Friday Feature:  Corn that Acquires Its Own Nitrogen

Friday Feature: Corn that Acquires Its Own Nitrogen

This week’s featured video was published by the University of California – Davis to share the results of a remarkable scientific discovery.  Researchers from UC Davis, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Mars, Incorporated have identified a native variety of Mexican corn that can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, instead of relying totally on synthetic fertilizers.

A public-private collaboration of researchers have identified varieties of tropical corn from Mexico, that can acquire a significant amount of the nitrogen they need from the air by cooperating with bacteria.  To do so, the corn secretes copious globs of mucus-like gel out of arrays of aerial roots along its stalk. This gel harbors bacteria that convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable by the plant, a process called nitrogen fixation. The corn can acquire 30 to 80 percent of its nitrogen in this way, but the effectiveness depends on environmental factors like humidity and rain.  Scientists have long sought corn that could fix nitrogen, with the goal of reducing the crop’s high demand for artificial fertilizers, which are energy intensive, expensive and polluting. Further research is required to determine if the trait can be bred into commercial cultivars of corn, the world’s most productive cereal crop.  Source: Corn that acquires its own nitrogen identified, reducing need for fertilizer

Thanks to Judy Biss, UF/IFAS Extension Calhoun County, for sending in this video to share.

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If you enjoyed this video, you might want to check out the featured videos from previous weeks:  Friday Features

If you come across an interesting or humorous video, or a new product innovation related to agriculture, please send in a link, so we can share it with our readers. Send video links to:  Doug Mayo

 

The Bumble Bee – One of Florida’s Vital Pollinators

The Bumble Bee – One of Florida’s Vital Pollinators

Bumble bees and other pollinators often visit the vast fields of cotton flowers in north Florida’s agricultural lands. Although cotton is mainly self-pollinating, pollination by bees can increase seed-set per cotton boll. Note the pollen grains stuck on each bee. Photo by Judy Biss

Bumble bees and other pollinators often visit the vast fields of cotton flowers in north Florida’s agricultural lands. Although cotton is mainly self-pollinating, pollination by bees can increase seed-set per cotton boll. Note the pollen grains stuck on each bee. Photo by Judy Biss

Bumble bees are among the most recognizable of insects. They are large, colorful, and a wonder to watch.  They’re also popularized in media, cartoons, and clip-art images, but beyond the popular images, bumble bees are worthy of our attention as important pollinators of both native plants and agricultural crops.  They are one of hundreds of pollinating bees that are critical to the abundance of our native lands, wildlife, and also our food supply.  Protection of pollinators has received national recognition and many programs are now geared towards pollinator conservation. 

Why is Pollinator Protection Important?

According to the UF/IFAS publication Minimizing Honey Bee Exposure to Pesticides:

The western honey bee is conceivably the most important pollinator in Florida and American agricultural landscapes. The honey bee is credited with approximately 85% of the pollinating activity necessary to supply about one-quarter to one-third of the nation’s food supply. Over 50 major crops in the United States and at least 13 in Florida either depend on honey bees for pollination or produce more abundantly when honey bees are plentiful.

And:

“Growers also use other managed bees species, such as the bumble bee to provide field and greenhouse crop pollination services. Additionally, there are more than 315 species of wild/unmanaged bees in Florida that play a role in the pollination of agricultural crops and natural and managed landscapes. These include mining bees, mason bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees, feral honey bees, and carpenter bees, among others.”

Pollinator Protection was formally recognized at the federal level in 2014, when the President of the United States signed an official memorandum entitled: Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators  which outlines specific steps to increase and improve pollinator habitat. These steps are geared towards protecting and restoring populations of not only honey bees, but native bees, birds, bats, and butterflies; all of which are vital to our nation’s economy, food production, and environmental health.

Bumble Bee Biology and Ecology

There is much to learn about these fascinating insects.  Here are some facts to feed your curiosity.  Additional resources are listed at the end of this article.

  • Bumble bees belong to the genus Bombus within the family Apidae. As such, they are related to honey bees, carpenter bees, cuckoo bees, digger bees, stingless bees, and orchid bees.
  • There are about 50 species of North American bumble bees.
  • Bumble bees are social and form colonies like honey bees do, but bumble bee colonies are smaller (50 – 500 individuals), and their colonies only last one season.
  • Bumble bees generally make their nests in the ground, using abandoned rodent cavities or under old tree roots, etc.
  • Each spring, a mated queen emerges from winter hibernation and finds a suitable underground cavity. She begins collecting nectar and pollen and laying eggs to build her colony.
  • By late summer and into fall, the only surviving member of the colony are new queens.
  • These queens mate and then they hibernate during winter 2-5 inches deep in the soil. The following spring these queens emerge and start new colonies, repeating the annual cycle.
  • Bumble bees are adapted to a wide range of environmental conditions and can forage in cooler, cloudier, and wetter weather better than other bees. Because of this adaptation, they are generally the first bees out in early spring and the last bees out in the fall.
  • Since bumble bees are adapted to a wide range of environmental conditions, they are also able to feed on a wide variety of flowering plants.
  • Bumble bees do make honey, but only enough to feed the colony during bad weather, when they are unable to go out and forage.
  • Bumble bees, like the blueberry bee collect pollen from certain flowers using a unique behavior called “buzz pollination,” or “sonication.” This behavior is not found in European honey bees. Some plants, blueberries for example, hold tightly to their tiny pollen.  Bumble bees and blueberry bees grab the flower structure and powerfully vibrate their wings while holding onto the flower.  Their whole body vibrates and literally shakes the pollen lose from the flower.
  • Bumble bees are so effective at pollinating important food crops, they are raised commercially and sold to pollinate produce such as tomatoes, peppers, cranberries, and strawberries.
Bumble bees busy at work on our native flowers. Photo by Travis MacClendon. Calhoun County Florida Wasps and Flies

Bumble bees busy at work on our native flowers. Photo by Travis MacClendon. Calhoun County Florida Wasps and Flies

Create Your Own Pollinator Pasture

You can help increase the abundance and health of bumble bees, other native pollinators, and honey bees by creating nectar and pollen rich bee pastures.  These pastures can be filled with annual plants, which grow from seed each year, perennial plants, which return and spread on their own each year, various flowering shrubs and trees, or any mixture of above. You can also manage existing natural areas and woodlands by employing recommended prescribed fire regimes, non-native invasive plant control, and other practices to encourage a diversity of native pollinator plants.

The ideal bee pasture is one in which flowers are blooming as continuously as possible throughout the year. Research shows bees thrive best in open sunny pastures that are as large as possible, with a diversity of plants types. While flowering shrubs along woodland edges are well used by bees, a bee pasture that is allowed to become dominated by trees and shade will become less attractive to bees. A dedicated, open, sunny pasture having nectar and pollen plant diversity is best.  Just as with any field you intend to plant, the first step is to collect a soil sample for analysis of existing nutrients and pH levels. (For more information on soil samples read the article Soil Test First!

Pollinator Plant Types

There are many plants that provide nutritious nectar and pollen for North Florida’s pollinators. Some examples of plants which are good pollinator food sources are maple trees, redbuds, poplars, gallberries, blackberries, palmettos, partridge pea, mint, thistles, goldenrod, asters, tickseeds, sunflowers, squash, melons, and clovers. If you purchase a bee pasture blend from a seed company, make sure it is suited for growing in North Florida and does not contain noxious, invasive, weedy plant species. The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council maintains a listing of documented invasive plants here: List of Invasive Plant Species.

Summary and Resources

The business, biology, and botany of pollination is fascinating and critical to sustainable and diverse food production in Florida and the United States. Bumble bees are just one of the many native pollinators that frequent our forests, fields, and gardens.  Consider turning your fallow lands or backyards into productive bee pasture and reap a sweet harvest.

For more information please see the resources used for this article below:

 

Southern Scientists are Collaborating to Develop Drought Resistant Turfgrasses

Southern Scientists are Collaborating to Develop Drought Resistant Turfgrasses

 

Teamwork is proving that the grass can be green on both sides of the fence, even in the absence of water! Dr. Kevin Kenworthy, Professor, University of Florida, discusses the SCRI Turf Breeding Project, at the Gulf Coast Turfgrass Expo and Field Day – Jay, FL

Bryan Unruh, UF/IFAS Turfgrass Specialist, WFREC

Urban landscapes, golf courses, and sports venues provide many functional, recreational, and aesthetic benefits. Key functional benefits of turfgrass include soil erosion control, carbon sequestration, ground water recharge, and heat dissipation in our cities, that are becoming increasingly covered with concrete and asphalt. Recreational activities on natural turfgrass lead to improved health as children and adults participate in community sports, or spend time maintaining their landscapes. Similarly, a well-kept and properly managed landscape is pleasing to the eye, increases property values, and leads to community pride and ownership. The value of turfgrass to the economy is well documented. Landscape maintenance expenditures and tourism contribute significantly to Florida’s economy.

However, as population grows and water availability for irrigating turfgrass becomes more limited, the resulting policies on water restrictions, and public opinion impact turfgrass production, and the performance of installed turf, posing challenges to the turfgrass industry. To address these concerns, some policy makers have even considered eliminating turf from new construction. However, the ecosystem trade-offs of removing turf are not well understood, and may create more serious consequences.

To address turfgrass water use related issues, a 24-member team of turfgrass breeders, extension specialists, plant physiologists, irrigation engineers, molecular biologists, and agricultural socio-economists from five major universities across the southern U.S. in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas are collaborating together to learn more about turfgrass water use, and to develop grasses that require less irrigation. Funding for this effort stems from the team receiving two United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grants totaling over $8 million. In the initial project, conducted from 2010-2015, the team exchanged and evaluated nearly 2,000 experimental germplasm accessions, and identified 140 advanced lines for short-term drought stress – 40 each of bermudagrass, zoysiagrass and St. Augustinegrass, and 20 seashore paspalum. Additionally, the majority of these lines were screened for salinity responses, since poor water quality (i.e., salinity) will be an increasing problem in the future.

SCRI Turf Breeding Team at their semi-annual planning meeting held this past summer in College Station, TX.

In 2015, a second project was funded that will allow further evaluation of the 140 advance lines identified in the first project. These grasses will be further vetted under differing drought/irrigation scenarios of long-term drought common to Texas and Oklahoma, versus short-term drought common to Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Additionally, shade and salinity assessments will be conducted along with identifying production practices that may limit the acceptance of these improved grasses in the marketplace. The team is also studying socio-economic measures to determine factors that influence producer pricing and consumer demand for improved turfgrasses. Finally, a comprehensive Extension outreach plan is in place to educate, promote and inform end-users of the environmental and economic impacts of newly developed cultivars. Additionally, demonstration landscapes are being installed in each state through partnering extension specialists and agents with industries and government agencies.

Dr. Kevin Kenworthy speaks to the attendees about the SCRI Turf Breeding project at the North Central Florida Turfgrass Field Day in Citra, FL.

Cultivars released from this team effort and include: ‘TamStar’ St. Augustinegrass, ‘TifTuf’ Bermudagrass, ‘Tahoma 31’ Bermudagrass, ‘CitraBlue’ St. Augustinegrass, with several forthcoming zoysiagrasses.

The synergistic approach of this project will avoid duplication of research efforts and capitalize the genetic diversity for developing environmentally sustainable turfgrasses with wider geographical adaptation and broader regional impacts. This CAPs project will significantly increase the productivity, sustainability, and the economic gain of both the individual state turfgrass programs, and the overall turfgrass industry.

For additional information, visit the SCRI Turf Breeding Effort website,or follow the team on Twitter @SCRITURF.

 

USDA Researching New Test to Determine Nitrogen Levels in Soil

USDA Researching New Test to Determine Nitrogen Levels in Soil

Surface soil is sampled in a field in Virginia while in winter cover crop, but that will be planted to corn in the spring. Photo by Alan Franzluebbers, USDA/ARS

Sharon Durham, ARS Office of Communications

Nitrogen is the main nutrient added to cereal crops like corn, which makes them grow faster and stronger. But too much of a good thing could sometimes have negative outcomes. Too much nitrogen can run off with rainwater or leach through to soil and contaminate groundwater. Now, a simple, rapid and reliable test can determine the nitrogen amount in soil.

For corn growers, the current assumption is that corn grain requires 1.2 pounds of nitrogen applied for every bushel produced. This works for some soils, but not exactly for others, as the assumption doesn’t factor in nitrogen from soil organic matter. Knowing the soil’s potential to mineralize nitrogen from organic matter, making it available to plants, would help improve nitrogen fertilizer recommendations, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ecologist Alan Franzluebbers, lead investigator of this research.

A series of experiments published in Soil Science Society of America Journal studied the effectiveness of this quick and inexpensive approach that can tell a farmer prior to the growing season how much nitrogen will be available by testing a soil sample. In the first experiment, Franzluebbers, with Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Plant Science Research Unit in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his colleagues illustrated how soil nitrogen mineralization can be predicted with a three-day analysis of soil-test biological activity (STBA).

Soil is not an inert, dead plot of dirt; it contains many living organisms that enhance the soil’s ability to make nutrients available to plants. Insects, bacteria and fungi play a part in making soil valuable for crop production. The STBA measures how much “life” is contained in soil and how much usable nitrogen is in soil.

In the second experiment, Molly Pershing, a graduate student under Dr. Franzluebbers’ guidance, conducted greenhouse trials to determine if higher levels of STBA actually equated to plant uptake of nitrogen from soil. The researchers found that indeed greater STBA was associated with greater plant nitrogen uptake. Greenhouse-grown plants were not supplied any nutrients other than what was present in soil. More than three-fourths of the plant nitrogen uptake was from organic nitrogen that had to be mineralized, which was well predicted by the STBA level.

In the third experiment, Franzluebbers asked farmers to participate in the research. Forty-seven fields were sampled in the spring for STBA. On those fields, different rates of nitrogen fertilizer were applied to test which was most effective in optimizing corn yield. The higher the STBA level—indicating a large amount of “life” in the soil—the lower the need for additional nitrogen. The lower the STBA level, the greater the need for additional nitrogen.

Adding too little nitrogen can lead to a smaller harvest—costing farmers the opportunity to make more money. Adding too much nitrogen costs farmers money in unnecessary input to soil. Applying nitrogen at the correct levels can optimize yield and profit while keeping excess nutrients out of rivers, lakes and groundwater. Using STBA, corn growers now have a preseason test that can more accurately determine the proper amount of nitrogen to apply for economically optimum yield.

Financial Assistance for Farmers Who Implement BMPs

Financial Assistance for Farmers Who Implement BMPs

Producers in the Florida Panhandle can receive financial assistance from multiple agencies to defer the cost of implementing Best Management Practices on-farm, such as improving irrigation efficiency. Photo credit: Ethan Carter.

 

Farmers and ranchers have implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs) that maintain or improve water quality, quantity and soil conditions on their lands for many years. Although BMPs are designed to be technically feasible and economically viable, implementing BMPs can be expensive for producers, and some practices may not be financially viable for all. Multiple agencies in our region recognize this and offer financial assistance to defer the cost of implementing BMPs.

In most areas of the Panhandle, implementation of BMPs is still voluntary, but for producers in an area with a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), such as the Jackson Blue Springs/Merritts Mill Pond Basin, BMP implementation and verification is required.

Financial Assistance to Implement BMPs

The following agencies continually offer financial assistance for producers in our region to implement agricultural BMPs.

USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

NRCS offers financial assistance for farmers through two programs: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Staff at NRCS work with farmers and ranchers to develop a conservation plan to address particular on-farm resource concerns. Depending on the objectives of the farmer, these plans can include ways to reduce erosion and improve soil conditions, improve nutrient management and water quality, increase water-use efficiency and/or improve wildlife habitat.

The conservation plan outlines activities or practices to reach these objectives and NRCS will provide technical and financial assistance to help carry out these practices.  For example, NRCS will provide financial assistance for exclusion fences for cattle around streams or wetlands as well as assistance for alternative watering systems, such as watering tanks, pipelines and solar wells. Other examples of what they help finance include cross-fencing for improved grazing management, soil sampling for improved nutrient management, irrigation retrofits, waste storage facilities for dairies, tree planting and forest stand improvement, and nesting boxes for wildlife. These are just a few examples – there are many more!

Financial assistance is provided at a flat rate for a particular practice (for example, per foot for fencing, per acre for weed treatment, per item for a well or a nesting box, etc.). In general, they do not offer financial assistance to purchase equipment.

Contact information:

For more information on available NRCS funding and how to apply, contact your local NRCS office. In the Panhandle, these contacts are found on the Florida Area 1 Directory.   Applications for financial assistance are accepted year-round with batching deadlines in November.

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS)

FDACS also offers cost-share funds to producers so that they can effectively implement BMPs on-farm. Unlike NRCS, funding is largely (but not exclusively) for equipment purchases. They will fund up to 75% of the cost of equipment, which they then reimburse the producer once an item is purchased.

Funding falls under three broad BMP categories: (1) nutrient management, (2) irrigation management and (3) water resources protection. Examples of equipment and other items that FDACS will cost share include no-till grain drills and GPS guidance systems to reduce soil loss and improve nutrient management. To improve irrigation efficiency they provide funding for irrigation retrofits, nozzle packages, smart irrigation control panels and soil moisture sensors. To protect water resources, they, like NRCS, provide financial assistance for cattle exclusion fences and solar wells so ranchers can have alternative water sources for their animals.  These are just a few examples of the equipment that can be purchased through the FDACS  cost-share program.  It is important for producers to work with their local FDACS field technician to determine which BMP practices are feasible on their operation. To receive cost-share funds, producers have to have been in production for at least one year and they must be enrolled in the BMP Program.

Contact information:

Contact your local FDACS field technician for more information on available cost-share funding and how to apply. Applications are accepted year-round.

The Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD)

The NWFWMD’s cost-share program for producers is focused on improving water quality and increasing water-use efficiency in the Jackson Blue Springs Basin. To be eligible for funding, farming operations have to be located within the spring basin and producers must be enrolled in the FDACS BMP Program. Under the current BMP grant program, the district is accepting cost-share applications year-round, through September 2019.

Funding is available to cost share up to 75% of BMPs such as irrigation system retrofits, pump upgrades (high to low pressure), remote control systems for irrigation, control panel upgrades, endgun controls, fertigation systems, and other precision agriculture tools.

Contact information:

For more information about the NWFWMD’s cost share program, please contact Linda Chaisson by phone at (850) 539-5999 or by email at Linda.Chaisson@nwfwater.com. To find out if your farming operation falls within the Jackson Blue Springs Basin, the district’s BMP website provides links to a street view map and an aerial view map of the basin, as well as additional information about the BMP program.

The three agencies listed above are not the only entities offering financial assistance for BMP implementation in our region. Interested producers can also receive cost-share funds from the FDACS’s Office of Energy to improve energy efficiency on-farm. Other organizations may also receive grants to help producers defer the costs of BMPs, and as we at UF/IFAS Extension hear about these opportunities, we will work to get that information out to you.

 

Friday Feature:  Shenandoah Dairy Video Farm Tour

Friday Feature: Shenandoah Dairy Video Farm Tour

This week’s featured video was produced by Florida Dairy Farmers.  The Florida Association of County Agricultural Agents (FACAA) toured Shenandoah Dairy, as part of their Mid-Year Meeting this week.  I was fortunate enough to see this amazing farming operation in person.  Through the following video, Ed Henderson, Shenandoah Dairy, Live Oak, FL provides a video tour of one Florida’s most technologically advanced dairy farms.  Shenandoah Dairy milks 3,500 cows that produce 36,000 gallons of milk each day.  In the video, he shares the innovative calf rearing system they have developed for raising baby calves in groups, as well as what Ed calls the “Cow Hilton,” their climate controlled loafing barns. Using automated fans and misters they can cool their loafing barns 15° below the outside air temperatures in the heat of the day.  They have also developed a sustainable farming system that recycles nutrients and water from their loafing barns and milk parlor to produce fertilizer for the crops that feed their cows.  This is not your Great Grandpa’s dairy.  Through this video, you can tour one of Florida’s most impressive dairy farms.

 

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If you enjoyed this video, you might want to check out the featured videos from previous weeks:  Friday Features

If you come across an interesting or humorous video related to agriculture, please send in a link, so we can share it with our readers. Send video links to:  Doug Mayo