Self-Directed Participatory Agent Learning

Final Report for ENC97-012.1

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1997: $53,700.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
Matching Federal Funds: $16,200.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $16,200.00
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Natalie Rector
MSU Extension
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Project Information


The Michigan State University Field Crops Area of Expertise Team (AOE) consists of 24 county agents and campus faculty working together to provide local and state-wide training for themselves, agri-business personnel and farmers.
This second year of PDP funding for the AOE team has provided consistency of some projects and start up funds for new projects. Three major areas of endeavor include:
1) local on-farm learning projects between agents and farmers,
2) Agro Ecology training for agents and NRCS, and
3) the sharing of these experiences through the total AOE team system.

The majority of the SARE funds were reallocated to the 18 projects across the state, pursuant to the agent/farmer needs and the cropping systems of our diverse state. A major goal of this project is the responsibility of each agent to report back on their project to the entire AOE team at an annual December training session. This alone has created accountability, cross programming, improved communications between agents on projects they were unaware of, and the obvious multiplication of sharing what one agent learns with many others.

Four of the local projects funded in the 96-97 season were expanded and continued in this season of funding. The organic grain and bean production network that began in Gratiot County by Dan Rossman, has continued to grow and inspired three agents in the SW region of Michigan to take 18 people on an in-state tour of organic farms. This project watches a “traditional” ag agent successfully generate respect from diverse areas of agriculture.

Another ag agent has had a significant experience, causing him to value the benefits of sustainable practices. While seeking to incorporate frost seeded clover into high yielding wheat, Steve Poindexter and his farmers have seen first hand the impact on the succeeding corn yields, increasing yields 13 bushel, and surprisingly, to the second year of sugar beets creating a 0.2 to 1.2 ton increase in beet yields. A second project in the “thumb” of Michigan, by Jim Lecureux, has also been demonstrating tillage and cover crop interactions on heavy clay soils that are typically lacking the return of organic matter in their rotations.

Alfalfa is a major crop in Michigan and three projects have provided training in this area. One has demonstrated the value of scouting for leafhoppers, even in the new “hairy” varieties. Another project has demonstrated no-till and conventional tillage for re-establishment of stands, and another has taught an agent the value of timely cutting for nutritional quality.

Alternative crops have received a boost from SARE funds. One group of agents and farmers in the Upper Peninsula visited a research station in Wisconsin. Another group held a “canola Summit” for 40 people with a valuable resource packet, and another agent looked at irrigated sugar beets to replace the loss of potato contracts due to a chipping plant closing.

Geo positioning systems (GPS) may seem an odd mix with sustainable practices, but two agents teamed up this technology with weed control, looking at spot spraying perennial weed patches thus reducing herbicides and a second agent demonstrated Roundup-ready technology and the importance that early shading of weeds provides for weed control in soybeans.

A project between a field crop, a dairy and a livestock agent has reached over 30 farmers with manure testing. It has shown that there is not as much variability within a given manure pit (from top to bottom) as believed. It has also shown that, especially for swine finishing barns, phosphorous levels are lower than book values, thus determining spreading rates for farmers.

All of the above projects have a strong farmer component, either being on-farm demonstrations or involving farmers in the planning, implementing and evaluation of the systems. All projects were shared with the entire AOE team at a December training session.

MSU recently published the 118 page “Michigan Field Crop Ecology”. An emphasis is to extend this information out to agricultural producers. Two workshops were conducted in Sept/Oct. 1998 to teach MSU Extension, NRCS and other the basic principles. Six of the authors facilitated a initial training. This training has been greatly expanded in the 1998-99 SARE PDP.

Project Objectives:

1.) Continue and enhance learning through 10 recently created local sustainable agriculture innovation teams, involving Extension agents, NRCS staff and others, to gain knowledge and leadership for widespread adoption of more sustainable approaches.

2.) Use Michigan’s Field Crops Area of Expertise (AOE) team as a clearinghouse to compile local invention team and agent experiences for sharing with other agents and NRCS staff, and draw upon AOE team resources to support local efforts.

3.) Expand interaction between Extension agents and sustainable/organic practitioners through greater agent involvement in farmer organization projects and events and expanded conference call and e-mail networking.

4.) Provide three, two-day regional training sessions that utilize Michigan sustainable agriculture training modules, local team experiences, farmer mentors, and input from other applicable SARE-supported projects.

5.) Continue building competencies in a core group of 10 to 15 Extension field crop agents so they can become trainers of other trainers, and resource people to encourage greater adoption of sustainable concepts, systems and practices within their areas and statewide.

Education & Outreach Initiatives


The Michigan Extension Field Crop Agents are organized as a state-wide group called the Field Crops Area of Expertise Team (AOE) which is made up of 24 agents and 16 campus faculty. This group formed a committee to manage the SARE PDP project. This committee, made up of several campus specialists and agents, developed an RFP that was sent to the team members soliciting them to develop a learning project to be conducted in their local area. From this, 17 projects were funded during the 1996-97 granting period. Two new projects were added; one project was never worked on and one project failed due to seeding establishment problems. I feel that the success rate on projects being implemented and followed through is very positive. The amount of funding ranged from $600 to $6000 per project.

The individual projects allowed for agents to meet the training needs of themselves, their growers and to fit their area of the state. We have some new agents on the Field Crops AOE team and these funds have allowed them to initiate projects, on farms, that they might not have done otherwise, or as nearly in their career. Michigan has a tremendous diversity of crops and growing conditions. The southern portion is traditional corn/soys/wheat/alfalfa grown on sandy loam soils. The “thumb” area is heavy clay soils including sugar beets and dry beans. The northern portion of the lower peninsula and the Upper Peninsula have short growing seasons, more livestock grazing and the need for alternative crops.

Outcomes and impacts:

Northern Michigan Agents/Farmers Visit Wisconsin Research Station:

In May 1998, 15 farmers and 3 Extension Agents visited the University of Wisconsin Ashland Ag Research Station. The agents and farmers determined this would be a good, hands-on experience to visit an area with similar soil and crop types. They visited sites reflecting soil tillage methods, clover research and small grain variety selection. They also saw a seed facility that broadened their perspective regarding turf grass production in their location in Michigan.

Northern Michigan Canola Project:

A project in northern Michigan specifically addressed their growing and marketing conditions. The agent’s and farmer’s objectives were to seek economical alternative crops and continue perusing value added options, such as a farmer owned cooperative. Canola was the crop of choice. A Canola summit was held in March 1999. 40 Participants and speakers came from 5 states and Canada. Farmers, seed and university personnel attended. A nice resource packet was distributed. This initiated the formation of a Great Lakes Canola Assoc. with by-laws. Newsletters developed by the agents help to serve the industry and continue communications. A second summit is in the planning stages. In August 1999 a field day was held to view variety plots.

Alfalfa Re-establishment: Dennis Pennington

Several seasons of short hay crops lead to a need for guidelines on re-seeding alfalfa into existing stands. Plots were established on a farm in Barry county utilizing four systems of re-seeding: spray in fall, conventional tillage; spray in fall, no-till; spray in spring, conventional till; spray in spring, no-till. A dry spring contributed to the advantage of no-till for soil moisture conservation initially, but as the season progressed, the conventional tillage out-yielded the no-till. Weed control was a greater problem in conventional tillage. The agent who coordinated this project, Dennis Pennington, is young and new to Extension. He did a great job of follow up. He coordinated an alfalfa establishment workshop in Feb. 99 where 15 attended. There was a field plot tour in June 1998 where 25 attended. He put together a power point presentation, giving this twice reaching farmers in a 4 county area. Data from the plots was reported in newsletters. He works closely with the Michigan Hay and Grazing council and the Barry County Soil Conservation District. The Barry SCD provided ½ the rental cost for the no-till drill.

Cover Crops Rotation: Steve Poindexter

A project in the Saginaw Valley, coordinated by Steve Poindexter, has taken the agent on an interesting journey and through some backdoors. Intense high value cash crop rotations of sugar beets/beans/corn have lead to a lack of organic matter in the soils, and yields are showing the detrimental effects. To begin getting clover cover crops in the rotations, the agent and farmer frost seeded clover into wheat. Initially concerned that high seeding rates of wheat would not allow the clover to establish and/or that the wheat yields would be adversely effected were put to rest in the initial year of the project. During the growing season of 1998, corn yielded 13-16 bu./acre better when it followed the wheat/clover rotation. The amazing aspect for the agent and the farmers is that a yield increase in sugar beets of 0.2 to 1.2 tons/acre occurred the second year after clover. The continuation of this project with the inception of the first SARE PDP funds to in 1997 has allowed for this project to show impact of rotation that would not have been realized in just one year. This information is being taken to farmers via winter Extension meetings in the 99-2000 season. Poindexter said, “small things improve farming in small increments, we just have to keep working at it.”

Weed Mapping: Rich Hodupp

Utilizing precision agriculture’s ability to mark, map and relocate weed infestations was the project of Rich Hodupp, Extension agent in 5 mid-thumb counties. By mapping hemp dogbane infestations (at harvest time with a tagging system on the farmers combine the farmer was able to return the next spring and spray only the marked patches. This post-emergence spray lead to less total herbicide per acre. In the second year, this was repeated and by the third growing season the dogbane was eliminated. Hemp Dogbane has become a major problem, especially in reduced and no-till systems.

New Technologies in Weed Control: David Pratt

Dave Pratt, Agent in Jackson and Hillsdale counties, has utilized SARE funds to work with Roundup Ready technology. His focus was to conduct on-farm demonstrations of roundup versus traditional herbicide applications in soybeans. The results, not surprisingly, showed the roundup technology to be cost effective and provided good weed control. It also showed the importance of crop shading on weed control. This is being looked at due to the potential positive impact on the environmental over traditional herbicide programs. This project has had a great impact on the agent. He gained personal, hands-on experience in field crop plot work and greatly expanded his expertise in herbicide chemistry and real world observations. He has enrolled in graduate school pursing weed management. I’d like to think that the personal experience he gained due to grant funds has spurred on his masters program. This compliments the Michigan Extension Area of Expertise team concept for agents to specialize in areas of high priority and professional interest.

Innovative farmer site: Jim LeCureux and Dr. Richard Harwood

To improve soil tilth and find the most economic rotation sequence, Jim LeCureux and Dr. Richard Harwood tested 120 acres of plots over a six year time period. Chisel plowing, fall plowing, zone till and trans tilling were tested on a corn/sugar beet/ dry bean crop rotation.

The results showed that the rotation could be done economically. No difference in yields or economics was found, but the reduced tillage systems improved yearly. The best results were found with chisel plowing. The top economic results were found with reduced till systems, which in turn improved soil quality and aided water quality management.

Potato Leafhopper and new alfalfa varieties: Paul Gross

Potato leafhopper has become a recurring problem in alfalfa. With the advent of the new hairy varieties that claim more resistance to these insects, Paul Gross, Extension Director in Isabella County, implemented an on-farm demonstration. The new alfalfa seed was planted in the fall of 1997, with another trial planted the spring of 1998. Alfalfa forage quality is important to the diary industry. The PLH resistant varieties still showed a large number of hoppers via scouting, but they had no impact on the nutritional value of the crop. Gross was also disappointed to find the yields and quality of both regular and resistant alfalfa fields to be the same. This project has encouraged the need for scouting in the area. A dry season in 1998 hindered yield data.

An alfalfa insect field day brought 15 participants to the study site. Participants were given sweep nets and taught to use them. The study proved scouting the fields for insects to be the most effective tool in treating PLH prior to populations hitting the economic damage threshold level. Gross says, “the studies funded by SARE provide meaningful information on a small scale to people who need it.”

Sugarbeets as a new crop: Fred Springborn

Fred Springborn, Extension agent in Montcalm county, is relatively new to Extension and works in a county that recently saw potato production plummet due to the loss of a processing facility. Seeking alternative crops, they began investigating irrigated sugar beets, which are new to this region and not typically irrigated. Gathering information on irrigated sugar beets was a problem. The travel funds to visit Idaho were very important to this agent. Farmers were able to garner beet contracts, they found a location to pile the beets and have had success with this project.

Soil Quality: Jim LeCureux and Dr. Richard Harwood

A continuing project to reduce tillage in an area of the state where erosion into surface waters is a concern has used SARE funds to demonstrate reduced tillage, rotations and cover crops at a farmer owned sit. This project was conducted by Agent Jim LeCureux and Dr. Richard Harwood. The project demonstrated that cover crops do not reduce crop yields and due to this, farmers are reducing tillage on heavy clay soils. Improvement in infiltration rates after rain events has really caught farmer’s attention when the reduced tillage was dry the next day and water was still standing in conventional tilled fields.

Tritical, wheat, alfalfa and clover were planted as cover crops into sugar beets and reviewed for weed control, crop emergence, preventing spring erosion and improving soil tilth. 85 people toured the plots at the August 1999 “Innovative Farmer Annual Tour”. Tritical and wheat were found to be the best cover crop, while alfalfa and clover were too thick and interfered with sugar beet germination and emergence. Le Cureux said, “the study provided a good opportunity to present realistic ideas and concepts to farmers in their own field environments.” This culminates a 6 year study resulting in a 20 page Extension bulletin in progress now, to be published in Jan. 2001. A copy will be forwarded when it is available.

PSNT to reduce N: Natalie Rector

Natalie Rector, Branch and Calhoun County agent, has worked for several years with on-farm demonstrations using pre-side dress nitrate soil testing. This has greatly helped in reducing total nitrogen rates per acre. One three year study used the PSNT test after a clover cover crop showing no difference in yields, yet was more economical than a traditional rate of nitrogen. These typed of studies have given the agent more confidence to recommend lower N rates to other producers based on past crop, manure applications and cover crops.

Manure Testing Gets Results: Rector, Osborne, Hines

Three agents, (Roberta Osborne, Dairy Agent, Natalie Rector, Field Crop, and Brian Hines, Livestock) have been working on an intensive manure sampling project over a two year period that reached 36 farms, mostly swine and dairy, and collected over 250 samples. Many systems were sampled from one year to the next. Other farmers sampled several times as pits were emptied to measure variance from top to bottom of a pit. Surprisingly, there was very little difference in nutrient content in agitated pits. This leads to a much greater confidence in farmers utilizing the manure as a crop nutrient. Here is a summary of the conclusions and outcomes from this project: (a complete report of data is attached to the hard copy)

Forage IPM: Dr. Richard Leep et. el

IPM in forages, mostly alfalfa, is a big concern in Michigan. Dairy farmers need the best quality forages they can raise and leafhoppers continue to grow in numbers each year. A team of three MSU specialists and 12 agents from the Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops AOE teams formulated a day long program on forages, focusing on IPM. The team was lead by Dr. Richard Leep. They taught the session in 6 sites across the state reaching 250 producers. Teaching is one of the best methods for agents to improve their skills in an area. Agents were involved in teaching roles when the meetings were held in their area of the state. Handout material was provided and 300 sweep nets were given away, encouraging the scouting of alfalfa for leafhoppers. Leep commented, “I think the hands on experience served the audience well.” Evaluations were used at the sessions. Ninety-percent of the participants indicated they had learned a great deal of information and planned to implement it on their own farms. Leep says he would participate in a SARE supported project again because “it gave our team an opportunity to present a highly successful educational effort.”

Organic and alternative Crop Production: Staton, Rajzer, MacKellar

A SARE funded project on organic bean production by another agent in the state, Dan Rossman, provided the enthusiasm for a group of agents to work with farmers on organic bean production and marketing. Three agents in the southwest part of the state, (Mike Staton, Berrien Co., Dan Rajzer, Cass County and Bruce MacKellar, Van Burean County) lined up an in-state tour to visit 6 farms involved in organic production of beans and grains and a seed processing facility. 18 went on the trip (7 farmers, 8 Extension, 1 MDA). The tour was very impressive, especially showing farmers and agents that organic beans, on a large field scale, can be very clean of weeds. These agents continued on into 99-00 winter meeting season with two meetings; one on specialty crops (hi oil, GMO opportunities) and one on value added philosophies (reaching 34).

Project Outcomes


Potential Contributions

A major goal of this project is the responsibility of each agent to report back on their project to the entire AOE team at an annual December training session. This alone has created accountability, cross programming, improved communications between agents on projects they were unaware of, and the obvious multiplication of showering what one agent learns with many others. Teaching is the best way to learn, and all agents have at presented their material at the December Teaching is the best way to learn, and all agents have at presented their material at the December training. This also causes the agents to develop visual aid material making it much easier for them to re-teach at other meetings. Most all agents have also taught the material at additional winter meetings.

This project has allowed experienced agents and new agents to investigate projects increasing their technical skills. The high percentage of follow through on projects is probably due to the agents and farmers being able to select relevant projects for their location. I am also sure that these funds have caused newer agents to become involved in on-farm demonstrations at an early stage in their career. This involvement will add to their credibility in the community and form close working relationships with producers and agri-business.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.