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New STEEP III Cropping Systems Research Projects

Authors: Roger Veseth, WSU/UI Conservation Tillage Specialist, Moscow, ID; Don Wysocki, OSU Soil Scientist, Pendleton, OR; Donn Thill, UI Weed Scientist, Moscow, ID; and Dwane Miller, WSU Crop Scientist, Pullman, WA.

Crop production systems in the Northwest are undergoing major changes in response to increased cropping flexibility and other opportunities in the new Farm Bill. Also contributing to this change are the need to improve production efficiency and profitability in an increasingly global market, and to increase protection of natural resources. A Pacific Northwest research and education program offers growers new technologies to help them make a successful transition to more efficient and resource conserving crop production systems.

The STEEP III (Solutions To Environmental and Economic Problems) program on technologies for conservation farming is getting underway in 1996. Four new STEEP III research projects selected for funding focus on developing conservation farming systems technologies to improve farm profitability and solve critical soil and water conservation problems in the region.

STEEP and STEEP II Background

STEEP has been a national model for multi-state, multi-disciplinary efforts among land grant universities, USDA-agencies, conservation districts, grower commodity organizations and Ag advisers to work collectively to solve regional environmental and economic problems. STEEP and STEEP II grants were cost effective investments of federal funds. Project operating funds (no faculty salary funding) has effectively leveraged state and local funding for conservation farming research and education projects in the region at a ratio of about 1 to 10.

STEEP was initiated in 1976 as a 15-year program. Funding was provided annually as special grants to Washington, Idaho and Oregon Agricultural Experiment Stations and as an increase in base funds for the USDA Agricultural Research Service. The original STEEP program generally provided about $200,000 per year for each of the three agricultural experiment stations. About $440,000 was added to the base funds of USDA-ARS in 1976 to support STEEP research.

The program was renewed as STEEP II in 1991 as a 5-year program. Funding was provided to the three state experiment stations as special grants through USDA. The funding level varied from $980,000 in 1991 to $829,000 in 1995. In addition, there was a $200,000 increase to ARS base funds beginning in 1992. During each year of the STEEP II program about 55 university and ARS scientists in the Pacific Northwest cooperated on 30 to 35 projects per year.

STEEP and STEEP II programs have made significant contributions in improving the profitability, effectiveness and adoption of conservation farming systems in the Northwest. Some examples of research accomplishments are:

  • Documenting the importance of deep banding of fertilizer near the seed row to improve crop yield potential and reduce competition from weeds and diseases -- technology that is guiding the design of conservation tillage equipment
  • Adapting soil erosion prediction models to Northwest conditions and determining the effectiveness of surface residue, surface roughness, green cover and field strips in soil erosion control
  • Discovering the “Green Bridge” impact of volunteer grain and weeds on root disease potential in no-till and minimum tillage systems, and the importance of early green bridge control
  • Developing integrated management strategies to improve control of several major weed, disease and insect problems in conservation tillage
  • Developing Hessian-fly resistant spring wheat and supporting registration of Goucho seed treatment for Hessian fly
  • Developing varieties and management technologies for alternate crops such as rapeseed, Canola and mustard, for diversifying rotations to improve pest control, crop yields and profitability
  • Developing management practices for returning CRP land to crop production
  • Documenting the economic impacts of soil erosion and the economic risks and profitability of conservation systems

STEEP III Funding and Projects

STEEP III was funded in 1996 at a total of only $469,000 for the tri-state region, a level far below previous years and the requested annual budget of $1.3 million. Although written as a 5-year project, STEEP III funding needs Congressional approval each year. Strong support from Northwest producer groups and conservation districts will be needed to continue funding for STEEP III.

Cropping systems research should be conducted for a minimum of 3 years, and preferably 5 to 7 years or more, before much confidence can be placed in the results because of the high variability of weather and growing conditions from year to year, and slow biological adjustment to changes in management practices. Because of the budget reduction and uncertainty of future funding, the STEEP III Grower Advisory, Technical Coordinating and Administrative Committees jointly selected five multi-disciplinary team projects for funding with the initial $469,000 grant over a 3-year period.

This provides a coordinated systems approach to solving production problems. Each project consist of multi-disciplinary teams of scientists from the PNW land-grant universities and ARS, growers, and agricultural support industry and agency personnel working to develop solutions to the critical conservation problems. More than 45 scientists from WSU, OSU, UI and USDA-ARS are involved in the projects. A STEEP III integrated cropping systems technology transfer project also has been developed for the Northwest.

In the fall of 1995, a questionnaire was sent to conservation districts, county grain producer organizations and other grower groups in the three states. The purpose of the questionnaire was to identify critical conservation farming problems and prospective solutions on which to focus STEEP III research. Priorities were identified for each of the three major wheat cropping systems in the Inland Northwest. These systems include: (1) low-intermediate rainfall areas with summer fallow, (2) annual cropping areas under high rainfall, and (3) irrigated areas. The results of the questionnaire provided the basis for developing and selecting STEEP III research projects.

The following are titles and brief descriptions of the four STEEP III cropping systems team research projects and the technology transfer project:
1) Development of Conservation Farming Systems for Protecting Soil and Water Quality in Downy Brome Infested Dryland Farming Areas. This project continues a STEEP II project initiated in 1992. Dan Ball, OSU weed scientist, is coordinating the project with a team of eight investigators and cooperators, and a 6-member grower advisory group. The goal is to develop integrated methods of downy brome control in winter wheat cropping systems. The project is investigating combinations of crop rotations, herbicides, fallow management and timing of cultural operations to control downy brome in 10- to 14-inch rainfall, shallow soil areas. Continuous and flex cropping systems utilizing spring and winter cereals, and non-cereal crops are also part of the study that includes seven different cropping systems. Trials located near Pilot Rock, Oregon are managed in cooperation with growers using field scale equipment. Disease control, fertility management, and economic assessment are integral project components.

2) Integrated Conservation Spring Cropping Systems for the Arid and Semiarid Wheat-Fallow Region of the PNW. Spring cropping in the traditional winter wheat-fallow region would largely eliminate the wind and water erosion associated with summer fallow and the subsequent winter wheat crop. Frank Young, USDA-ARS research agronomist, leads a 14-member team with scientists from 10 disciplines. Cooperators also include a 12-member grower advisory group, Monsanto and The McGregor Company. This research project is similar to a 9-year, large-scale, integrated pest management project on conservation cropping systems conducted earlier in the Palouse region near Pullman, WA. The main emphasis of this 5-year project is to examine the economic and environmental feasibility of annual cropping systems under reduced-tillage and direct seeding to replace or supplement the traditional winter wheat-fallow system. The 20-acre primary research site is near Ralston, south of Ritzville, WA. Several satellite trials around the region address additional fertility, weed management, and other agronomic considerations.

3) Residue Production and Retention in Small Grain Cereal and Legume Rotations with Different Tillage Practices. This cooperative Idaho/Washington project is lead by Stephen Guy, UI crop management specialist, and involves an interdisciplinary team of eight scientists. Soil erosion in winter wheat after dry pea, lentil and chickpea has been difficult to control in the Inland Northwest because of limited legume residue production and intensive tillage practices traditionally used to establish both the legumes and winter wheat. The project has two objectives: 1) evaluate the production and durability of residue from different legume cultivars under a range of tillage practices for winter wheat establishment; 2) develop integrated management systems for minimum tillage and direct seeding of legumes after spring cereals that retain adequate surface residue, surface roughness, and water infiltration and storage potential to effectively control runoff and erosion during legume establishment and in the following winter wheat crop. Agronomic performance, weed and disease control, fertility management, erosion control effectiveness, and economics are important aspects of the project.

4) Modified Wheat-Potato Rotations to Reduce Wind Erosion. Wind erosion can be severe on sandy irrigated soils after harvest of low residue crops such as potatoes. A 6-member interdisciplinary team project lead by Charlotte Eberlein, UI potato weed specialist, is underway to help develop solutions to the problem. The project is an extension and expansion of a 3-year STEEP II project being conducted near Aberdeen, ID. Project objectives include: 1) evaluation of winter wheat, and dormant-seeded spring wheat planted after potato harvest for stand, winter and spring soil cover, weed suppression and yield; 2) evaluation of reduced-till planting of Brassica crops (rapeseed) for stand establishment, ground cover biomass production, and winter survival; 3) examination of the effects of alternative Brassica species on ground cover, and weed control and disease suppression in potatoes; 4) assessment of the effects of alternative wheat/tillage/Brassica systems on the economics of wheat and potato production.

5) PNW STEEP III Integrated Cropping Systems Technology Transfer. The project is a tri-state cooperative effort by the extension cropping systems specialist team of Roger Veseth (WSU/UI), Don Wysocki (OSU), Baird Miller (WSU), Russ Karow (OSU), Stephen Guy (UI) and Tim Fiez (WSU). The project will help provide growers and Ag support personnel with increased access to STEEP III and related research technologies as integrated components of conservation tillage systems for specific agronomic regions. The project will have two educational thrusts: 1) printed and electronic versions of the PNW STEEP III Conservation Farming Update newsletter and new PNW Extension Conservation Tillage Handbook Series publications; and 2) a World Wide Web (WWW) Home Page on PNW STEEP Conservation Farming Systems Technology (http://www.cahe.wsu.edu/~pnwsteep/) with links to related home pages. The WWW is rapidly becoming a major source of new agricultural technology and information.

Future Needs

Although substantial progress should be made over the next three years through the STEEP III projects, the initial $469,000 grant is not adequate to effectively address conservation problems affecting agricultural profitability and resource sustainability in the region. Continuation of funding for the 5-year STEEP III program is important so that these and other research and educational projects can more effectively address the scope and complexity of developing new conservation cropping systems for the major crop production areas in the Northwest.

Northwest grower input through conservation districts and grain producer organizations has been vital in identifying critical conservation problems and prospective solutions to be addressed through team efforts of scientists, growers and Ag support personnel in the STEEP III program. Grower support for continued funding will determine the future and effectiveness of STEEP III.


Contact us: Hans Kok, (208)885-5971 | Accessibility | Copyright | Policies | WebStats | STEEP Acknowledgement
Hans Kok, WSU/UI Extension Conservation Tillage Specialist, UI Ag Science 231, PO Box 442339, Moscow, ID 83844 USA
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