A manure spreader rolls over a plot of land for an earlier research project led by Elizabeth Rowen, assistant professor of entomology at West Virginia University’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
These West Virginia University researchers are the No. 1 experts of No. 2.
Directed by Elizabeth Rowena team of teachers from Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design will study the use of manure as an organic fertilizer, thanks to a $750,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.
Specifically, they study the most effective ways to reduce insects and pathogens that threaten crops.
The United States is the world’s largest consumer of beef — much of it grain-fed — and spends $233 billion a year importing wheat, corn and soybeans for organic livestock feed. However, domestic field crop producers may have the opportunity to meet these needs if barriers to organic production, such as pests and nutrient sources, are lowered.
The key may be cow manure, which helps increase the nutrient content and organic matter content of the soil and boosts soil health.
“In organic production, manure is very common because it’s one of the only sources of nutrients you can have,” said Rowen, assistant professor of entomology. “You can’t use chemical sources of nutrients to grow things like organic grain to feed your cows. They must be produced with manure or other types of compost.
Manure is not only an effective fertilizer, meeting the nutritional needs of plants, but it is also a common fertilizer. It is readily available in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where livestock and dairy industries are prevalent.
Farm managers can spread manure in dry, liquid, or composted form, but it can also reinforce weeds, insects, and soil pathogens, all of which will damage organic crops. Rowen and his colleagues are studying which form is most likely to carry or fight off these pests.
“We’ve put together a team that’s going to look at the soils, the weeds, the microbiome of these plants,” Rowen said. “We are looking at how the manure microbiome transfers to soil and how it then affects insects. Because there is good evidence that spreading manure can make plants more resistant to insect pests.
Researchers don’t know why, but possible factors include the microbial community in the soil or micronutrients from applied manure fertilizer.
Good soil conditions will also encourage beneficial insects like spiders and ground beetles, which are important predators in agricultural systems. Soil organic matter feeds and stabilizes predator populations so they can prey on destructive insects.
“We know that organic systems tend to have fewer insect pests even when they’re not sprayed with insecticides,” Rowen said. “But is there something in the manure that makes these plants more resilient? We’re going to investigate in the greenhouse, try to take this system apart. I’m really excited about this.
Profitability also plays a role in which fertilizers a farmer can choose. The research team will therefore look for ways to make an organic farm more profitable.
“The United States imports organic grains, and their economic value is greater than that of conventional grains,” Rowen said. “That’s one of the reasons you would make the switch to growing your own organic grain, because the alternative is expensive.”
She said team member Ana Claudia Sant’Ana, assistant professor of resource economics and management, will examine how fertilizer management affects profitability. Other members of the research team include Ember Morrissey, Jim Kotcon, Eugenia Pena-Yewtukhiw and Rakesh Chandran.
Currently, Rowen and his colleagues are preparing for the three-year study at WVU Agricultural Farm where they will plant four different crops. In the spring, they will apply liquid, raw (dry piled), or composted manure to the soil before planting corn, soybeans, and wheat. The fourth will be a control that receives no fertilizer. Researchers will also have plots that are certified organic and others that will transition to organic farming. These will represent farmers who want to switch to organic and need a suitable fertilizer.
“We want to be able to present the options,” she said. “Especially for people trying to decide what to invest in. Things like composting their manure and using liquid manure, those are investments in terms of equipment and time and so on. If there really is a benefit to their pest control strategies, having that information is valuable.
Rowen hopes the results will support decision making in the future. In a country that is increasingly interested in organic milk and beef, she sees the potential to increase organic food production and help farmers switch to more profitable organic production.
“We drink a lot of milk and we eat a lot of beef,” she said. “We’re not going to get rid of the cows anytime soon.”
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