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Nicole Smaranda

Final Post: Writing a Factsheet for Extension

I spent this past summer and fall of 2016 working with the Nutrient Management SPEAR team in the Animal Science Department. Over the summer I worked on updating the manual used to prepare for the Certified Crop Advisor exam and this past semester I worked on writing a factsheet for the ‘Agronomy Factsheet’ series, a SPEAR project. All the summer interns worked on an individual topic this semester and we developed our topics from rough, three-page outlines to two-page, condensed, easy-to-read format over the 12 weeks of the semester. My factsheet was about using cover crops and I focused on establishment and termination methods for field crop operations. Sarah, Lindsay and Chutao wrote about soil aggregates, forage quality testing and sorghum, respectively.

At the start of the semester, we wrote outlines with what we thought were the main points of our factsheet. These outlines were the backbone for the rest of the semester and were probably the most challenging part of the process for me. There is so much information about cover crops everywhere and isolating the most important pieces, then organizing them in a way that took season timing (planting/harvesting), cost and equipment into consideration- was a feat. Sarah, Lindsay, Chutau, Quirine our fearless leader and I met once a week throughout the semester and in the beginning we helped each other organize the outlines. Once we had polished outlines, we each sent them to our own external review teams. These were experts who Quirine identified and reached out to over the summer to ask if they would be involved in the reviewing process. My review team was Joe Lawrence, Janice Degni, Thomas Bjorkman, and Mike Stanyard who regularly work with farmers in the northeast and have intimate insights to their operations that google does not. Karl Czymmek, senior extension associate on the SPEAR team, worked with all the factsheets and posed thought-provoking and critical questions to challenge our positions.

With feedback from the experts, our factsheets moved into the next stage of first drafts. We incorporated our reviewers’ feedback which, for some of us, meant a total upheaval of our content. I had a few sections to rearrange and some points that needed attention but getting my questions answered about tricky timing, and climate considerations was so helpful. Its so difficult to get the whole picture just from reading research papers, extension articles and cover crop guides online. We formatted our factsheets using the standard page layout and font size of the other factsheets in the series and we brainstomed ideas for images to include. This was also the stage where we worked to get our content to fit into the two-page format, which involved some serious craft. Quirine has the magical powers of creating space from thin air and showed us some of the tricks. As we moved through our first drafts into our almost-finished-drafts, we reached out to our review teams again for feedback. This second round of feedback was more mellow, with some questions and comments but content was accepted. It was great to see my factsheet go through the wringer and really learn about the intricacies of cover cropping methods.

I would like to thank the factsheet team- Sarah, Lindsay, and Chutao for a fantastic semester together. It was challenging, it was fun, and you guys are awesome. Also HUGE thank you to my review team- Joe, Janice, Thomas, Mike and Karl. The internet can only take education so far. And finally, Quirine, for holding down the fort and facilitating an intense and incredibly productive team!

See the factsheet I wrote here:

10_tips_first_time_cover_croppers_1_635010116391789049.jpgCOVER CROPS ARE AWESOME!
Photo credit:

Ohio Manure Expo

The sunset on our way down to the Manure Expo.

The sunset on our way down to the Manure Expo.

The bison!

The bison!

Cows on slats for manure management.

Cows on slats for manure management.

Last week saw a couple really exciting days. I got to go to the Manure Expo in London Ohio with a fellow intern, Sarah Hetrick. I’ve always wanted to travel for work! On the way down, we made the- what should have been 8 ½ hour trip to London Ohio- in 10 hours. Our bladders refused to cooperate. At least we caught a pretty sunset from the road!

The next morning, we left our hotel bright and early to make the 8 AM check-in at the Expo. At 8:30 we boarded yellow cheese busses for the Beef  tour! The first stop was the Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park where we met a small herd of bison that were in charge of keeping the grass at the park neatly trimmed. Here there was talk about grazing management and the difference between cool season and warm season pastures. I realized that I made the big mistake of forgetting to pack a hat and sun screen. Ohio was hot, humid and very sunny. (And our bus did not have air conditioning…)

The next stop was a farm owned by a grower named Ron Hastings. This was the stop where I learned the most. Ron has a beef cattle operation with about 350 head. There were some cows kept on pasture and some kept in the barn which has open slats for the floor. The open slats were not wide enough for the cow’s hooves to get stuck but just enough so that manure could fall through when the animals moved around. Under the slats was a 12-foot-deep capture area where the manure was mixed and then pumped out; to be used as fertilizer or sold. The barn did not smell worse than a barn which clears out its manure and there were almost no flies or bugs (Ron didn’t use any fly control.) Ron explained that the natural ventilation of the structure was enough to manage pests and smell.

Ron’s crop production was also fascinating to hear about. His land has been in a no-till, four-year corn-soy-hay-wheat rotation for the past eighteen years! He also incorporates cover crops every season and keeps as much plant residue as possible.

The Expo's tradeshow held on the grounds of the Molly Caren Ag Center featured very large and scary looking equipment.

The Expo’s tradeshow held on the grounds of the Molly Caren Ag Center featured very large and some pretty scary looking equipment.

I decided that I will write a fact sheet with Quirine during the fall semester about cover crops and being able to attend the tour of Ron’s farm, hearing about the practices he uses, was helpful to me. I hope to reach out to Ron if I come across any challenges during the writing process!

Monday Morning Team Meetings

Every Monday morning the whole team meets for debriefing, scheduling and presenting work. I really love the meetings for how collaborative they are; everyone shares what they want to accomplish for the week, we update each other on how our projects are going, discuss if any field work needs extra hands, and every week someone gives a presentation about their project. The meeting usually lasts about two hours, the first of which is for debriefing and scheduling and the second, for the presentation.

The purpose of the presentations is to give everyone an understanding of the history behind a project, its purpose, and methods. Quirine’s team consists of about twelve people (post docs, grad students, interns, extension associate, lab manager, and research specialists) and so far we have had nine project presentations. The discussions and questions are very interesting and often provide helpful feedback for the project. I learn a lot just from seeing how and where research, industry, extension and production intersect.

Today, a post doc presented about the whole farm nutrient management planning project and the New York phosphorus runoff index project- both of which were born within Quirine’s Nutrient Management SPEAR program may years ago. Whole farm nutrient management planning corresponds inputs (animals, crops produced, feed purchased, etc.) and outputs (products sold such as milk, animals, and crops) to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels. The difference between the inputs and outputs may predict how efficient a farm’s nutrient use is and influence management strategies to prevent nutrient loss. The New York phosphorus runoff index project started about fifteen years ago when Quirine and a large number of collaborators created a scoring system for how susceptible a field is to phosphorus loss. The NRCS (under the USDA) mandated that fields needed to be assessed according to land grant university nutrient recommendations for phosphorus levels before fertilizer or manure application. The original scoring system did not account for different management practices which slow nutrient loss and so Cornell’s SPEAR program received funding to re-draft the scoring system.

The entire interaction; starting with the NRCS creating a mandate with the purpose of ‘minimizing non-point source pollution of surface and groundwater resources’ and ‘protecting air quality’ to Cornell’s Spear program creating the scoring system, then farmers and consultants using it and providing feedback about user experience with the scoring system- its huge groups of people responding to each other and working together. It’s a slow process which can feel grid-locked sometimes but its been an awesome experience being surrounded by it and seeing how it all comes together.

This is almost everyone on the team. We don’t have ice cream during team meetings, but we probably should…

This is almost everyone on the team. We don’t have ice cream during team meetings, but we probably should…

The serious stuff.

This is the blog about what I am actually working on this summer. (In excruciating detail.)

Some background on the program I am interning with:
The Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) program was established in 1992 by the Society of Agronomy. Besides having, or being interested in a consulting career, many people take the exam for a variety of reasons; prerequisite for some industry positions, or PhD programs, supplement to college degree…etc. The exam itself covers four different areas: Crop, Soil and Water, Nutrient, and Pest Management and test takers are expected to know local management strategies adapted for their local climate and also broader management strategies. To achieve this, the test is split into local and international sections. The local section of the exam is organized by region. There are 28 regions in the U.S. Each region has its own committee board which has a variety of responsibilities including writing their local exam. New York State is part of the ‘Northeast Region’ which also includes CT, ME, MA, VT, NH, and RI. The international section is organized by the international committee board, located in Wisconsin which is also the CCA program headquarters.

In addition to writing their respective exams, the boards are also responsible for providing test takers with a set of study guidelines which come in the form of statements such as “Know the 17 elements essential for plant nutrition” or “Understand the process of soil formation”. The CCA program calls these study guidelines ‘performance objectives’ or PO for short. Though it was not required by headquarters, the Northeast Region wrote a study manual to accompany their local POs and developed a study website with practice questions for each PO.

What I do:
Quirine is on the committee board for the Northeast Region and is responsible for the educational materials (POs, study manual, and practice questions). I am working with her to update these materials. The POs are required by headquarters to be updated every few years but the manual and practice questions have not been updated or revised in some time.

  • Get the PO’s updated.
    The PO’s were originally compiled by a number of people. Each area; pest management, crop management, soil and water management, and fertility management, requires niche knowledge and so the POs were compiled by a number of professionals in the respective fields. For example, the pest management POs were put together by a weeds professional, insect professional, disease professional, pesticide/herbicide professional…etc. I connected with many of the original folks who were involved with making the POs and some new ones and asked them to review their sections and make any necessary updates. This process took many weeks and a lot of emails. After being updated, the POs will be sent to Wisconsin for approval from HQ. This was the first task and I have been working on it since my first day. At this point, five weeks in, it is 98% complete.
  • Get the manual updated.
    With any change in the PO document, the content written for the study manual also changes. The same folks who made updates to the POs, I also asked to draft or edit content in the study manual. As well as getting the manual synch with the POs, I have also been working on revising some sections to read more smoothly. I have been doing this alongside getting the POs updated and am probably 35% of the way to finishing.
  • Revise & make practice questions
    Out of all three areas of this project, I have done the least here. There is already a large bank of practice questions that exists but many of these questions do not follow Wisconsin’s question format. In addition to formatting, each question must be linked to a particular PO. I have been working on moving the question bank from Word to Excel so that they may be sorted by management area (pest, soil and water, fertility, and crop) and also by PO. I still have to revise the format of questions out of compliance with regulation and create questions for the POs which have none, as well as write more questions for the question bank. Improving the online study materials and practice questions is the main reason why the NRCCA created this internship and so for the rest of the summer I will focus the most time on this.

If anyone is interested to hear more about the certification or has any questions in general feel free to shoot me an email!

logo CCA

The fun stuff.

I have just celebrated my five-week anniversary of working with Quirine Kettering and her team. This blog post will be my attempt to catch up on some thoughts so far.

The team:
There are a couple post docs, some grad students, four of us interns working on projects under Quirine as well as a few other faculty members who have their own projects and work.  The three other interns are teamed up with a graduate student or post doc working on research, while I am working directly with Quirine on updating and revising study materials for the Northeast Region Certified Crop Advisor (NRCCA) test.

Though everyone has their own projects, and we work from different offices on the third floor of Morrison, the atmosphere is very open, helpful, chatty and welcoming. I wander into the other offices multiple times a day with questions or just to see what others are up to. Everyone takes lunch together which really helps build a feeling of comradery. We talk about current issues in agriculture, discuss people’s projects, catch up on the presidential race, and sometimes just chat about where we’re from. (Between everyone, the countries that are represented are The Netherlands, Greece, Iran, Nepal, China, Poland, Canada, and the U.S.) Working in this type of positive environment as been incredible. I think this is a truly unique team structure which Quirine has established; the other interns and I often remark that most of our past experiences in other labs or projects have had less community between members.
unnamed                                                                 Some office shenanigans.

What I do all day
The project I am working on with Qurine, updating and revising study materials for the NRCCA, has a lot to it, which I will write all about [in excruciating detail] for the next blog. As for what I do all day, that’s an easier question- I sit behind a computer. (Actually, two.)Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 10.41.52                                                               Where the magic happens.

Getting outside
This project has me behind a computer all day but thankfully there have been some opportunities for me to get my hands a little dirty. I have participated in three field days so far: small grains management field day at Musgrave research farm, organic grains field day at Love Lab, and seed growers field day at the NYSIP Foundation Seed Barn.

I have also lent a hand to some of the other projects Quirine’s team is involved with; helping with measuring and flagging a field in prep for planting, taking corn clippings for biomass analysis, scouting a stressed field for clues about the origin of stress, and transporting ground and sieved soil samples to the lab for aggregate stability analysis.

Besides field days and field work I have also gotten out of the office to meet with some of the different folks who are also involved with the NRCCA study materials. I enjoyed going to different buildings on campus and chatting with people from a range of disciplines.

            Flagging                                       Sampling                             Organic grains field day
                                                    Seed growers field day

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