Grant County farmer Randy Kitts checks conditions in his soybean field. Grant County farmer Randy Kitts checks conditions in his soybean field. When head scab affected his wheat crop, he turned to Purdue Extension for help. By applying fungicide when wheat heads were flowering, he increased yield several bushels an acre. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Down to a Science

Purdue Research Farms Tackle Agriculture's Toughest Challenges

By Steve Leer

In farming, as in life, timing can be everything. Just ask Randy Kitts.

The Grant County, Ind., farmer, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 580 acres near Marion, discovered how applying fungicide at exactly the right moment provided his wheat crop the protection it needed from fungal foes to grow stronger and more productive.

"We've had some problems with head scab in our crop," Kitts says. "I started working with Kiersten Wise of Purdue on when to spray fungicide. She said the best time to spray is when the wheat heads are out and flowering, and able to accept the fungicide."

Kiersten Wise travels Indiana helping farmers identify and manage crop diseases. The knowledge she shares often comes from scientific research conducted at Purdue agricultural research centers.

Wise's advice proved sound when Kitts applied fungicide on a field where some grain heads had emerged and others had not. After the fungicide application the non-emerged plants exhibited signs of Fusarium head blight—or scab—infection, which shrivels plants and shrinks grain size. Their head-blossomed neighbors looked healthier.

"Kiersten was right on," Kitts says. "I noticed about a 10-bushel-an-acre difference in those sprayed at the right time and those that were not. With that kind of yield difference you're talking about an additional 80 bucks or so an acre. That's quite a bit for a farmer."

As an associate professor and Extension specialist in botany and plant pathology, Wise travels Indiana helping farmers identify and manage crop diseases. The knowledge she shares often comes from scientific research she and other Purdue crop and livestock specialists conduct at Purdue agricultural research centers.

"The fungicide research we've done at the Purdue farms in recent years is in response to the increase in corn, soybean and wheat prices farmers are receiving," Wise says. "Because farmers are receiving higher prices for their crops, they are able to use more inputs, like fungicide, on those crops to protect them against potential yield losses. In some cases, growers are applying fungicide because those products have been promoted as having additional crop benefits beyond disease control. Field research can help us show whether that is the case."

No Two Are the Same

The eight farms that make up the Purdue Agricultural Centers program represent diversity in geography, topography, climate, soil types and growing conditions. From Pinney-Purdue Agricultural Center near Valparaiso in northwest Indiana to Southern Indiana-Purdue Agricultural Center in rural Dubois and the six PACs that dot the map in between, College of Agriculture faculty conduct more than 400 research projects on 40-plus different crops and animal species each year.

Combined, the facilities total 11,000 acres and employ 30 full-time staff members. The PACs operate under the auspices of Agricultural Research at Purdue.

Five of the eight farms were donated to Purdue by university families and supporters. The first PAC, Feldun-Purdue Agricultural Center near Bedford, turns 100 years old in 2014.

Funds designated to the state's Crossroads fund for research and Extension pay most PAC staff salaries, while operational costs like supplies, machinery and utilities are covered from the sale of commodities the farms produce.

"The size of our program speaks to why these ag centers are important being located across the state," says Jerry Fankhauser, director of the PAC program. "There are local problems, local pest issues and local soil issues in terms of productivity, and faculty can better address those on site in those parts of Indiana.

"Although Indiana isn't a large state, there are tremendous differences agronomically for producers. Look at the climate around the Evansville area, which is more Kentuckian with a longer growing season, and then compare it to what producers have to deal with up in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, where you've got a lake-effect, Michigan-type climate, a shorter growing season and cloudier in the fall and spring."

The crop and livestock mix is wide-ranging, too. Because of this variety, PAC research runs the gamut from row crops such as corn and soybeans, to fruits and vegetables, mint, beef cattle, forage, goats, hardwood trees, crop irrigation and wildlife management, to name several.

Onward and Upward

Volumes could be written about the important scientific findings made at the PAC farms. A few recent research projects that have advanced agricultural production include:

  • No-tillage cropping systems. Studies done on planting seed into uncultivated soil and field drainage led to wider acceptance of the practice by, and production gains to, farmers—especially those in southeast Indiana, where soils are more challenging.
  • Cover crops. Research conducted in collaboration with Soil and Water Conservation Districts has shown the benefit of planting grasses, legumes or small grains between regular crop seasons in order to protect and improve the soil.
  • Insect management. Field experiments by entomologists have led to safer and more effective ways to control crop-destroying bugs without harming beneficial insects.

A Bee's Life

Entomologist Christian Krupke
Entomologist Christian Krupke. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

One ongoing study by associate professor of entomology Christian Krupke could have far-reaching implications for how farmers grow crops in the future. Krupke is investigating the deaths of honey bees in springtime near agricultural fields. Bees play an integral role in pollinating many crops.

Krupke already has identified a link between bee deaths and dust from planting equipment. He's now analyzing the chemical composition of the dust and how planting practices can be made safer for agriculture's winged friends. Krupke's research is being conducted at Pinney-Purdue and Throckmorton-Purdue Agricultural Center, a few miles south of Lafayette.

"The dust typically is composed of bits of talc, graphite or both—whatever is used to lubricate the seeds as they move through the planter—and is contaminated with whatever was put on the seed as a seed treatment," Krupke says. "That typically includes neonicotinoids, which are insecticides that are very toxic to bees, and fungicides."

In his PAC experiments, Krupke planted insecticide-treated corn with conventional lubricants in the planter boxes, and then measured the amount of dust produced, how far it moved from the planter and the level of toxicity. To do that, he placed sticky microscope slides on panels downwind from the planter. The slides caught dust particles that landed on them. At those same fields, Krupke then ran a second set of tests with a new experimental seed lubricant designed to adhere better to seed and become less airborne.

"We don't yet have a definitive answer as to how much dust is controlled with the experimental lubricant," Krupke says. "What we do know is that it takes less of this powder per unit of seed. So if there's less going in, there should be less coming out."

Tunnels of Produce

Another research project could extend the growing season for vegetable farmers. At Southwest-Purdue Agricultural Center near Vincennes, regional horticulture and vegetable specialist Shubin Saha produces tomatoes and peppers in high tunnels. The long, plastic-covered structures allow farmers to grow crops and plants year-round in conditions similar to those in the field, without the carefully controlled environment usually associated with greenhouses.

Shubin Saha grows tomatoes and bell peppers in high tunnels. Saha has increased yield per plant and shares his findings with vegetable farmers statewide.

"The local food movement keeps growing, and consumers are demanding fresh vegetables all year; high-tunnel production provides growers a way to continue to meet those demands, even when field production ends for the season," Saha says.

Saha and his research assistants maintain three high tunnels at Southwest-Purdue. The structures are 30-by-90 feet and 16 feet tall. Two of the tunnels house tomatoes; the other, bell peppers.

The tomatoes are a study in contrasts. Some rows are backyard garden-variety plants that grow about waist-high. Those plants are known as "determinant" varieties. Other rows are varieties with unlimited growth potential, or "indeterminants." Those plants stand upwards of 7 feet. Every plant is tied to a support system suspended from the ceiling. At regular intervals, Saha shifts the aboveground part of the indeterminant plants several inches along the row to permit further growth.

Red and green tomatoes hang from nearly every plant.

Saha carefully documents the growing practices he uses in the high tunnels. What he learns he shares with vegetable farmers statewide. Some have constructed high tunnels based on his recommendations.

"Most farmers I work with produce about 15 pounds of tomatoes per plant," Saha says. "Through our research, we're pushing 20 pounds per plant.

"I tell people, ‘Let us fall on our faces and be the ones to fail, so you can learn from our research.' We'll still have jobs, if that happens. Farmers might not."

That attitude is comforting to producers, says Gary Battles, a St. Joseph County farmer and Certified Crop Advisor.

"I'm thankful for the help I get from the folks at Purdue," Battles says. "When farmers see that the university has enough interest in them to help them every step of the way, it makes a real difference."