield, and identifying legume-Kernza polycultures for increased benefits. In order to have relevant information for current and future farmers, our program started by identifying farmers perspectives and research needs (Lanker et al., 2019). Our team is evaluating a wide range of agronomic management practices including timing and frequency of forage harvest, direct grazing, species and seeding time of companion legumes in polycultures, nitrogen fertilization, weed management, planting and harvesting timing, and post-grain harvest practices on Kernza grain yield and forage quality over time.
We have documented high forage yield and nutritive value of Kernza dual use systems (Favre et al., 2019), the beneficial effect of harvesting forage on grain production, great weed suppression of annual weeds over time (Zimbric et al., in review), low Nitrogen requirements and compatibility with legumes, and determined the role of non-structural carbohydrates in roots and rhizomes on next spring regrowth.
We are also exploring other perennial grains like Silphium, looking at domestication traits, adaptation, and agronomic practices to maximize seed yield.
International expansion of perennial grains is also a major interest, and we have collaborations with Argentina, Chile, China, Italy, Japan, Mali, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, and Uruguay to study the potential for Kernza growth and production in these regions. Understanding vernalization and photoperiod requirements is a critical point towards this goal, and we have evaluated optimal conditions and variability in germplasm to these factors.
This research has been funded by NCR-SARE grant, The Land Institute, FFAR, NAFA, and UW-Madison (startup funds, WARF-VCRGE, Hatch).
- Resilience and stability to climate variability and change
Climate change is a major challenge for agriculture and food security. Agronomic research has historically paid little attention to maximizing the ability to recover after a major climate crisis event (“resilience”) or minimizing long term variability of yields (“stability”). The main goal of this program is to study the resilience and stability of forage systems at multiple levels (cultivars, species, mixtures, cropping systems) in Wisconsin and the US, in order to identify forage species, mixtures, and crop rotations that optimize these long-term features.
Our team has developed a novel methodology (Picasso et al., 2019) to analyze historical data and calculate quantitative measures for resilience and stability; identify more resilient cultivars, cropping systems, and grazing farms (Modernel et al., 2019); and then evaluate those in experimental field conditions and model behavior in future scenarios (NIFA-AFRP grant). We seek to understand which features (e.g., plant anatomical and physiological traits, species diversity, management) are linked to resilience and stability. This research addresses fundamental questions of ecology and agroecology about the role of diversity on the functioning of ecosystems (Picasso, 2018). This research also has applied implications, providing farmers and agronomists with tools to design more resilient and stable systems in face of climate change.
This research is funded by HATCH grant and two federally funded USDA NIFA-AFRP grants.
- Agroecological intensification of livestock systems
Livestock systems are key to global protein food supply, but they also have environmental impacts. We explored case studies from Uruguay to gain insight on how to improve their sustainability, using environmental impacts modeling and life cycle assessment.
We rely on strong international collaborations and interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teams (Cruz et al., 2017; Pischke et al., 2017). The impact of the application of these studies is high, providing government institutions information for the design of policies (Modernel et al., 2018; Llanos et al., 2018; Darre et al., 2019).
This research direction is funded by international student’s fellowships, international collaborations, and previous grants.