By Paul Hollis
Cost and efficiency are high on the list of concerns for Alabama farmers and equally high on the list of priorities for Auburn University researchers.
The Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station’s Production Agriculture Research, or PAR, grants program, now in its second year, is committed to finding timely solutions to problems that prevent the state’s farmers from being profitable.
Administered through the AAES with USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch funding and matching state appropriations, the PAR program is funding nine research projects this year, with a total commitment of $446,138.
“These projects address needs identified by farmers, commodity groups and other agricultural stakeholders in Alabama, and cost and efficiency are at the top of everyone’s list,” said Henry Fadamiro, associate dean for research for the College of Agriculture and associate director of the AAES.
Among those stakeholders is the Alabama Farmers Federation, the state’s largest farm organization.
“I am excited that Auburn University is continuing this effort to address real-world production challenges and opportunities for Alabama farmers and timber owners,” said Brian Hardin, director of governmental and agricultural programs for the federation and a member of the PAR proposal review panel.
The projects selected for funding show the diversity of the state’s agriculture and the issues that need to be addressed across all areas, Hardin said.
“Alabama farmers are fortunate to have the expertise of these researchers at Auburn University and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station,” he said. “Even more though, we are fortunate that the administration and faculty are paying attention to how they can help people be profitable on their farms and land. That is the ultimate mission of the land-grant university.”
The grants program is a first of its kind for the AAES, in that it focuses specifically on production agriculture, Fadamiro said. Last year, the program supported 15 projects, with a total commitment of $622,000.
Many of the two-year, $50,000 PAR grants support combined research and extension projects that address current farming problems in a timely manner through applied research..
“This is an opportunity for College of Agriculture and AAES faculty to work on solving or providing immediate solutions to production challenges,” Fadamiro said.
For central Alabama’s fledgling new kiwifruit industry, a serious concern is winter freeze damage in young orchards.
“Winter freeze injury is not a significant problem on mature vines, but vines have proven to be susceptible in the establishment phase,” said Jay Spiers, Department of Horticulture associate professor and lead kiwifruit researcher. “This issue has deterred us from establishing cultivar trials and small commercial plantings throughout the region.”
Currently, producers use overhead sprinklers and/or microsprinklers for freeze protection, and, while that works for spring frosts, it is not a good control option during hard winter freezes. In his PAR project, Spiers will test the efficacy of several different trunk protection strategies for winter freeze protection.
He will present his results at grower and scientific meetings, where it will be applicable for kiwifruit and citrus producers and other stakeholders faced with management decisions on winter freeze protection.
In another new PAR initiative, the Alabama Animal Waste and Nutrient Management team at Auburn, the Alabama Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Soil and Water Conservation Committee will work together to find ways to improve on-farm phosphorus management and minimize phosphorus runoff.
While applying manure to agricultural lands can improve soil health and promote nutrient cycling, phosphorus mismanagement can lead to eutrophication of waterbodies and jeopardize their designated use.
“We will evaluate phosphorus retention and release rates of Alabama soils under different management practices and determine the ability of soil to act as source or sink of phosphorus to the environment,” said project leader Rishi Prasad, extension animal-systems environmental specialist, and Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences assistant professor.
The project also aims to develop a soil test–based decision support tool for assessing the risk of environmental phosphorus loss from agricultural lands.
Another PAR grant project, looks to stem economic losses from reduced animal gain and reproductive performance in endophyte-infected tall fescue forage systems. The fungus costs the U.S. beef industry more than $1 billion per year.
Study leader Kim Mullenix, Department of Animal Sciences extension assistant professor, said endophyte-infected tall fescue is the predominant perennial forage ecotype in north Alabama and the Black Belt region, where more than 60 percent of Alabama beef operations are located.
“As tall fescue matures during the early summer months, the endophyte produces high levels of ergovaline, a plant chemical compound that has negative impacts on animal performance,” she said. “Alternative forage systems are needed to improve animal production potential and extend the grazing season in regions otherwise dominated by cool-season species.”
In her two-year grazing project at the Black Belt Research and Extension Center in Marion Junction, Mullenix will determine the forage production, nutritive value and animal performance characteristics of alternative warm-season grasses in replacement-heifer production systems.
Meanwhile, School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences professor Terry Hanson will be leading a project to solve the Alabama catfish industry’s big-fish problem.
“For some time now, there has been a surplus of big catfish, or fish greater than 4 pounds in pond inventories for which catfish processors have been unable to identify a viable market,” Hanson said.
Subsequently, processors are paying half price for fish between 4 to 6 pounds and nothing for fish larger than 6 pounds, resulting in lost revenue for commercial catfish farms.
“Our research seeks to determine the cost of different management strategies toward long-term management of the big-fish problem in the Alabama aquaculture industry,” he said. “Catfish aging techniques will be employed to determine the age of different size classes of fish in commercial ponds to provide much needed information on harvest efficiency.”
Data from the study will provide management solutions towards solving the big-fish problem, he said.
The titles of and lead investigators on the five remaining projects that received 2018 PAR grants follow.
- Derive “double cash” from trash: Co-production of single-cell protein as aquafeed along with the lactic acid production from paper mill sludge: Yi Wang, assistant professor, Department of Biosystems Engineering, $50,000.
- Assessment of profitability of irrigation in crop production and acreage expansion in Alabama: Denis Nadolnyak, associate professor, Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, $50,000.
- Evaluation of summer annual forage mixtures for grazing and baleage production in Alabama: Leanne Dillard, assistant professor, Department of Animal Sciences and Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences, $49,983.
- Agrometeorological monitoring and forecasting for sustainable water and agronomic management: Di Tian, Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences, $49,975.
- Value-added building blocks from locally abandoned biomass for advanced food packaging materials, Maria Soledad-Peresin, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, $49,762.The 2018 PAR grant call for proposals included several improvements that were based on feedback from stakeholders.
“In their grant proposals for this year, we specifically asked faculty members to consider project outcomes and impacts,” Fadamiro said. “We also asked for stakeholder involvement in developing the projects. We didn’t want faculty thinking about projects in a vacuum, so we asked them to work with stakeholders from the conception of the project, and we requested letters of support from stakeholders.”
In addition, projects that will be based at one of the 15 AAES outlying research units required letters of support from the unit director.
These changes, Fadamiro said, raised the quality of all proposals received.
“Almost all the proposals submitted this year could have been funded had the dollars been available, because they all were specific and relevant to the goals of the program.”