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Summer Wrap Up

My plan for this last blog post is to fill in some missing details and provide a final reflection of my summer working for the Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab.

Over the course of the summer, I have been writing about specific experiments that I had been involved in. However, there were other projects that I was involved in. Early in the summer, our lab aided the Cornell small farm program on a tillage experiment. This project was very memorable for our lab because it involved transplanting 20,000 cabbages by hand over three days. The experiment was testing the effect of different combinations of tillage and above ground applications. There were three above ground applications: mulch, compost, and no application. The tillage treatments were different intensifications of tillage. While we were only involved in the three days of planting, after harvest I did get to have some of the cabbages.


Over the course of the semester, I worked a lot with the Laurie Drinkwater Lab. I worked collecting biomass samples and processing samples for one of the Phd candidates, Emily Reiss. I also weeded plots for another grad student in the Drinkwater lab, Bryan Emmett.

Overall, I loved working for the Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab. Coming from a vegetable production background, I was able to learn so much more about grain production and cover crop management. I have also learned how a work environment can make a job. The Ryan Lab was made up of amazing people. As the leader of the lab, Matt Ryan, he set the tone. He emphasized how we should be using our time at the lab as a learning experience. Our lab manager, Chris, and research technician, Sandra, who we also called mom and dad, were incredible. They gave us the independence to work on certain projects. They answered so many of our questions and made the monotonous tasks fun. The grad students, Jeff Liebert, Margaret Ball, Connor Youngerman, Kiera Crowley, and Ann Bybee-Finley always made us feel appreciated which made coming to work every day that much better. In all, there were about 8 research assistants including myself. With so many different characters, it was a very entertaining summer. I think the combination of the people I was working with and the research we were involved in led me to gain a sense of pride in the lab and in my work.



Lastly, I have enjoyed the summer so much that I will continue to work for the Cornell
Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab through the semester. I encourage anyone who has been interested in my summer work or who is interested in working for Matt Ryan’s Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab to contact me.

MOSS (Musgrave Organic Soybean Silage)

  The last experiment I worked on was the Musgrave Organic Soybean Silage (MOSS) experiment. The head person on this project was a new grad student, Kiera Crowley. The experiment aims to compare different winter cereal management in corn and soybean rotation. The winter cereal used in all of the management experiments was cereal rye. There are four different winter cereal management’s being tested in this experiment: a no-till with the cereal rolled and crimped, a plow down, a management where the rye is cut for silage and what’s left gets plowed under, and a no cover crop management. Kiera plans on running multiple tests on the experiment to see if these different managements are having any effect. I helped execute soil property tests and water infiltration tests. In addition to that, Kiera is analyzing weed suppression and yield.

From the last post, you can see that I have done some soil sampling before. We took sixteen samples from each plot and there are twelve plots. We took these samples in order to analyze the soil properties. Bigger soil core samplers were used so we could examine aggregate stability. Four samples were taken from each plot. When taking the soil cores for aggregate stability, it was a more challenging and time-intensive process than regular soil sampling. The soil core had to be 6 inches and the diameter of the sampler was greater than 2 inches. In order to get the sampler down 6 inches, it took force and some finagling. After taking the sample out of the ground, we had to be careful not to disturb the soil too much. The test was for aggregate stability which is a factor of soil structure, so the less disruption of the soil structure, the better. All the soil was taken back to the lab for processing. The processing of the samples dealt with chemistry. I was able to help with some of the processing of the mineralizable carbon test. Kiera had done all of the prep work and my job was just to extract the mineralizable carbon.

The second piece of the experiment I worked on was the water infiltration tests. The water infiltrometer is a device used to measure the water infiltration (the process by which water flows into the soil).


Base of the Infiltrometer


Infiltrometer all ready to go


Recording results from Infiltrometer









Infiltrometers let you fix a rate of water dispersal onto soil. Infiltrometers can be used different ways depending on what you are looking for. We were interested in time until runoff. This involved recording the height of the water in the infiltrometer every minute. This way you can find the rate for each minute and can check to make sure it is staying consistent. This process is continued until there is runoff. After runoff had occurred, we recorded the amount of water that was used and the time it took to runoff. Working with the water infiltrometers was a very interesting and educational experience. The first time we tried to do water infiltration it didn’t go as planned. The rate is meant to stay consistent the whole time. While we had some successful infiltrations, during many of the infiltrations the rate kept decreasing and with some we never got runoff. We weren’t even able to finish all of the plots and this is very important because all of the samples should be taken within the same day. After some clarification and advice from a few people, we made some adjustments. The second time running the water infiltration tests were much more successful. The rates were staying consistent and we were able to finish within one day.

Organic Cropping Systems (OCS)

Organic Cropping Systems (OCS) is a study comparing four different organic cropping systems. The four different systems are a high fertility system, low fertility system, enhanced weed management system, and reduced tillage system.  The experiment is headed by several people. The head person in our lab is Brian Caldwell. All the work that I have done has been on a sub-experiment within the OCS experiment. This experiment is run by Margaret Ball, one of the grad students in our lab. From this point when I mention OCS, I will be talking about Margaret’s sub-experiment. Margaret’s experiment compares weed suppression, weed community composition, weed-crop competition and effect of nutrient addition among soybean in all four systems.

Weeds are a major problem for organic growers since organic systems exclude the use of conventional herbicides. By exploring these four organic cropping systems Margaret can examine which system is best at managing the effects of weed competition or which systems that are more conducive for soybean resilience  For example, last year the experiment saw results that suggested the low fertility system was most favorable for soybeans because of competitive yield, good weed suppression, and low input costs.


Picture of a system plot. For example 1.1A, 1.1B, 1.3B, etc. (refer to map)

OCS plot map

Picture of a plot map and treatments. Each rectangle represents a system plot. Each little rectangle within the system plot represents a subplot with a specific treatment.









The OCS experiment is where my work has been the most diverse. Here is a list of what I have worked on so far:


1)We first measured out where the soybeans were going to be planted in the experiment.

2) The individual treatments(subplots) needed to be measured out. Soybean rows had already been planted and were starting to emerge from the soil. In all there were six treatments (excluding the control treatment). The six treatments were:

  • Sodium nitrate application
  • Triple Phosphate application
  • Weed-free (hand-weed leaving soybeans only)
  • Weedy (add weed seeds and avoid cultivation)
  • Surrogate (add millet, hand-weed leaving soybean and millet, and avoid cultivation)
  • Monocrop (add millet, hand-weed leaving millet only, and avoid cultivation)

Example of the differences among subplots. At the bottom left corner is the Surrogate subplot, next is the Monocrop subplot, then the Weedy subplot, and lastly the Weed free plot.


3)After the treatment plots had been measured out we broadcasted the millet seed, weed seed, and fertilizers. The Millet plots were designed to create consistent competitive pressure for the soybeans between all systems. The weed seed was planted to show the effect of having a high density of weeds.

4)Soil samples were taken from plots to compare the soil properties among each system.


Taking soil samples.


5) Due to improper germination, millet had to be replanted. When we replanted millet we planted it in rows instead of broadcasting because it makes it easier to differentiate between millet and other grasses like Foxtail.

6) Weekly weeding of weed free plots.

7) Lastly, we took weed and soybean biomass samples. In my first post I talked about biomass sampling. The process was very similar in this experiment. Within the quadrat we identified and counted the weed species and counted how many soybeans were present.

Kernza: Grain of The Future?

Our introductory lab meeting was the first time I had heard about Kernza. It was spoken of with such enthusiasm and excitement; however, I didn’t fully understand why. After working on our Kernza experiment and doing some research, I now emulate that same enthusiasm.

Kernza is a perennial grain that was developed by the land institute in Kansas. Like I’ve mentioned there has been tremendous excitement about the idea of a perennial grain. Since the grain is perennial, it can grow throughout the year with roots that can survive the winter. Other grains, for example, corn and wheat (annual crops), have to be planted each year. This is important because crops that are replanted each year often require more fertilizer and pesticide application. Also, in order for annual crops to be planted, the ground must be tilled. As I discussed in my last post, tillage is a damaging practice to soil health. Kernza does not require tillage because it doesn’t need to be replanted each year, therefore improving soil health. What is also unique about Kernza is the large root system it possesses. This allows kernza to better acclimate to changes in the environment. The larger root system also helps avert soil erosion which has become a huge issue in agriculture. Soil erosion also leads to the runoff of nitrogen into waterways which have caused events like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Scientist that developed Kernza also believe it can sequester carbon. I find this aspect to be very exciting because not only will Kernza be improving soil health, but it could also potentially help against global climate change.


Graphic comparing the root depths of Kernza and Wheat. Kernza is on the right and Wheat is on the left.


While this crop is very exciting there are still some kinks to work out. First, The grain produces a smaller yield than other grains which has some doubting its economic viability. Second, domesticated grains such as wheat have been bred to be shatterproof, meaning the seeds stay on the stem of the plant. As of now, Kernza still shatters leading to a potential decrease in yield. Lastly, the use of the grain is still being fine tuned.

Our lab is one of a few labs in the nation researching methods of Kernza management which makes this experiment extra exciting! There are two Kernza experiments currently taking place. The first experiment is analyzing amounts of fertilizer input, primarily nitrogen, to see how much fertilizer optimizes yield. On top of that, the Kernza will be harvested at different times during the season to see what times of harvest optimize yield. This type of experiment shows how Kernza really is in the early stages of development and implementation.

The other experiment investigating the potential benefits of Kernza in a polyculture with legumes such as clover. Since Kernza requires nitrogen inputs, this experiment aims to limit fertilizer inputs by planting legumes which fix nitrogen into the soil.

My role in the Kernza experiment has been cleaning up the field, more specifically deheading wheat that had reseeded in the field. The field that we are using for the Kernza was previously a wheat field. Some of the wheat wasn’t taken up by the harvester and reseeded. As a result, there is wheat throughout the kernza field. There was a good six days I and other members of the lab spent in the Kernza field cutting and removing wheat heads in hopes it won’t be able to reseed and not come back next year. This is somewhat of a “buzzkill” for such an amazing project and even though we’ve worked six days we still have half of the field to do.


A picture of the Kernza plot. Kernza is the bluish, slimmer, and taller stemmed plant. The wheat is the greener, thicker, and shorter stemmed plant.


The Kickoff: My experience with the Cornell Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab

My name is Kirby Peters and I am an upcoming junior Agricultural Sciences major. This summer I will be interning with Professor Matt Ryan’s Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab located on Cornell’s campus, however, much of the research is executed off campus at Cornell’s research farm in Aurora, NY and on various farms. Many people have been asking me what the lab is researching and it is hard to answer that simply. Our lab is performing several experiments looking at the potential benefits of different cropping systems. The labs research experiments are broken down into a few different project themes: perennial grain crops, cover crop organic rotational no-till, cover crop interseeding, forage intercropping, and ecological weed management.The lab is composed of a research support specialist, two research technicians, five grad students, and seven undergraduate research assistants.

So far I have mainly worked on Jeff Liebert’s (one of the grad students) experiments. His two experiments are what we call the variety trial forage quality experiment and the variety trial roll plant soy experiment. The forage quality experiment evaluates the relationship of forage quality and yield of different species and cultivars of winter cereals (Rye, Triticale, and Barley) in a double cropping system. New York state is the third largest producer of milk in the United States so that being said the impact of the dairy industry is significant. The winter cereal double cropping system possesses a few advantages: mitigation of soil erosion, nitrate leaching and phosphorus leaching runoff, an increase of homegrown forage, and improvement of farm profitability. The goal of the experiment is to provide farmers with an optimal interval of harvest for specific species and cultivars of winter cereal. By collecting samples throughout the season and analyzing biomass and forage quality Jeff can figure out an interval of time where the relationship of the two is optimized. For example, last year the results showed Triticale produces as much biomass as wheat but with a longer optimal interval of harvest.

The second part of the experiment is analyzing cover crop rolling as a form of weed suppression for organic no-till systems. No-till systems are known for providing great soil benefits but can create weed management challenges because herbicides can not be used in organic systems. The experiment aims to optimize the blocking of light to increase weed suppression. Cover crop rolling is exactly what it sounds like. A large cylinder attachment on the tractor is used to rolled down the cover crop to form a carpet to block out the weeds. Multiple species and cultivar are rolled at different times to see what stage of growth produces the best results.

After rolling

Cover crop rolling


The work I’ve done on Jeff’s experiment is plant sampling. Plant sampling is done by taking a quadrat and placing it in a selected spot of a cover crop plot. Once the quadrat is correctly placed on the ground every plant (excluding weeds) that is growing within the quadrate is cut. Our lab uses electric clippers that make the cutting process very quick. If we have smaller quadrants we will also use regular manual clippers. Everything that is cut is then placed into a labeled paper bag and is then ready to head to the ovens to be dried.

Different species and cultivars in the Variety Trial experiment

Setting up a quadrat


Placing plant biomass into a bag








Carrying biomass samples

After the samples have dried in the oven, they are ready for sample processing. All samples are weighed and recorded. Depending on the experiment the samples are either composted or put into the grinder. A grinder is a machine that takes plant material and grinds it into particle sizes depending on the filter inserted. For all the grinding I have participated in we have been using a 1 millimeter (mm) filter. Grinding is necessary for nutrient analysis which provides us with the forage quality data. Jeff will be taking samples throughout the season so he can find a time where forage quality and yield are optimized.


Grinding plant matter


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