June: What’s happening on the farm?

by | Jun 27, 2014

Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Each month we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm during that month as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.

There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting the Central Crops Research Station in Clayton.

June has been an especially busy month for the Central Crops Research Station in Clayton. Not only has the staff been planting soybeans, fertilizing cotton and thinning apples, but the 518-acre station also hosted the Ag Innovations @ Work new equipment and technology showcase at the beginning of the month. Four new tractors were on display for visitors to see. Two had already been equipped with computer-aided auto-steer technology, making for an impressive display of a much-needed upgrade of equipment across the 18 state-operated research stations.

Central Crops Research Station in Clayton recently hosted a showcase of new equipment and technology purchased for the 18 state-operated research stations.

Central Crops Research Station in Clayton recently hosted a showcase of new equipment and technology purchased for the 18 state-operated research stations.

Central Crops Research Station’s staff will quickly be putting that new technology to work.

Because of the station’s close proximity to N.C. State University, 45 researchers use the station  for their work. That demand translates into a lot of smaller test fields that require the type of precision the new equipment will be able to deliver more easily. Roughly 70 percent of the work on the station involves plant breeding, which requires great attention to detail both in planting and managing crops.

For example, some plant breeding nursery fields are planted in one-row plots, 12 feet long.  That means every 12-foot row is a different plant variety. “Two research groups have over 33 acres planted that way, so precision is a huge thing for us,” said Cathy Herring, research operations manager at Central Crops Research Station. “That’s why this equipment is so important to us.

“Ninety percent of our work is in small breeding plots,” Herring said. “Because they are small, every plant matters. With farmers, if they lose eight to 10 rows it’s lost yield, but there are more rows to balance it. If we do that, then the whole experiment is lost because everything is replicated small-plot research.”

Plant breeding takes time, lots of time to develop the desired genetic traits in a plant. Researchers and students often hand pollinate plants in the field to aid the process. “Seven to 10 years is about the minimum time for release of a new plant breed,” Herring said.

Researchers are looking at a number of traits and working to maximize them. For example, in corn, researchers are looking at yield, standability, days to maturity and resistance to eight common diseases.  In cotton, fiber length, fiber strength, color of the fiber, disease resistance and leaf shape are examined among other qualities. For soybeans, researchers look at drought tolerance, tolerance to salinity, disease resistance and the oil content of the beans.

Work at the station has produced good results over the years, specifically with regard to tobacco and soybean breeds, Herring said.  “Most tobacco varieties used were bred at this station, and some of the most widely grown conventional soybean varieties used today were bred here, too,” she added.

Herring believes the new tractors and equipment will greatly reduce the time it takes to lay off fields to plant such small plots. She put that theory to the test recently with one of the cotton fields. “It took about four hour and a half hours to measure and stake the test as required to complete putting in tillage treatments with out the precision ag technology,” Herring said. “The next day I asked the equipment operator to put in the tillage treatments with the precision equipment and ignore the stakes and flags. It took him only 30 minutes to put in the tillage treatments and they were at sub-inch accuracy. That is more precise than a very good equipment operator can do sighting off flags.”

Working a field at Central Crops Research Station.

Working a field at Central Crops Research Station.

But Herring said technology doesn’t replace people. A tractor operator still needs to put the first set of rows in straight in a field. The tractor can then align with that row to plow the following ones.

Besides plant breeding, Herring said the station also maintains plots strictly dedicated for teaching and labs for N.C. State students, likely the next generation of researchers. “In one field,  we develop different insect communities so students can study them,” she said. In addition, the station has a large weed science research program.

Determining what crop will go where is challenging with so many different projects vying for space and having to take into consideration crop rotation needs and neighboring space, but the challenges make the work rewarding, she said.  “We do a lot of things to create a problem that farmers may have, so we can figure out a way to solve it.”

Land for the Clayton station was purchased in 1953. Research is conducted on corn, cotton, soybeans, tobacco, small grains, sweet potatoes, strawberries, watermelons, four different types of squash, apples, peaches, forage crops, cucurbits, wild flowers, and grain sorghum. The station has 63 buildings or equipment sheds, including two greenhouses and specialized facilities for seed processing, seed storage and curing of tobacco and sweetpotatos. The station employs 15 full-time employees.