Michigan Field Crop Ecology: Training and Field Demonstrations

Final Report for ENC98-029

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1998: $47,677.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2000
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, NRCS and farmers. This third year of funding through the PDP program has allowed for the continuation of 8 projects and instigated new ones, mostly on-farm demonstrations between agents and farmers, and a special training emphasis on Michigan Field Crop Ecology.

The SARE funds were allocated to 13 projects across the state, pursuant to the agent/farmer needs and 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, and the obvious multiplication of sharing what one agent learns with many others.

A portion of the funds were invested in planning and implementation of training, utilizing a newly published, 118 page, “Michigan Field Crop Ecology”. This has been a wonderful tool to coalesce basic biological principles and real world farming practices. An initial training was conducted in two locations of the state, reaching mostly Extension and NRCS. The following season, 214 producers were reached in 6 locations, including a Kodec uplink to reach the northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula. 60% of the participants identified themselves as “traditional” farmers, which is the audience we were seeking. 39% indicated they would use the information to make changes in their farming operation. This project was coordinated by Dr. Dale Mutch and Dr. Larry Dyer.

A parallel project is continuing with the outreach efforts of Dr. Doug Landis and his work on beneficial insects. A short course for agriculture professionals gave 27 MSU Extension agents the opportunity to learn about the benefits of predators, parasites and pathogens that help biologically control insect pests and weeds. The course combined web-based guided learning with hands-on field experience. An additional objective was to develop teaching resources and natural enemy demonstrations for participants to incorporate into their own programming.

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Agents felt bio-control is a growing trend that they need to learn more about. Course content ranged from recognizing common bio-control agents and enemies, to greenhouse tours and commercially available natural enemies, to sampling for and enhancing natural enemies in field crops. An MSU website has some of this information on it: www.ent.msu.eduiocontrol or www.cips.msu.eduiocontrol.

Using locally based projects continues to be a training tool for both new and experienced extension agents. Thirteen locally based projects meet the needs of the farmers and their unique cropping needs.

One project, by Mark Seamon, has brought attention to the soybean cyst nematodes in an area of the state that was incurring damage but unaware of the impacts.

The northern portion of Michigan relies on forages for grazing and dry harvest. Dr. Rich Leep introduced plots in 8 locations (4 on farm) to evaluate Kura clover into the cropping and grazing systems. Other projects continue to evaluate cutting management on alfalfa quality, reduced tillage in narrow row grain production, site specific management education to farmers, adding liquid alum to swine manure, cover crops in rotations, alternative crops to meet local opportunities through value added education and a continuation of organic bean and grain production.

Project Objectives:

1) Expand the basic sustainable agriculture knowledge of Michigan agriculturists (farmers, NRCS, Extension, agri-business) by presenting 6 regional trainings on field crop ecology, presented by a core group of trained agents, NRCS personnel and/or other trained people.

2) Continue and enhance learning through 10 local sustainable agriculture innovation teams conducting on-farm projects involving Extension agents, farmers, NRCS staff and others, to gain practical knowledge and leadership for widespread adoption of more sustainable approaches.

3) 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.

4) Expand interaction between Extension agents and sustainable/organic practitioners through greater agent involvement in farmer organizations, projects and events

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, 13 projects were funded during the 1998-99 granting period. The amount of funding ranged from $1600 to $10000 per project.

The individual projects allowed for agents to meet the training needs of themselves, their growers their area of the state. We have some new agents on the Field Crops AoE team and these funds have allowed them the initiative to begin projects, on farms, that they might not have done otherwise. Michigan has a tremendous diversity of crops and growing conditions. The southern portion is traditional corn/soy/what/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, grazing and the need for alternative crops.

Outcomes and impacts:

Michigan Field Crop Ecology: Dr. Dale Mutch, et.el.

Under the 1997-98 SARE PDP funding, a project started in Michigan that began the training of Extension agents and NRCS on a new Extension bulletin “Michigan Field Crop Ecology”. This has moved from class room training to an in-field summer session where participants, Extension Agents, NRCS, other agency and farmers, could see the rotation systems, observe soil quality and beneficial insect populations. The Kellogg Biological Station’s Long Term Ecological Research facility was the location for the training. In Sept. 1998 14 MSU Extension, 8 NRCS and 2 MDA personnel attended the training. After participation in this training, the participants worked to host one day training sites around the state in the winter of Jan.=Mar. 99. 214 producers and agency persons were reached and a Kodec uplink was used to reach the producers in the Upper Peninsula and northern part of the state. After this, one agent started a study group of farmers around sustainable ag practices. Of the 214, 140 participants completed the evaluation at the end of the training showing that 39 were from NRCS, 14 were from the Soil Conservation Districts, 15 from Mich. Dept. of Ag, 75 farmers and 27 Extension Agents. 4 high school students and 2 Agri-Science teachers were also in attendance. 60% of the audience identified themselves on the evaluation as “conventional farmers”, 4% as organic and 19% as in transition to organic. This is great! We wanted to reach the conventional farmers with ecological based information. Our goal was not to preach to the converted! When asked how participants thought they might use the information form the program, we received the following responses:
61% planned to share some information with farmers they work with.
31% said that some of the information helped them understand things that they have observed on farmers.
39% planned to use some of the information to make changes in their own farming operations.
32% planned to use some of the information to design some field trials.
2% didn’t think the information would be very useful to them.

Other responses were positive with comments ranging from “eye opening” to “I’m always looking for a better way, I hope to apply some practices this spring.” One farmer summed it up by saying, “Good job presenting the dynamic living nature within soil. If farmers catch on to the idea, it could do a lot for sustainability of the soil as well as individual farming operations.”

The coordinator of this project, Dr. Dale Mutch and Dr. Larry Dyer have continued on with on-farm demonstrations on 4 farm sites in Southern Michigan, where the farmers have a great impact on the design of the projects. This project established a foundation for receiving two new grants. The first grant involves developing six study circles in southwest Michigan to address agricultural issues. The second grant received from EPA involves developing a training program (similar to Field Crop Ecology) for Extension Bulletin E-2704 Michigan Field Crop Pest Ecology and Management. This training program will be held across Michigan during four regional meetings and one North Central region meeting for farmers, agents and agribusiness.

Organic Field Crop Production and marketing: Dan Rossman
Dan Rossman, Gratiot County Extension Director, helped network 40+ growers in Gratiot, Clinton, Isabella, Ionia and Midland counties who were interested in making the transition to organic farming. The West Group Organics has regular meetings, sends members to conferences to report back to the group and hosts speakers and tours.

“With the increasing interest in transforming Michigan farms to organic production, people are changing their lifestyles and expressing feelings of hope for the farming industry and the future of their farms,” says Rossman. A marketing group has been formed and Rossman says he is seeing people putting the information to work and changing their farms. They enjoy farming now,” states Rossman, “farmers can make a profit and feel better about their products and operations.”

Narrow Row Production: Jim LeCureux
Yield differences were tested between 22-inch rows and 15-inch rows by Extension Agent Jim LeCureux. The hope was that the narrow row would out yield the wide row because there is a more even distribution of plants. The actual findings found 22-inch rows of corn silage to have an .86-ton advantage. Twenty-two inch rows in dry beans also yielded higher by 1.12 cwt per acre. LeCureux determined that the variety of crop has as much bearing on yield as row width.

Sugarbeet Production in a new area: Fred Springborn
Extension Agent Fred Springborn’s project was designed to determine the limiting factors to profitable sugar beet production in Montcalm County. Several test plots were monitored and results found pH testing important, but not as crucial as originally thought. Boron was a more important limiting factor than nitrogen. As a result of this project, participating farms are more aware of the effects of early irrigation on seedling emergence.

Springborn also says, “The process of going through this project with farmers has brought me to a higher level as an educator and consultant.”

Soybean Cyst Nematode: mark Seamon
Demonstration plots and plot tours were used to educate area farmers in the management of Soybean cyst nematode (SCN). SCN is new to the area and with these studies Agent Mark Seamon, in cooperation with the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, Agribusiness Consultants and Michigan State University were able to show the correlation of SCN populations and soybean yield losses. Soybean Cyst Nematode is the greatest detriment to soybean production nationally, and is beginning to take a foothold in Michigan. The Saginaw alley area of the state, due to raising beans longer and more frequently than the rest of the state, has detected a problem with this pest. The pest has been largely overlooked by farmers.

Seamon, who is fairly new to Extension, established plots with three farmers. They found that the nematodes have their highest population at the entry point to fields, obviously being transported in via tillage/planting equipment. Results proved that the most effective tools in managing SCN were soil testing and using SCN resistant soybeans. The field plots offered hands-on identification of soybean injury and nematode observation. 32 farmers and agribusiness people attended a tour on August 24, 1999. The Michigan Soybean promotion committee and MSU Extension interacted with farmers at these events. Ideas for future plots were discussed and results of the plots will be shared at 1999-00 winter meetings.

The information will be shared with farmers, agribusiness personnel and extension agents to increase confidence and awareness of SCN management practices. Seamon portrays SARE funding as a useful tool in research to educate farmers and has already sought additional SARE dollars to continue plot work in this area.

Site Specific Ag: Angie Eichorn
Extension Agent Angie Eichorn, the Huron Conservation District agent, organic farmer Gene Vogel and three agriculture businesses combined efforts to educate the agricultural community about site specific agriculture. Various services were performed on Vogel’s fields, such as infrared aerial photographs and soil samples. Data were used to generate maps depicting different soil characteristics. Vogel found the information to be extremely useful in locating and treating trouble areas. In organic farming, it is essential to use non-traditional methods in pest management, fertilization and all areas of production. The study also generated a precision Ag Twilight Tour in late August to educate other farmers about site specific agriculture and local agribusiness services.

Radish cover crops: Agent: Steve Poindexter
Steve Poindexter, Sugarbeet agent in the state, has been investigating cover crops and rotations with SARE funds. For this project, oil seed radishes were planted in wheat stubble; the field was then planted with sugar beets. The radish cover crop improved soil organic matter and increased yields for the wheat and sugar beets when added into the crop rotation. Radishes were also found to be a trap-crop for nematodes, a pest of sugar beets. This alleviates the need for chemical control. Poindexter says he was impressed with the rooting depth of the radishes, which helped to alleviate and break up hard pans, increase water infiltration in the soil profile and increase root penetration for all crops.

Liquid Alum in Swine Manure: Charles Gould
Charles Gould, Manure Management Agent in West Michigan, instigated a project involved in looking for a cost-efficient, short term solution to phosphorus overload in soils. This study added different rates of Alum and Ferrizorb to manure to determine how much phosphorus is tied up and the impact on corn yield. By binding up existing phosphorus in manure, crops can then use up the existing soil phosphorus. Gould hopes to find a reduction in the manure’s available phosphorus, without any yield loss due to the chemicals. The study will continue into the following year, and further educational material will be developed should the practice prove to be cost efficient. It was conducted in cooperation with the PVS Tech company of Detroit, which is supplied the Ferrizorb.

Kura Clover: Dr. Rich Leep
MSU Extension Forage Specialists, Dr. Rich Leep, instigated Kura clover plots, a project significant to our northern counties and for those who pasture. Four farm sites were established and 4 sites were established at research farms. Two of the farms held pasture walks where they described what they were doing in terms of Kura clover establishment methods on their farms. Dr. Leep visited the sites at least 3 times during the growing season to evaluate the stands. No-till or conventional tillage methods were found to be the best means of establishment. Farmers were grazing their crops by the second year. “Farmers were impressed with the palatability of crop as dairy cows preferred it over other grasses and legumes,” says Leep.

Training sessions and workshops included an update at the Lake City Beef Cattle Research External advisory committee and to the MSU Field Crops AOE team training. A field day will be held in July 2000 at Lake City. Participants will be part of the presentations. The summary of this effort will be published on the MSU Forage Web site: http://www.msue.msu.edu/fis/. Information will also be incorporated in future regional forage meetings on sustainable pasture production. A power point presentation has been developed. The $6000 of SARE funds toward this project were matched with $24000 from USDA Competitive Grants.

Alfalfa Quality: Dennis Pennington
Continuation of an alfalfa establishment project by Dennis Pennington, Barry County Ag Agent was followed through the next season to look at forage nutritional quality. During the 1999 growing season, temperature records were used to follow growing degree days for maximum quality of timing first cutting. The five farms that participated in the project were happy with their alfalfa quality at harvest and commented “they didn’t realize how important timing of the cutting was on the resulting quality”. A field day was held on May 8 to discuss harvest timing/quality. The agent developed a forage quality power point presentation and it was used for the Michigan Hay and Grazing council Annual meeting, the Clarksville Crops Update, and 9 regional meetings held in Feb./March 2000, reaching 325.

During the 2000 growing season, sites in Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan were used to evaluate three methods for predicting the best time to cut hay to meet yield quality goals. Pennington was surprised at the amount of work involved, but found it to be worth while, since the factor that most affects forage quality is the time when the alfalfa is cut.

The methods evaluated were Predictive Equation for Alfalfa Quality sticks (PEAQ), Growing Degree Days (GDD) and scissor-cut method. The PEAQ stick measures the plant height and state of maturity and neutral detergent fiber. GDD uses field temperature to determine heat units accumulated at various locations and the scissor-cut is sent to a lab for analysis.

While the scissor-cut method was most accurate, it was also labor intensive, costly and least timely. Pennington has been distributing and recommending PEAQ sticks. He says, “it forces them to get out into the field and notice things like insect or weed pressure.”

This Agent is a younger tenured agent who has shown a wonderful progression and follow through on the alfalfa projects. His SARE funding began in 1997 with an alfalfa establishment project that looked at no-till and tillage on up to this project of cutting management and its impact on feed quality. He has presented his material many times via well developed presentations. His involvement on these projects with Dr. Rich Leep is leading to his masters degree in this area.

Integrated Farming Systems: Mike Score
A newer Extension agent, Mike Score, was inspired by SARE funds to use his advisory group to become more involved in on-farm demonstrations. They conduct different projects ranging from roundup ready variety selection, to corn and soybean population studies, to IPM in alfalfa. The population studies showed that in their area of the state, where dry weather is common, higher populations did not improve yields of either corn or soy. The IPM in alfalfa project showed farmers how to scout fields showed that leafhopper greatly reduced the protein content in alfalfa. The agent referred to this as a “eye opening” experience for several farmers. This has also increased discussion and interest in scouting alfalfa. This agent has steadily increased farmer involvement in on-farm demonstrations from 3 sites in 1997, to 4 in 1998, to 11 in 1999. They collaborated with an ecology class from the University of Michigan (located in close proximity), where the students did some in-field assessments. The agent and farmers are learning the value of long term cropping systems and the interaction of factors, rather than considering just one factor. This has been evident in their tillage and nitrogen studies, i.e. where the reduced nitrogen showed a yield decrease, but it was due to other factors than the nitrogen.
Several of Score’s specific on-farm trials include:
*Test strips were tilled with a V-Ripper to determine if soil needed to be loosened after several years of no-till farming. Crops produced on the tilled plots actually yielded 11 bushels less per acre than the areas managed under no-till production. Yield and quality were still down two years later in the tilled plots. Soil moisture was also found to be higher in tilled areas. Visual differences in weed populations were evident, but forage quality tests showed no significant differences. Yield and insect populations were also monitored. No differences in alfalfa height or dry matter production were found. Score also found alfalfa weevil.
*To determine the maximum growth and yield benefit of applying manure on alfalfa, manure was applied in February and June. No differences were found with either application, although lower Potato Leafhopper populations were recorded for three weeks after the June application. Manure needs to be applied before regrowth begins to avoid creating wheel tracks in the alfalfa canopy.
*Three studies were conducted to learn about pollen drift and how it affects Bt corn and Roundup Ready (RR) soybean production. One field was planted with Bt corn in the western end of the field and 150 rows of conventional corn on the eastern end. Foliar analysis of 47 plants confirmed that Bt and conventional plants ere correctly placed within the field. After pollination, grain was sampled to determine the location of kernels fertilized by Bt pollen. Thirty-one of forty-two ears tested of non-Bt corn was found to be fertilized by Bt plants. The second study involved planting two rows of blue corn down the center of a 30-acre cornfield. Pollination synchronization was perfect for measuring the distance pollen drifted in a standing cornfield. Results will be measured in fall. The last study uses a genetic test in side-by-side soybean fields were RR and non-RR seed were planted. Results are not available yet.
*Six varieties of soft red wheat were selected and tested for growth characteristics and yield. Although a routine trial, it was the first to test how MSU variety trials related to Washtenaw County growing conditions. Two varieties were found to have better disease resistance and yields. Score says that as a result of the study, they will encourage farmers to use the superior varieties.
*In an effort to develop local uses for commodity grain, a study was conducted comparing ground soybeans’ suitability as a fertilizer. It was compared with phosphorus and non-phosphorus chemical fertilizers. Plots were fertilized based on nitrogen rates of four pounds nitrogen per 1000 sq. ft. Soybean meal was applied in a single application. Chemical fertilizers were split according to manufacturer recommendations. Score found that in terms of green-up, chemical fertilizers worked faster, but soybean treated plots were consistently rated equal or better after the first three weeks. Ground soybeans were also less expensive.

Value Added Ag: Silva, Seamon, Pennington, Griffith
Three new agents attended an in-service on alfalfa in Wisconsin and from this developed future programming that often comes from the opportunity for people to bond and find common interests. From this came a joint project on value added agriculture. Four agents, Kara Griffiths in Kent County, Dennis Pennington in Barry, George Silva in Eaton and Mark Seamon in Saginaw began a comprehensive approach to educating farmers on value added agriculture. Their emphasis is on teamwork, leadership, capital, quality, market/customer preferences and diversity on the farm. Innovative Farmer discussion groups were formed in three counties, training local leadership. This promoted interactive learning with small groups of farmers. They promoted a change from a commodity mind-set to a customer oriented value added concept. They developed a color brochure on the multi-county project, a newsletter, a web site, and a powerpoint presentation on a trip they took to the Red River Valley. They received matching funds of $1000 from the Barry County Community Foundation. They worked with the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, Corn Marketing Board, Eaton County Farm Bureau and Citizen’s Elevator in Potterville. They conducted the following meetings:
1. Grain marketing seminar, Jan. 21, 1999, reaching 55 in cooperation with the Eaton No-Till Club
2. Production Management decisions, Feb. 24, 99
3. Value Added Kick off Meeting, April 12, 1999 reaching 30 in cooperation with Citizen’s Elevator
4. Poultry co-op, April 21, 99, 21 attended, in cooperation with the Organic Egg Co-op, 3 farmers taught
5. Value Added Seminar, July 30, 99 reaching 24 with the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee, 4 farmers taught
6. Red River Valley Tour, Sept. 22, 18 traveled to N. Dakota, in cooperation with Farm Bureau.
This project is ongoing and will be followed through in the next PDP grant cycle.

Biological Control training for agents: Dr. Doug Landis
Dr. Doug Landis coordinates the MSU Biological Control Program and is on of our leading researchers in providing and promoting biological based information in a manner that agents and farmers find receptive. An example of this is his project, partially funded by SARE that provided the resources to develop a Natural Enemy Identification and Demonstration field day. By its organization and quality of materials, this project showed the work and dedication that went into the pre-planning of this training event. It was held on June 8, 1999, with the a.m. portion being for in class identification of beneficial insects. Dr. Landis and his graduate students prepared many stations for the agents to view, the many beneficial insect collections. This class had 27 agents from field crops, fruit, vegetable and home horticultural backgrounds. The afternoon session was an in-field presentation. The evaluation indicated a very strong positive response to this biological based view point on insect management and a unanimous encouragement for MSU to continue such sessions. One component of the session was a hands-on computer session to learn about web based resources on beneficial insects. Dr. Landis also created a web-based short course on biological control. For its debut, 8 people participated in this 6 week course. Topics were: Intro to biological control, Predators, Parasitoids, Pathogens and Using biological control.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
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. Teaching is the best way to learn, and all agents have at least taught 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 at their needs level, 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 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 a much earlier time in their career. This involvement will add to their credibility in the community and form close working relationships with producers and agribusiness.
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.