By Tyler Klein
An average field in Nebraska consists of 160 acres- a half-mile long by a half-mile wide. Precision equipment in production agriculture can ensure seeds are planted and fertilizers precisely applied, with less than an inch of error. This is one kind of improved efficiency that has benefited the agricultural sector in recent years.
Efficiency in all aspects of agriculture, not just production, needs to be increased in order to meet growing food demands.
"We're going to have to be able to provide more sustenance for a much larger population 50 years from now than we do today, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is poised with great scientists, facilities, and support from the administration to do exactly that," said Roch Gaussoin, the head of the UNL Department of Agronomy and Horticulture.
Food scarcity is being addressed from many angles at UNL.
"We have a lot of plant breeders in our department whose sole purpose is developing crops that perform better under adverse conditions," said Gaussoin. "These could possibly be for developing countries that might not have the resources or any of the other technology and support we have in developed countries."
By creating plants with tolerance to weather stresses, such as heat and drought, or pest stresses, producers in both Nebraska and developing countries will benefit.
"We can serve two needs. We can serve the producers of Nebraska. By the same token, we may have a product that can be sent to developing countries or other places where food is scarce, and production is limited," Gaussoin said.
Increasing efficiency in other areas
Even the process of breeding plants with these tolerant traits is becoming more efficient.
"A lot of people don't understand that in the past, it sometimes would take 15-20 years before genetic traits in a crop might be made into a viable product that somebody might be able to use. We're looking at that being accelerated with biotechnology and the capacity to identify traits in a much more precise, accurate, and efficient manner," said Gaussoin.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln recently received approval for a grant for a system that's going to be built on Nebraska Innovation Campus that can scan plants for certain characteristics- such as grain yield or drought hardiness- quickly and efficiently.
"We're going to be working with plant breeding traits on the molecular level all the way up to production," Gaussoin said. "Ultimately, those traits, or those characteristics, can be bred into a system and then released for use across not only the United States, but worldwide."
It takes the collaboration of many of the departments at UNL in order to produce the ultimate plant varieties, along with crops that carry a certain amount of nutritional value.
"The Daugherty Water for Food Institute is an example of an umbrella institute over the entire University of Nebraska campus involving biologists, plant breeders, and crop management specialists," Gaussoin said.
The term that the Daugherty Water for Food Institute (DWFI) uses to describe one of its goals is "more crop per drop." The researchers involved in the DWFI are finding ways to grow more food with less water by improving crop genetics and producers' management practices worldwide.
"We've come a long way from the idea that we can get more yield simply by putting on more fertilizer. We're better stewards of the land, primarily because of the practices that many farmers do today. They know that their legacy will be passed on to their children and their children's children," Gaussoin said.
Farmers have tried conserving nutrients and moisture in their soil by rotating crops and reducing the amount of tillage. If legumes, such as soybeans, are raised for one year between two corn crops, the soil's nitrogen level will be partially replenished for the next year's corn crop. Also, since soybeans generate less plant residue than corn, there is less of a need to till because there is less plant organic matter that has to be incorporated into the soil.
Researchers have come up with ways to improve efficiency even more.
"No-till or minimum-till operations have been widely adopted. They're also finding out now that the grazing of corn stover by beef is actually putting on more weight gain than they ever thought. Producers used to consider stover as a filler, but when you consider the new data, maybe there's a new way to increase efficiency," Gaussoin said.
One of the problems with no-till operations is that over a period of years, plant residue from previous crops begins to accumulate at increasing rates because it is not being incorporated into the soil. This means that decomposers, or microorganisms that break down dead materials, can only start breaking down residue at the surface.
Cutting edge technologies
Newer technologies currently are being implemented into farming practices to improve efficiency.
Small unmanned aircraft, or drones, can be used with infrared cameras to detect differences in plant colors. Differences in plant colors can be attributed to lack of nutrients or water. Maps can be generated from the information gathered from the drones and these maps can be read by fertilizer application machines. If there is a lack of nutrients in a certain part of the field, the maps will communicate with the machine that is applying fertilizer and the rate will be changed for that specific area. This allows nutrients to be conserved because they aren't applied where they are not needed and are applied adequately in areas where they are needed.
Continuing the efficiency through the land-grant mission
Research technology starts with molecular and genetic studies. It may not necessarily be anything that the producer can plant in the field, but that's always the foundation, or partially the foundation for the development of the end product, he said. The technology might be what the farmer can plant in the field or the increased efficiency of a harvesting device.
"The technology transfer is what's most important. The basis of where we started may not make sense to anybody but the select group of scientists or researchers that work on it, but ultimately it is that transfer of technology that's most important," said Gaussoin.
Technology transfer is included in the land-grant mission at UNL. This mission has three arms: education, research, and extension.
"The extension arm is what takes the research technology that's immediately usable, or almost immediately usable, and gets it in the producer's hands. So that transfer of technology is done via the extension process," he said.
"I really firmly believe that our department is poised and ready to meet the needs of the future population and that's primarily because of the support at the institute (UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources) level, as well as the university as a whole. It's not just me that's passionate about this," Gaussoin said. "I think most of the people in our department, as well as the Institute at large, are really passionate about what we do and that's as much of a driver as anything."
A Message From:
Facing the Global Food Challenge
A Place Without Limits: NU's Leading Role in Ag Innovation - J.B. Milliken
"Ag is Sexy Again" as Global Need for Food Increases- Ronnie Green
"Failure is Not an Option" in Addressing Global Food Scarcity- Archie Clutter
Dickey Reflects on Years as Dean of Extension- Elbert Dickey
Food Scarcity Information Dissemination Complex, Vital- Karen Cannon
Technology and Food
Nebraska- the Food Capital of the World?- Rolando Flores
Is a Fully-Sustainable World Within Reach?- Mark Burbach
Agricultural Efficiency Sustains Resources, Produces More- Roch Gaussoin
Technology, Teamwork and Stewardship Vital in Meeting 2050 Global Food Need- P. Stephen Baenziger
Protein Production Essential in Feeding the World- Matt Spangler
Nebraska's Irrigation Research Goes Global- William Kranz
The Plight of the Honey Bee- Marion Ellis
Society's Health Reflects Changing Food Culture- Georgia Jones and Marilynn Schnepf
Steps to Building a Healthier World- Jean Ann Fischer
Economics of Food
Ag Economists- Working to Assure Abundant, Safe Food- Larry Van Tassell
Global Food Scarcity, Distribution, Roadblocks- Dennis Conley
Global Economics Research Explains Food Scarcity Challenges- Lilyan Fulginiti
World Food Supply Adequate, but Poverty is the Problem- Wes Peterson
Ag Land Reflects Value of Growing Food for the Future- Bruce Johnson
A Land of Plenty- Exporting to the World Stan Garbacz- Stan Garbacz