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Matthew Spoth

Kernza!

Above and belowground biomass of annual wheat(left) vs. Kernza(right) over a season. Image Credit: Lee DeHaan

One of my favorite projects from the summer that we are currently wrapping up harvesting, is intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) which goes by the tradename Kernza. Kernza is a perennial grain developed by breeders at the Land Institute. Kernza mimics a natural perennial system which does not require planting annually. Kernza also has the potential to be a dual purpose crop used for both grain and forage. It is very exciting to work with an idea as novel as this and I cannot wait to see where Kernza goes in the future.

There were a few primary experiments that I worked on during my time with the lab. Primarily, I assisted with assessing productivity in intermedium wheatgrass. Before I joined the lab, multiple timing and frequency of forage and grain harvest as well as N application rates were applied and monitored. I assisted with the measuring of total plot forage biomass removed through completing crop biomass cuts, weighing wet and dry samples to determine forage moisture, grinding the material so it can be sent to another lab for forage quality testing, and separating, counting and weighing seed heads to determine grain yield.

The other study I assisted with was exploring the potential of companion-planting red clover with intermediate wheatgrass. We wanted to know if a nitrogen-fixing crop such as red clover could supply sufficient nitrogen for Kernza, potentially abolishing the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. In addition, I helped hand weed plots to determine the yield potential of Kernza in the absence of weeds.

Some perennial grains fields I helped manage and harvest were planted by local farmers to test growing on sloped and erodible land. Meeting the farmers over the course of the summer was very enjoyable because they all had great stories

Observed Difference in color between Kernza Clover Intercropping (Left) and Kernza Monoculture (right)

Developing Kernza Seed head

Quadrats, Quadrats and more Quadrats

Before Sampling “Haircut”

I made a lot of new friends this summer, but the one I got closest with was my quadrat. Since they were used so commonly in the lab I decided to focus this week’s blog on them.  A quadrat is a metal, rectangular frame used to assess a small area of habitat selected at random to quantify values such as the distribution of plants, weed pressure, yield or biomass. Our quadrats ranged from a size of .25 to .5 square meters. In most sampling events, forage or crop cuts were taken with the assistance of a quadrat for accurate results that can then be applied to a larger scale.

Using various random placement techniques, the quadrats were laid across a certain number of rows or in the vegetation perpendicular to a cardinal direction. Samples were then clipped at various heights depending on the experiment. The crop, or crops of interest were next placed in one bag and the weedy species would be identified and bagged separately. Identifying the weed species was my favorite part because it was both exciting to learn and memorize new species and in a way very relaxing when considered work. In some scenarios, we would also separate seed heads from stalks.

After Quadrat sample… “Bagged and Tagged”

Although it does not sound very exciting, I actually really enjoyed this lab task. It was gratifying to give the plots a haircut while sitting in the sun, listening to music, learning a lot and grilling my coworkers with conversation and questions.

The 2018 NEWSS Weeds Contest

Cornell 2018 Weeds Team

Recently this summer, 11 other Cornell students and I traveled to Smithfield North Carolina to compete in the 2018 North Eastern Weed Science Society annual weeds competition. The contest was hosted by BASF Corporation who is the second largest producer and marketer of agricultural chemicals and related products in North America. It was very exciting to meet people involved in the industry as well as professors and students from other agricultural universities. There were just under 100 students from Guelph, Clemson, NC State, Penn State, The Ohio State University, Virginia Tech and Rutgers at both the undergrad and graduate levels.

Thinking Very Hard on a Practice Sprayer Calibration

The contest consisted of 4 main components, the first being Weed Identification. Of the 105 weeds we had to memorize, there were 25 in total to ID. There were both mature plants and juvenile weeds consisting of only cotyledons, as well as 5 different weed seeds. Next we moved on to Herbicide Identification which consisted of 10 plots that had been sprayed with 1 of 25 herbicides two weeks prior to the event. Using the symptomologies present, we had to identify the Herbicide as well as the family, WSSA group number, mode of action and site of action. This was the most challenging part of the competition, but in the end I managed to score decently well. Next we took a written examination on sprayer calibrations and conversion as well as performed a random practice calibration with a backpack sprayer as a team. Finally, we had two “farmer problems.” This was my favorite part of the competition. We were presented with a common problem and had to identify it as well as provide solutions for the present and future. We acted as the consultant in each situation, however it was a little stressful because some farmers were acting mad and the questions were very inquisitive. I enjoyed it so much because I thought it was a great representation of common problems faced in the industry, which I have never had the chance to experienced firsthand. BASF then provided us with a great dinner at a local winery where we got to talk with people of the industry and awards were given.

Overall the competition was very exciting and I gained a lot of knowledge I can now apply during my fieldwork at The Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab. For not having a weed science concentration or major like many of the other schools, Cornell placed very well! Our coaches Toni Ditimasso and Eugene Law helped out a lot in the learning process. I highly recommend that anyone staying in Ithaca next year checks out the team!

Maria talking to Colonel Corn

Hairy Vetch: Managed or Management Practice?

Hi all, my name is Matthew Spoth and this summer I am interning for Matthew Ryan in the Sustainable Cropping Systems Lab. The summer is flying by and it is probably because of how much fun I have been having at work. Every week I am assisting with a different task, and it is exciting to watch all of our research plots progress.

Perennial Grain plot where we managed the vetch by hand weeding to keep the farmers happy!(vetch is the purple color you can see)

Over the next several decades, our environmental stability is going to diminish due to changes in climate. Concurrently, our global population and the demand for production will be exponentially increasing. As a brief overview, the lab focuses on advancing sustainable crop production practices. We do this through researching radical and exciting ideas such as perennial small grains, ecological weed management, intercropping for increased resilience, interseeding, rotational no-till practices, cover crop breeding and much more. Another large part of the lab is conducting farmer interviews to determine socioeconomic factors that influence the use of ecological farming practices. This is only a fraction of what we do and I cannot wait to share more throughout the rest of the summer.

Today I would like to talk about Hairy Vetch in our legume cover crop breeding trials, as well as my encounters with it in our perennial grain test plots. As I go home and explain my internship to my family who farms in Erie county, this piece of my internship always surprises them because Hairy Vetch is commonly known as a vigorous and competitive weed that you do not want to see in your fields. It can be serious problem, especially in fall sown small grains such as winter wheat. In our on-farm perennial grain test plots, I have seen a single plant spread out 4 feet in diameter. However, when used as a cover crop and intentionally seeded in early September, hairy vetch can overwinter and provide over 100 lb nitrogen per acre to subsequent crops planted in June. The competitiveness of hairy vetch is what makes it both a bad weed as well as a good cover crop. As a cover crop, it can smother weeds and reduce weed seed production; however, it can also smother crop plants and reduce yields when is it growing as a weed.

Our legume cover crop breeding project is a multi-site project, with sites in Maryland, North Carolina, Minnesota, and here in New York.  We use traditional breeding techniques select for desirable traits. In addition to large amounts of biomass and vigor, some organic farmers are interested in early flowering and using hairy vetch for organic no-till production.  This system involves mechanically killing the cover crop with a roller-crimper. Hairy vetch can be effectively killed without herbicides by rolling it when it is at the late flowering/early pod stage. Thus, organic farmers want early flowering varieties that will allow them to terminate the hairy vetch with a roller-crimper in May instead of June and no-till plant corn into the residue.  Farmers are also very interested in reducing hard seededness (i.e., dormancy) in hairy vetch, as this trait leads to hairy vetch persistence in the soil seedbank and emergence at unwanted times such as during the wheat phase of a crop rotation.

My tasks in helping with the experiment included helping to trellis the plants, install deer fences, take meristem clips for DNA sequencing and eventually harvesting the seed pods.

Trellising the hairy vetch plants to keep them off the ground

All Done!!

Even though they can be considered a weed they are very aesthetically pleasing!

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