Small grain producers in Montana share similar crop, pest, conservation and marketing concerns with other producers around the Pacific Northwest. To better serve Montana clientele and provide research based information Montana State University Extension agents and specialists toured Eastern Washington agriculture June 5-9, 2013. Tour stops in Eastern Washington included stops at Washington State University research farms, and private minimum and no-till farms, visits with grain cooperatives as well as a tour of an oilseed facility. This tour was made possible through a grant provided by a WSARE grant.
The majority of M.S.U. Extension agents in the Golden Triangle had less than three years experience as Extension professionals at the time of the tour. Additionally, these agents were not trained in classic agronomy programs but came from a mixture of undergraduate and graduate programs. These professionals needed additional training to assist small grain producers with sustainable crop and pest management practices as well as provide training on marketing concepts that stabilize farm income.
It is accepted by many that the best way for adults to learn is by in-field demonstrations and practices. By teaching Extension educators about sustainable cropping practices already being implemented they can better assist their clientele in putting new ideas into practice.
Common problems between the two states and their cropping systems included diseases and pests in cereal and pulse crops, minimum and no-till practices, and marketing of those crops.
Marketing crops in the Golden Triangle area of north-central Montana, especially outside of cereal grains has increased in the past approximately five years with many more growers turning to rotations between cereals, pulses and oilseeds. Marketing opportunities for some of these commodities remains challenging with great distances often required to get certain commodities to a market location. Exposing Extension professionals to innovative marketing programs and opportunities that they in turn could take to their clientele was a chief objective of the crop tour schedule of events.
The Golden Triangle region of north-central Montana accounts for much of the small grain production of the state. Within the past decade pulse and oilseed crops have begun to be more incorporated into traditional no-till, crop-chemical fallow rotations. While becoming more prevalent these pulse and oilseed crops are still a small part of the typical rotation. No-till production in Washington State has successfully included these crops, which increase soil quality and productivity.
The adoption of no-till small grain production is widespread in the Golden Triangle. However, the incorporation of rotation crops such as pulses and oilseeds is not as prevalent. Producers cited challenges of herbicide selection, residue management, and marketing as reasons not to include rotation crops. Research has illustrated that the inclusion of rotation crops contributes to soil health, nutrient return, and the reduction of insects, weeds and diseases.
Creating a sustainable production system requires an understanding of pest biology as well soil health. Nutrient requirements and how to manage rotational crops in a nutrient efficient manner is paramount to sustainability. Researchers contributing to nutrient and pest management are turning more and more to remote sensing as ways to insure healthy soils and combat disease and pest problems.
The inclusion of rotational crops also expands the sustainability of a production system and creates opportunities for growers to market themselves better. Cooperatives, such as were found in Washington, illustrated that the ability of farmers to market sustainable agricultural practices wider than they could have by themselves.
Grower adoption of sustainable production practices is often based on the successful implementation of said practices. On-farm research projects initiated by growers are an excellent method of encouraging the adoption of new production practices. Research on display aids growers and Extension professionals alike as they work together to discover viable solutions to production issues.
In order to help further educate Montana growers about the positive effects of no-till crop rotations, nutrient and pest management as well as the positive benefits of marketing it was first necessary to educate Montana State University Extension professionals.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
Twelve M.S.U. Extension professionals participated in the field tour sponsored through Western SARE funds. Nine participants were M.S.U. Extension agents, one an Extension specialist and two were Montana Agricultural Experiment Station researchers. At the outset of the tour pre-trip evaluations were used and then similar evaluations were used post-trip. Eight topics representing areas to be addressed by the tour were evaluated. Participants rated knowledge before as “None, Low, Average or Broad.” These descriptors were assigned numerical figures for evaluation purposes as follows: None = 0; Low = 1; Average = 2; Broad = 3. Average level of knowledge across all topics and individuals was 1.86, or just under Average knowledge before the trip. At the conclusion, the same participants rated their knowledge at 2.47 or Average to Broad, indicating knowledge was gained by their participation.
M.S.U. Extension professionals met with researchers located at the Washington State University Cook Agronomy Farm to participate in on-farm demonstrations. Information covered at the research farm included soil pathogens, remote sensing, fertilizer budgeting and research, herbicide resistance of crop weeds, and direct seeding. Extension professionals were given the opportunity to take the knowledge they gained from researchers and use it as they toured a nearby no-till farm subsequent to the research demonstrations. Understanding how topics discussed made real-time decisions on farms possible allowed Extension professionals to better understand challenges that growers may face. Specifically, understanding how remote sensing and soil pH mapping technologies worked allowed Extension professionals to understand how sustainability can increase in today’s farmlands. Knowing what inputs are needed in certain locations allows growers to spend resources and time in other areas which may enhance the future of agriculture. Knowledge of dryland cropping and no-till cropping production challenges before the tour by Extension professionals was cited as being low. After on-farm demonstrations and practicums Extension professionals cited average to broad knowledge of subject matter.
Extension professionals also toured long-term no-till area growers that used extensive testing and knowledge of soil moisture, soil nutrient mapping and crop rotations to run sustainable agricultural operations. Extension professionals had low to average knowledge of dryland crop rotations before the tour but expressed average to broad based knowledge about the subject matter after the tour of no-till area farms.
As evidenced by production practices by Washington growers, on-farm research is mutually beneficial for growers and researchers alike. On-farm research projects initiated by growers encourage others to adopt new production practices. Researchers located at the W.S.U. Wilke Research and Extension Farm take advantage of grower initiated research and work on research on a farm wide scale. A current research topic focuses on wireworm control, something that is becoming a significant pest in Montana and eastern Washington cereal crops. M.S.U. Extension professionals had a wide range of experiences with wireworms and other crop pests from none to average knowledge. After the tour of the Wilke Research Farm the same Extension professionals expressed an average to broad understanding, not only about wireworm biology but how other crop insect pests impacted growers.
As previously mentioned, marketing of crops can be a significant challenge to growers in north central Montana. Outside of traditional cereal crops and within the past five years, pulse crops, many growers are limited in their crop rotations by market availability and prohibitive costs, especially with oilseed crops.
Extension professionals met with Shepherd’s Grain, a Washington based farmer cooperative, which markets red spring wheat flour directly to bakers and growers. The flour is sold at an agreed price calculated by a third party that accounts for producing the grain in a sustainable manner. Extension agents and specialists overall had a low knowledge of niche ag marketing opportunities and ag marketing in general before the tour. Evaluations after the fact showed Extension agents and specialist with average to broad knowledge of the subject matter. Learning about how a farmer cooperative such as Shepherd’s Grain worked to create a separate brand from typical commodity markets can potentially help Montana producers overcome market disadvantages that exist currently.
Oilseed production in the Golden Triangle of Montana, as mentioned, has not been able to gain a strong toehold due to marketing issues, despite the fact that oilseed production in a similar climate in southern Alberta is booming. A tour of a canola pressing facility in Washington by the group acquainted Extension professionals with additional marketing opportunities for growers in Montana as well as introduced the facility to Extension resources in Montana that would open up a sustainable and long term market. This would also produce more crop sustainability as crop rotations became more varied to fill market needs.
Overall, twelve Extension associated educators and researchers learned how growers in eastern Washington have successfully implemented production and marketing practices. Additionally, as a result of this tour, they learned how Extension, research and growers work together to adopt sustainable agronomic practices. Extension professionals on the tour have been able to reach an estimated audience over 300-400 growers since the conclusion of the tour through grower education meetings, social media and face to face contacts.
- M.S.U. Extension Agents examining hillside farming practices in eastern Washington
- Montana State University Extension agents and specialists prepare to embark on a tour of eastern Washington agriculture.
- Extension agents examine a pea crop in north central Washington state.
- Extension agents examine the seed pods of central Washington canola.
- Large scale soil sampling demonstration
- M.S.U. Extension agents and specialists visiting soil fertlity research plots at Washington State University.
- North Central Washington grower’s describe the challenges of dryland canola to M.S.U. Extension agents
- Extension agents examining soil moisture in a no-till practice.
- An eastern Washington no-till grower demonstrates his soil probe.
- Eastern Washington topography and agriculture examined by M.S.U. Extension agent.
The tour portion of the grant was considered to be successful, based on several factors. According to survey results the most knowledge was gained by agents with 0-2 years of experience. In general participants felt they came away with a “Broad” level of experience. It appears that the largest change in knowledge cam in niche marketing opportunities showing changes across all experience levels.