ARCF applications are now being accepted year round with projects being funded as funds become available.
Despite Elevated Loss Rate Since 2006, U.S. Honeybee Colonies are Stable
In 2006, large and mysterious losses of honey bee colonies led entomologists to classify a set of diagnostic symptoms as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and spurred major efforts to measure, quantify, and understand pollinator loss. New data show that between 2007 and 2013, winter colony loss rates in the U.S. averaged 30 percent, which is approximately double the loss rate of 15 percent previously thought to be normal. Although average loss rates fell to 24 percent between 2014 and 2017 and CCD symptoms are less frequently associated with colony losses, colony health remains a concern. High loss rates understandably raised fears that yields for crops that depend on honey bees might fall if pollination services become unavailable. In the 2 years preceding CCD’s identification, average pollination service fees had risen from $82 to $195 per colony (in 2016 dollars). New USDA research on pollination service fees shows that the large jumps in average pollination fees were primarily driven by demand from producers of almonds, a crop with a large pollination service requirement that has experienced high acreage growth and now accounts for 82 percent of all paid pollination service fees. Elevated winter colony losses, however, have not resulted in enduring declines in colony numbers. Instead, the number of honey bee colonies in the U.S. is either stable or growing depending on the dataset being considered.
Although beekeepers sometimes purchase colonies, their primary means of replacing losses is by regularly splitting their colonies in the spring. In this process, the beekeeper divides a parent colony into two or three colonies that each becomes functional for pollination services within 6 weeks. Skilled beekeepers can perform multiple splits in an hour and may also purchase fertilized queens at a cost of $20 to $30 to hasten the colony’s brood formation. Because splitting is seasonal, unexpectedly high losses may be especially disruptive to beekeepers contracted to pollinated almonds, which bloom before splitting can typically occur.
The stability of colony numbers and pollination services fees, however, suggests that beekeepers have, in aggregate, adjusted to elevated rates of colony loss. Since 2006, almond pollination fees have dropped slightly from earlier highs despite ongoing growth in almond acreage. At the State level, loss rates are statistically uncorrelated with year-to-year changes in the number of colonies, suggesting that beekeepers are able to replace lost colonies within the course of a calendar year.
How Farmers are Saving the Soil in Tennessee
Tennessee's farmers care for the landscape with no-till farming
Tennessee farmers have been transforming the landscape for decades with no-till farming methods, helping to restore the state’s soils. In fact, the University of Tennessee’s Research and Education Center at Milan has been a leader in this effort since 1981. The research conducted by UT AgResearch at Milan is known worldwide.
While no-till farming is the norm in Tennessee today, it hasn’t always been the case. “About four decades ago, West Tennessee was ranked as one of the top areas in the U.S. for the highest soil erosion rate,” says Don Tyler, retired professor for the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. The average soil erosion rate for Tennessee at that time was 40 tons of soil per acre per year.
Unlike tillage, commonly known as plowing, no-till methods leave soils undisturbed, allowing crop residue to remain on the surface, protecting the topsoil from runoff. Seeds are planted in rows in the soil. In contrast, tillage leaves soil “bare” and highly susceptible to erosion.
Some soils across Tennessee are considered fragile, Tyler says, but West Tennessee’s are especially susceptible.
“The soils in West Tennessee are especially erodible because they are very silty soils,” Tyler says. “They are almost like talcum powder – very silty and easily moved by water if they’re exposed and tilled.”
As an example of how easily soil can erode with tilling versus no-till, Tyler says, “We have data that shows in till systems, one storm can result in the loss of more than 10 tons of soil per acre, whereas a no-till system right beside it with the same measurements may result in 1/10 of a ton loss. It’s a huge difference.”Today, Tennessee is a shining example of the no-till success, with up to 90 percent of the state’s farms using no-till practices, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. This change was possible thanks to the assistance and innovation of the University of Tennessee Extension and UT AgResearch, within the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, and Tennessee’s row crop farmers who saw the benefits and invested in the technology to make no-till a reality.
Tyler was one of the many team members enlisted to research and help Tennessee adapt its tilling ways that were having a negative impact on the land.
“With no-till, we’ve dramatically reduced the manmade accelerated soil erosion,” Tyler says. “A lot of the soil that we have now in the state would not be here if we did not go no-till. The soil was eroding at such a high rate, and there would be fields today that would have been abandoned if we did not make the change. We have many farmers now who have been completely no-till for 30 years,” he adds.
Farming in Dyer and Lauderdale counties, along the Mississippi River, Jimmy Moody experienced firsthand the positive changes that no-till methods brought to his West Tennessee farm.
Moody, who is in his mid-60s, farms on his own family operation and at Cold Creek Farms with a business partner, growing soybeans and cotton. Back when he used to till all of his land, he would need to burn crop residue, till soil and plow weeds. But since he took up no-till, he directly plants crops and controls weeds with advanced herbicides that were unavailable several decades back.
“When I was young, using no-till was unheard of,” Moody says.
No-till is good for the soil, reducing soil erosion and increasing organic matter in the surface soil. Plus, it encourages flourishing earthworm populations – which are a great indicator of soil health and create channels to flow water into soil and reduce runoff. No-till farming has economic benefits, too. “Farmers using no-till are minimizing their labor needs, the time it takes to actually farm, reducing fuel costs dramatically, and a lot of them can farm on a much larger scale than they would be able to otherwise, which has almost become necessary to survive,” Tyler says.
Moody agrees. “There’s no way that I could be farming on the scale that I am today without no-till farming,” he says.
Soil is filled with living, breathing, hardworking creatures – it’s a natural commodity more important than any cash crop. When soil is alive, it’s teaming with macro- and microorganisms, ranging the gamut from highly visible beetles and worms to microscopic viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Each of these soil citizens provides a service to the healthful functioning of the broader community.
Having lots of healthy and diverse organisms in the soil creates a self-sufficient cropping system that becomes less dependent upon synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
The system itself produces fertility for robust plant growth, resistance to pests, and water-stable soil aggregates that enhance soil porosity to permit rapid water infiltration and to resist erosion.
In a nutshell, such a system produces resilient crops. In today’s uncertainty of climate, the need for plant resilience is growing more urgent by the day.
“The need to think about and work toward soil health is becoming extreme,” says Kris Nichols, a soil scientist-consultant from Kutztown, Pennsylvania. “Plants need resilience in order to withstand stressors such as adverse weather. One thing that you can count on is a continuing increase in the uncertainty and variability of climate.
“During the span of just one week here in Pennsylvania last winter, we had historic lows and historic highs in temperature,” she says. “We had a swing in temperature of 70°F. That doesn’t make any sense. Yet, it’s happened multiple times. How does a plant respond to such variability in conditions?
“We need a production system that is resilient,” she says. “A healthy soil that is alive with organisms keeps the system resilient. It does that by promoting diversity of life in the soil and above ground.”
Along with the growing need for resilience in cropping systems, there is a need for the kind of stable soil structure that resists wind and water erosion.
“We lose nearly 2 billion metric tons of topsoil annually in the U.S.,” says Nichols. “Most of that ends up in lakes, rivers, and estuaries. In the Gulf region, for instance, dredging is needed to remove the soil in order to keep shipping lanes open. Much of it is piled in that area, clogging the estuaries and exacerbating drainage problems.”
Eroding topsoil typically carries nitrates and phosphates from synthetic fertilizers with it, notes Nichols. These nitrates and phosphates end up in ground and surface waters, creating conditions such as the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
“In some communities now in places such as the Midwest, it’s hard to get good drinking water without having to do costly filtration,” she says.
Limited supplies of phosphorus (P) fertilizers are yet another reason to build communities of healthy soil critters that can meet the plants’ need for P by extracting it from the soil and delivering it to plants.
“Globally, we’re running out of phosphorus fertilizer,” says Nichols. “Phosphorus fertilizer is mined and shipped into this country. A supply of about 20 to 30 years is about all we have left. Then we’ll have to figure out a different way to get it. Furthermore, when we apply it, much of it is wasted because, if it is not lost via erosion, it becomes readily unavailable in soil and can only be made available again by soil biology.”
These symbiotic relationships between plants and soil organisms permit natural pathways to fertility, disease resistance, soil stability, and whole-system resilience to weather variabilities.
All this while sidestepping much of the need for intervention with synthetic inputs.
When functioning in a healthful, whole-system framework, these relationships between plants and soil organisms, says Nichols, exist in an “elegantly complex” balance grounded in simple processes.
“We need to think about caring for the soil in the same manner that we take care of our own bodies,” she says.
With that in mind, following are the three cornerstones she suggests putting in place to grow life in the soil.
1. A healthy diet. “Carbon is the building block for every cell and every molecule for nearly all life on planet Earth,” she says. “Soil needs an influx of carbon through the process of photosynthesis occurring in living plants. It’s important to keep living plants growing in the soil.”
Diversity of diet is critical, too. “Feeding the soil a continuous diet of corn or wheat crops provides a lot of carbon, but it won’t be that healthy,” says Nichols. “Like us, the soil needs carbon in the form of protein or more complex carbohydrates. That’s why it’s important to have legumes and oilseeds in the system.
“All the different crops and crop types provide different compounds and different concentrations of these compounds for the soil life to eat,” she says. “Different consortia of different organisms consume different root exudates and crop residue from different plants.”
Growing diverse crops, cover crops, and perennials provides the soil life with the diverse diet needed to thrive and increase in population. Increasing diversity of cover crops can compensate for decreased diversity in cash crops.
2. Plenty of exercise. Providing the soil critters with work gives opportunity for exercise. “Their work involves breaking down and releasing nutrients in organic matter and minerals in the soil,” says Nichols. “In this process, they provide water and nutrients to the plants. Like us, they need a little bit of stress in order to best manage their food.”
A supply-and-demand payment system exists between plants and soil life. The application of synthetic fertilizers interferes with this delicate balance.
“Applying fertilizers outsources the work of the soil organisms,” says Nichols. “They buy carbon from the plant by giving the plant something.”
Outsourcing of their work happens, she says, when applications of synthetic fertilizers cause a lockdown in the plants’ natural mechanisms to work with soil organisms.
Thus, the soil organisms are bypassed, preventing them from having enough food to live on.
One example of this is roots that won’t allow arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi to colonize them.
3. A stable home. The soil organisms engineer for themselves homes in the soil known as soil aggregates. “The aggregates are like microbial villages, giving the fungi and bacteria a safe place to live,” says Nichols. "Tillage breaks apart the aggregates. It’s like taking a wrecking ball or a bomb and blowing up the village.”
The displaced organisms become more vulnerable to predatory organisms. “They were safe in their village, but now they’re exposed to larger organisms that eat them,” she says.
This predator/prey relationship is always going on in the soil, but the loss of soil aggregates permits an unhealthful balance of species.
Reducing tillage preserves habitat for the soil life, as does keeping the soil covered by residue or mulch.
“Even the impact of raindrops hitting the soil surface can blow up aggregates,” says Nichols.
Over the long term, growing life in the soil offers the priceless benefit of building a production system that is more resilient to wide swings in weather. Economic resilience could come hand in hand with healthier soil.
“You could expect to reduce costs, which could improve the bottom line,” says Nichols. “With a more resilient system, you could also expect to reduce year-to-year fluctuations in income.”
Alternative Forages: Specialist looks at different options
Kansas State University’s Beef Systems Specialist Jaymelynn Farney is investigating how cattle choose what to eat.
Farney, who is at the Southeast Research and Extension Center in Columbus, Kansas, has been performing studies on what forages cattle prefer. She’s using summer cover crops, or annual forages, in re-purposed protein tubs. They’re then offered to cattle to determine preference.
“I have grown eight plant species in each growing period and offered the plants to the cows in two 24-hour sessions,” she said. “We recorded their behavior for the first hour after introduction to the plants and they were video recorded through the remainder of the time to see which plants they completely consumed and in which order.”
The study wants to help producers make decisions about which cover crops to plant when incorporating grazing.
“There is a laundry list of plants that contain useful cover crop benefits and it becomes daunting to select the species that will meet your operation’s objectives,” Farney said.
When deciding what plant species to sow, Farney said there are two trains of thought.
Purposefully plant only those species that cattle will consume to maximize land usage or gains along with capturing some cover crop benefits; or
Strategically plant species that cattle are averse to in order to leave appreciable biomass in the field for soil health objectives.
“With these two things in mind I was interested in seeing how cattle that were completely naive to cover crops consumed these plants,” Farney said.
Initially, Farney has found the most preferred plants include: Barley, Austrian winter pea and Graza forage radish (tie), mustard, Impact collard, Trophy rape, and purple top turnip (all fairly the same in preference). Last was Bayou kale. Her preference information was collected prior to a freeze.
“Stay tuned to next year to find out what their preference to these same species are when grazing after a killing freeze,” Farney said.
For summer grazing, in order from most preferred to least includes: Brown mid-rib forage sorghum and sorghum-Sudan (tied for first), pearl millet, Black oil sunflower and sun hemp (tied for third). Least favorite with little to no difference (strongly objected) were mungbean, okra and safflower.
Farney said there is some learning in both the cattle and the researchers associated with these summer grazing plants.
“The first day exposed nearly all the cows did not even try the okra, but the second day they consumed them before mungbean and safflower,” Farney said. “Another interesting comment about the summers, all grazing occurred when the sorghums were 2 feet tall to minimize prussic acid issues.”
For the sorghums, grazing occurred 35 days after planting. The sunflowers in that time frame were very small and immature (6 to 8 inches tall at the most) while the mungbean and okra had leaves that were over 7 inches in diameter.
“Preference studies become difficult to quantify as cattle do learn and modify grazing behavior especially after that first introduction to new plants,” she said.
When in drought
Farney suggests spending some time to determine the plant species with more drought tolerance.
“I would stay away from really expensive components of mixtures because there is a greater chance of crop failure with no moisture,” she said. “There is some literature that shows that a few different plant species as a cover crop have some environmental lee-way.”
For stocker cattle
Farney leans heavily on the grass component of a stocker cover crops plan.
She limits brassicas to a 1 pound per acre with maximum of 1.5 pounds of brassica seed per acre. Amounts over this can cause the brassicas to outcompete the grass species and reduce grass tonnage. For fall forages, the grass and brassica species offer enough protein to the animal.
“Younger calves have a stronger aversion to the broadleaves and brassicas than cows do and this can potentially hamper gains for a short duration until they begin to consume these plants,” Farney said
“In Kansas, from my research and measuring producers fields, we rarely get any fall growth of legumes,” she said. “This is an expensive component of the mixture and with the combination of low to no-growth and no need for additional protein to meet calf requirements, I do not include legumes in fall covers.”
Farney suggests oats and barley—both spring and winter varieties—to those looking to graze something other than native grass as they offer the earliest, quickest growth. Triticale is intermediate and wheat and rye will have the majority of their growth late winter and early spring. Turnips and radishes have a very rapid growth rate, but once a freeze happens, they don’t generate any more dry matter. Grass species continue to have some growth as the season goes on.