Two model farms are demonstrating the benefits of using the best agricultural practices to address key issues in farming, a project resulting from a $1.4 million grant from the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation to the LSU AgCenter.
Scientists working on the grant are looking at grain crops, cotton and sugarcane, which represent 65% of the total acreage of agricultural production in Louisiana.
Through field days geared toward farmers from the region, the model farms will showcase the tools and practices that researchers have developed that can improve the economics and environmental outcomes of agricultural production.
“We know that certain best management practices and tools will work,” said Lisa Fultz, a soil microbiologist with the LSU AgCenter and one of two principal investigators for this project. “In order to make the difference that we strive to make, there must be a relationship with the farmers who would be implementing the practices.”
The two model farms to test the effects these best management practices are the Hardwick Planting Company in Tensas Parish, which features the cotton and grain portion of the project, and the Keith Dugas Farm, in Assumption Parish, which has the sugarcane portion.
The subtropical climate and fertile soils of Louisiana have allowed production agriculture to be a successful industry that contributes greatly to the economic health of rural and urban communities. While crop yields have increased through the adoption of novel farming practices, soil health and environmental sustainability issues have become much more important.
Louisiana has a critical interest in nutrient management as some nutrients from fertilizer run into the Mississippi River drainage basin contribute to the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone, a 5,460-square-mile area often called a “dead zone.”
Hypoxia is an environmental phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water decreases to a level that can no longer support living aquatic organisms. It is caused by a variety of factors, including agricultural water runoff.
“There are many sources that affect the area of hypoxic dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico,” Fultz said. “The primary goal of this project is to alleviate the effects that row crop farming has by developing and implementing a set of best management practices that farmers across the state of Louisiana can use.”
Fultz is looking at a variety of technologies to make this project successful, such as variable rate technology, which allows for the precise application of fertilizer. This reduces the overall output of fertilizer and prevents overuse.
“In our experience, every farmer knows which parts of the field provide higher yields,” Fultz said. “This technology allows us to fine-tune the application process and ultimately leaves more money in the pocket of the farmer by not overusing fertilizer.”
Although technology has great benefits, the researchers on this project acknowledge that accessibility to technology could be low. Fultz has also seen more farmers adopt the use of cover crops, plants that are not harvested for profit but are sown to protect and improve soil.
“Having some type of cover on the soil surface is going to protect the soil from wind and water erosion,” she said. "Newly developed procedures and tools all come with potential concerns, and researchers continue to develop practices that will benefit both the farmer and the environment."
Fultz said the greatest success has come from raising awareness of the hypoxic dead zone and how agriculture contributes to it. “We have held many field days since this project started,” Fultz said. “Although it is difficult to measure adoption of best management practices, we do know that attendance has grown and that speaks volumes to the future successes that this project will see.”
Mead Hardwick presents to participants at a field day
held at the Hardwick Planting Company in Newellton, Louisiana.
Pictured from left to right are Mead Hardwick, Leticia Santos, Murilo Martins, and Luciano Shiratsuchi.
Photo by Rexanna Powers