Jun 25, 2019
Dr. Nathan Nelson is a Professor of Soil Fertility and Nutrient Management at Kansas State University. A native of Manhattan and an avid outdoorsman, he possesses a strong interest in developing agricultural systems that not only maximize productivity but protect environmental quality as well. Our discussion in this episode covers how and why farmers make the fertilizer decisions that they do and what that means for water quality. Nathan directs the Kansas Agricultural Watershed (KAW) Field Laboratory, a unique 18 plot watershed project, to better understand how cover cropping and fertilizer application practices impact phosphorus dynamics on Kansas no-till fields.
For more about Dr. Nelson and the KAW project check out:
Cover Crops and Agricultural Fertilizers: The Complexities of Crop Nutrient Management with Dr. Nathan Nelson – Soil Fertility
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of global food systems. It's produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Jay Weeks PhD candidate in the Department of Agronomy. My co host is Scott Tanona, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy who specializes in the philosophy of science. Welcome back, everybody. Often in popular culture, agricultural fertilizers get a bad rap, while they're used definitely does have the potential to come in and environmental costs through promotion of algal blooms or emission of greenhouse gasses. The truth is, these amendments are necessary to produce the abundant and affordable food supply that many of us around the world enjoy today. To discuss the ins and outs of soil nutrient management, we spoke with Dr. Nathan Nelson. Dr. Nelson is a professor of soil fertility and nutrient management here at Kansas State University, a native of Manhattan and an avid outdoorsman. He has a strong interest in developing agricultural systems that not only maximize productivity, but protect environmental quality as well. Our discussion in this episode covers how and why farmers make the fertilizer decisions that they do, and what that means for water quality. Dr. Nelson directs the Kansas agricultural watershed Field Laboratory, a unique 18 plot watershed project to better understand how cover cropping and fertilizer application practices impact phosphorus dynamics on Kansas no till fields, Scott John and I had a great conversation talking with Nathan, having known him for a number of years, I always appreciate the points of view that he brings to agricultural research, I think you will to enjoy. Dr. Nathan Nelson, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you. I appreciate the invitation. And I look forward to the discussion.
So I typically do a small intro before the podcast even begins. But in your own words, what's a little bit about your background? How did you get here?
Sure, yeah, um, you know, I've always been really interested in conservation and natural sciences. Since you know, young age, I grew up on a very, very small farm, just outside of Manhattan, Kansas here, but spent a good portion of my younger years up through high school, spending summers on my grandfather's dairy, which is out in out in Utah and western, the western states. And so and that's where, and so I was familiar with agriculture, and things like that, but really passionate about conservation and ecology and environmental things, actually went to school started off in a conservation kind of biology type program, and did a lot of work looking at natural resource conservation, like parks and wild lands and things like that. And it didn't take me too long to realize that a lot of that was managing people that were and their access to natural resources. Whereas in agriculture, you're managing the natural resources. And agriculture quickly became much more interesting to me, it was always familiar to me. But now very interesting is really, really the number one user of natural resources. I still feel fairly passionate that is our most important use of natural resources that feeds us. And we need to conserve it and make sure that we protect the resources, the soil resources that we have, as well as the water resources, everything that goes around it so that we can continue to provide food sustainably. And so that's kind of the background of where I got into then I came to Kansas State actually here, spent a few years here, finished up an undergraduate degree here at Kansas State, went to North Carolina State for Masters and PhD in soil science. And worked in soil fertility, nutrient management, a lot with the animal industry in North Carolina, and then moved out to Idaho in Kimberley, Idaho, near Twin Falls, worked for the USDA in the their irrigation soils research lab and then moved back here to Kansas State so it kind of made a little bit of tour of the nation and ended back up at home.
Was it the you know, you were seeing environmental degradation and things is that what got you really interested in it or just enjoyed the outdoors and being part of it and wanting to conserve it for the future?
Some of both. I've enjoyed the outdoors and really enjoyed doing that. But then at the same time, I saw some degradation and some When I was a kid, I don't want to throw my dad under the bus. But he came from a, you know, a different mentality. And, you know, we had, you know, a burn pile and things that got spread out on the land. And when there were some trash that didn't know what to do with you found a goalie and it stopped some erosion. And I thought, well, you know, that's one way to do it, but maybe there's a better way. So and we still have good discussion. There was one time when he actually dumped a bunch of sheetrock in a landfill. And then later on, he says, Well, you know, he learned that that was a good soil amendment. And I said, Well, yeah, but you weren't using it that way anyway. No, it wasn't covered leaded paint. And I still I was like, come on. Gypsum can be a good land can be a good soil amendment. But anyway,
Not all in one place.
Where it's gonna get washed away in the next big rainstorm. But anyway, so some of that, and I kind of just noticed, I said, Well, you know, there's probably a better way to manage some of these resources. And, I was pretty passionate about keeping things clean. I really enjoyed using fishing and outdoors and water, but wanted to see cleaner water.
So you were working with the
animal industry as a grad student, what was that project? What were
A few different projects mainly, first, I was looking at ways to process swine lagoon effluent to recover phosphorus from it. So looked at precipitating out struvite, which is a magnesium ammonium phosphate mineral, which it can precipitate out naturally, we're trying to enhance that precipitation and then recover the product. So that was a lot of fun. And looked at that as a nutrient source for plants as a fertilizer, then I started looking at phosphate leaching in sandy soils, typical of the North Carolina coastal plain, to try and make some estimates of how fast it was moving, what soil properties affected its leaching, and if this phosphate leaching was actually going to maybe become an environmental problem years down the road. So looked at that.
So a lot of work with phosphorus, why phosphorus?
You know, it was a little bit what it's available, but also I was quite interested in phosphorus because it has a it plays a pretty big role in water quality and algal blooms and so forth. If you get too much phosphorus in freshwater, you can get algal blooms and fish kills and some other things. So there was an environmental side to this that was I was interested in trying to keep it out of the water, but at the same time, it's an incredibly important for our agricultural production. So we need this nutrient it's pretty important for the farms and it just kind of made a good blend of my interests of agriculture and, and conservation and protecting water quality.
Nathan Help Help rookie or novice out here. When you refer to soil fertility, what do you what are you actually speaking about?
So for me, soil fertility is I'm going to say it is a pretty broad field, but basically nutrient management managing nutrients in agro ecosystems, if you want to kind of be specific, but so that would include both on the fields as well as that area around the fields and water draining off of the fields, that whole system, we're looking at managing the nutrients to maximize sustainable production of agriculture and minimize any any negative effects. And so this would go for any nutrient increasing, so part of this is an understanding of the cycling and soils cycling through plants. So there's a nutrient cycling side of this fertilizer management so how to what sources of fertilizer, how to place them at a time them appropriately. So it's the fertilizer management as well. And then some crop management and best management practices to keep that nutrient in the field. So it's that entire dynamic, pretty broad, broad area more than just fertilizers…
and does that conversation or does that subject cover anti nutrients as well? high salt concentrations and..
Oh, yeah, the like, sure. Sure, high salts, maybe some toxicities and things like that. Those would fall into soil fertility. But they also salt will also go into some soil physics and stuff because cuz that doesn't in some of these things bridge into some other areas because high salt content content often relates back to or or deals with soil physical properties and irrigation and some other things that bring in some other areas of soil science beyond just soil fertility and but the same thing soil fertility brings in some things from soil microbiology, and there's there's overlap between all these disciplines.
Yeah, great. So thanks. So as the fertility just about like mostly delivery of nutrients to the plants, then is when you use the word fertility as opposed to other ways in which the plants are affected in their health.
Yeah, primarily, primarily nutrient delivery him.
So not everybody that listens will be familiar with like fertilizer application and things like that, right? I mean, fertilizers get thrown into the agro chemical category, in the get lumped in with pesticides and herbicides and that sort of thing. How does the farmer make a decision about what fertilizers to use what, you know, what goes into a fertilizer application?
Sure, yeah. So you know, every farmer aisle, in general, you're going to be looking at what your plant needs, and can it get that nutrient from their basic building blocks nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, then you got calcium, magnesium, and go through the whole list of, of elements that plants need to acquire out of the soil. And so you're going to look at what the soil can supply. And if the soil can't supply it, you're gonna look at some other way to supply that nutrient. Could be through manure could be through from fertilizer, it could be, you know, changing cropping systems to improve availability of some nutrient. Or it could be just changing cropping systems that choose a crop that may be tolerant of a deficiency. So there's four different things. Primarily, producers add nitrogen, and phosphorus, and potassium, and then some micronutrients. And when they make their decisions there, they're going to look at the crops that they're growing, the system that they're in, if they're irrigated, they still bit different than dry land, their yield potential there, their soils and climate, make some estimate of how much nutrient they're going to need. And then choose a fertilizer source. And their choice is gonna, there's gonna be some personal preference, there's gonna be some equipment, some management styles, a lot of different decisions go into exactly what fertilizer and nutrient source, they're gonna, they're gonna choose. So there are a lot of things, it's hard to say, this is exactly what every farmer does, they're all gonna do something different.
Sure. But there are tests that farmers can do right to determine or estimate how much of some nutrients that is available to plants before they make those sorts of applications.
Sure, yeah, there are soil analyses, and we highly recommend producers to analyze their soil. And a lot of them do, some don't, some make recommendations based on that a lot do that I think the good. The producers that are progressive are going to pay quite, quite close attention to those analyses, because that's going to help them make sure that they're not spending extra money on fertilizer that they shouldn't, or they're not losing some yield, because they don't have enough nutrient things like that.
So I want to ask it, along these lines, how, how fertilizing has changed over time, you're talking about sort of your dad being kind of old school, right? And then you're also mentioning concerns about phosphorus leaching, right. We're, we're there you're talking about, specifically from the waste pools. Right, you know, but, but this is a general concern. That's, you know, I don't know how long it's been but sort of increasing attention to right. fertilizer runoff, right, leading to algae blooms, and things like that. Right. So could you say something a little bit about, like, how, how techniques have changed over time? Or how, you know, how much awareness has changed, right? So is it so in the farmers mind is mostly about cost? Like, you don't want to over fertilize because you spent too much? You know, versus attending to the concerns about right over nutrient, you know, over nutrients? Right, and, you know, elsewhere?
Sure, so if we go back 50-60-70 years, really, that's when fertilizers really started becoming more prevalent in agriculture initially, yields were a little bit lower. They were growing crops that worked, you know, that they were mining a lot of the nutrient in the soil, right. So when people first started applying these fertilizers, a lot of the focus in soil fertility was on finding the right rate and actually helping producers make sure that they're maximizing yield. Okay, initially, and actually, for quite a while fertilizers tended to have Lower and fairly steady cost. And with that lower steadier costs, the idea was, there wasn't a downside of applying too much. Or, you know, you'd want to make sure you had enough. And so there was a lot of building up the soil building soil fertility was a lot of the very common mentality and to do that with fertilizers. And then, at the same time, you had a lot of manure. And that's what people had been using, bulky, kind of stinky, kind of tough to manage. And with this new fertilizer that came along, that was really nice and handy to manage. Somewhat, the manures kind of maybe fell out a little out of fashion a little bit, right. And people looked at that more of as a waste product. And so there was a period of time where you had a lot of nutrients and manure that were really viewed as a waste and trying to get rid of it. Your objective in managing that was to get rid of it. Because you had this easy fertilizer that was cheap. And then not a whole lot of attention to losses. Now, over time, we realized that, oh, no, there are some issues with loss. And that can cause some problems in water bodies, groundwater, as well as surface water, as well as saltwater. And also, fertilizer prices have in the last 10 years become a lot more erratic. Some spikes have gone up, and they've been quite expensive. Why is that? You know, I'm gonna have to speculate on that. One is exactly why I think it's got to be complicated. It's complicated. And part of it has to do with, I think we're moving more towards a world market where the US doesn't control so much of the fertilizer market. And you have other countries with a lot of purchasing power. And then all of a sudden, you know, back in the 60s, when we were the number one user of a lot of this stuff, and supplier, we control the market steady prices. It's more than that, though, probably. But that's part of it. Anyway, so there, there are a lot of factors that went into this, but he had a little bit more of erratic prices. And that has stayed about true, they haven't really stable that stabilized a whole lot. They're stable. So producers are a little bit more interested in, especially in the last 10 years, producers are more interested in the economic side of managing and not over applying fertilizers.
So I want to get to a couple things. One, I want to talk more about what the ways in which fertilizer is lost, because people have a lot of concerns about getting into groundwater or or into freshwater bodies and stuff like that. But first, could you say a little bit about her about the issues surrounding manure and fertility and why manure application is more complicated than it? It might seem our right, right.
Sure, yeah. It has it comes really comes down to the concentration and the physical state. Right. So our fertilizers are highly concentrated nutrient sources, I mean, some of them we're looking at almost 50% of the product is the nutrient that we're interested in. Whereas in manures, you might be 1% 2% 3%, pretty, pretty diluted, from a nutrient standpoint, so you have to add a lot of it. And then it's difficult to know how much nutrient is in the manure. Right. So manure is, by nature very heterogeneous. What they eat, right, depends on what they eat, and depends on how the bedding is mixed with it. And, you know, it depends on what manure source you're looking at, from one farm to the next from one animal to next, whatever, some are a little bit more consistent, and some are very inconsistent. So there's a little bit of a guessing game with how much nutrient is there. And then the availability is different, because a lot of that nutrient is in an organic form that has to mineralize before the plant can use it. And it's a little bit hard to know exactly how fast that process is gonna go. So that has to do with soil and temperature and moisture and, and other things. So there's a lot of uncertainty about how much nutrient is there. And it's, it's a low concentration, so it's more expensive to haul. You have to have different equipment to apply it. So all of those factors kind of come into it's a little bit more difficult to manage.
Are there upsides to it in terms of the like the physics of the soil?
And sure, yeah, there are definitely some upsides to it. And there's a lot of organic matter that can really improve the soil. You get a wide variety of nutrients and micronutrients and some other things they can help replenish the soil you get You know, some areas, we're running into some sulfur deficiencies. And but if you're using newer you don't have to because it supplies some other nutrients that you're maybe not counting on. So there are definitely some upsides.
And this stuff is becoming a greater concern as livestock operations sort of become more and more concentrated in certain parts of the country, right?
Yeah. So as the livestock operations become concentrated, you get a lot more manure in one area. And then to distribute that at agronomic rates, you have to haul it further, right from the source. Furthermore, the livestock industry itself tends to become concentrated in certain areas, like there's an area where there's a lot of chickens or broilers produced this area here is that a lot of Turkeys maybe somewhere else, and then somewhere else, there's a lot of hogs in this place. So and they tend to concentrate together a lot of those farms together. And so then you get, again, more of those nutrients all in one area.
An example would be like the Chesapeake Bay, right, where they have a lot of poultry operations.
And yeah, a lot of poultry out there. So you truck all the grain in, which has a more concentrated nutrient content in it. Animals eat the grain, then the that you're left with the nutrients in the manure, and it's tough to haul that tough to get enough money to haul that back out where the grain came from.
And so when you're talking about the different types of animals, that means that different types of nutrients and sort of different qualities of the manure to right is that monogastric versus.
Yeah, very different from when you go from like, poultry to swine to beef, very different amount of nutrient they get different feed, they process the nutrients differently in their bodies. ruminants, like cattle can use a lot of the phosphorus, particularly some talking a little bit more about phosphorus here, but a lot of the phosphorus in some of these grains is in the form of phytate. I was gonna ask that question. And, and so the cattle can use that form of phosphorus, whereas the swine in the chickens cannot. And so then they end up supplementing swine feed and poultry feed with other phosphorus forms, because those animals can't use the phytate. So there are different ways to get around that as well. But anyway, those are just some of the details, some examples of why there are differences from one animal to next.
Getting back to the losses, what are the main ways in which fertilizers or nutrients are lost into other aspects of the environment? And how does that relate to the environmental quality issue?
Sure. I'll try and do this without giving you might like, week long lecture. But it really depends quite a bit on which nutrient you're talking about. The main nutrients that we're concerned about from a law standpoint are generally nitrogen and phosphorus and the last mechanisms and pathways are very different for nitrogen and phosphorus. Quick overview, nitrogen can be lost through gaseous forms as ammonia, or as nitrous oxide. So both of which can have some environmental implications in air quality. Nitrogen can also be leached as nitrate, and that leaching can move it into deep groundwater, or it can move it in through shallow groundwater into surface water from a base flow kind of mechanism. And that depends on the hydrology and of the area where you are, if you're not in western Kansas, where we don't have a whole lot of rivers, but we have a lot of groundwater deep groundwater, a lot of this moves down into the groundwater.
And that type of soil matters or two, right, so we got a sandy soil, it might move more quickly, whereas the high clay soil, it's more slowly right.
Is one type of loss worse than the other is moving to deep groundwater, more worrying or more difficult to handle or deal with and another type of loss.
You know, it depends upon the water use and so forth. Because we've got some cities in western Kansas that have to treat their water to if you have nitrate concentration, higher than 10 parts per million nitrate nitrogen, then that's above the drinking water limit and you have to treat that or it can cause some negative impacts on human health. So you're gonna have to treat that to get the nitrate out because they're pumping groundwater, but that exact same problem occurs For the Des Moines Waterworks, and they were pumping water out of surface water. Right? And so it kind of depends on where that water is being used, right? And what you're gonna have to do with it. If it goes into surface water and it moves down the Mississippi out into the Gulf of Mexico or in the Chesapeake Bay are into salt water, then it can cause then it can be an agent in eutrophication. Saltwater tends to be nitrogen limited. So you add nitrogen, you're basically fertilizing anyway, it's pretty simple, you know, add these nutrients to soil, we get higher growth, add these nutrients to water, you get higher growth, it's just you're growing algae, not crops.
If you add it, they will grow. Sure, yeah, sure.
And what's the problem with the algae growing?
Changes the ecosystem, right. The whole process referred to as cultural eutrophication or something just eutrophication is basically increase the fertility status, so you have more algal growth, you'll favor some algae species over others. And sometimes some of those algae species can cause problems. Or some toxic algae, some that release toxins. Anyway, so there's might be a shift in the type of algae. But overall, you get more algae, those algae die, then they decompose and that decomposition process, it can reduce the amount of oxygen. The microorganisms that decompose biomass are very efficient at pulling oxygen out of the water. So they'll pull out of the oxygen out and then the oxygen levels drop below what fish can eat, and then you get fish kills and our fish leave the area that contributes to what we refer to as the the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where it's just our hypoxic region, where we have low dissolved oxygen because of that process.
Right? So nutrients management is complicated, right? Because we've got we need it for farmers need it to grow the food that we're and we're all leading. But then we've got all these potentially negative aspects too. So I want to get into your research. So what kinds of projects are you working on? And what are you trying to accomplish?
Sure. So I tend to be focused more on phosphorus management and phosphorus transport in the environment. And so the projects that I have are focused on that area. One of the main projects that I have right now is looking at the effects of fertilizer management and cover crops on phosphorus loss. So, and this stems, I'm gonna give you a bit of a background before I get into the details of this.
You know, this is a really, this is a really cool project. So yeah, please describe the whole setup for everybody.
Okay, I'll give you a little bit, kind of what led us to this. Sure. Okay. So one of the ways to control phosphorus loss is to place it below the soil surface. If you put it below the soil surface, then that fertilizer is not going to be able to be kind of washed off with rainfall. Right? Heavy rains right after a fertilizer application can remove a lot of phosphorus. And I should put a little caveat next this one I say a lot. A lot from an environmental standpoint may not be that much from an agronomic standpoint. Okay. So like if you look at these systems, you might have 50 to 75 pounds of P 205 pounds of phosphorus cycling a year, through the fertilizer in the crop and things like that. If you lose two pounds, that's a lot. Okay, for the invite, because from the from the environment, but from an agronomic standpoint, that's a small percentage of what's actually out there and so it doesn't make that much of an economic impact in that year of application and year of cycling whatever.
Before you go on just out of curiosity rainwater not affect other nutrients. Nitrogen, same way doesn't pull this year. So nitrogen goes off. Yeah, gaseous right?
Well, you can you can have gaseous losses. Nitrogen is very mobile. And so it tends as soon as the rain so if you serve supplied like a nitrogen fertilizer, as soon as the rain hits that, it'll move that down into the soil. Okay, so initially, the first little bit of a rainstorm event generally that water is infiltrating and because that's very mobile, it moves down and it moves right down with with water, and so it doesn't get lost in runoff too much it tends to leach more, okay. Whereas phosphorus absorbs the soil particles. And so it will stay concentrated in that surface soil. And so it doesn't tend to move down deep in the soil but tends to move often in runoff. And And furthermore, two pounds of nitrogen loss even in runoff is not a big deal even environmentally, you know, whereas two pounds of phosphorus can have a pretty big impact. Yeah. So what led us to this is phosphorus. One way to manage phosphorus or to keep it from being lost in surface runoff is to subsurface apply it. It's more expensive, takes equipment that you have to put it down in the soil, that equipment is more expensive and are and move slower takes more fuel. Furthermore, it's hard to custom apply it that way. Right. Whereas broadcasting it or just dropping it on the soil surface, you can use equipment, the moves a lot faster. And a lot of fertilizer dealers will custom apply it that way. So you can just make a call, ask somebody apply your fertilizer, and they'll get it done at a fairly economic price.
So is it fair to say that a lot of farmers in Kansas prefer the broadcast method or using the broadcast method?
Sure, I wouldn't even just limit that to Kansas, just a lot of producers everywhere. There are economic reasons where broadcasting makes more sense.
And this is in a dry granular form, typically, where's the subsurface supplies of liquid form?
Subsurface could be liquid, it could be dry, too. It depends on equipment, a lot of times there's liquid phosphorus that subsurface applied, but it doesn't have to be. So I ended up getting a lot of questions from producers saying, Well, you know, I know you'd rather have a subsurface apply it from an environmental standpoint. But what if I'm growing cover crops, right? If I grow cover crops, will that allow me to broadcast as fertilizer, and particularly their interest is broadcasting in the fall, they've got a lot more time to do these field operations. And so it's a lot easier to do the fertilizer application in the fall.
And for our listeners that have a non ag background, how would you define a cover crop?
So a cover crop would be a crop that you're growing, after you're after you harvest your main grain crop, you'll plant another crop, let that grow over the winter, or over the kind of the period where you wouldn't normally have anything growing in the field, and then you will terminate, or a lot of times you spray it with herbicide, terminate that crop prior to planting right prior to planting the next crop. So you would have something using a cover crop would keep a crop growing in that field year round, but you're not going to harvest that cover crop. Now some people do harvest it, but I'm going to from my standpoint, if you're harvesting it, it's just a second crop. A true cover crop would stay out there, you're not going to harvest it.
Why might a farmer do this?
Plant the cover crop? Yeah. Well, it can help build the soil that looked at a soil building kind of thing. It by keeping a crop out there growing all the time, you can see some improvements in soil biology, where you have more active microbial communities, which might help turn those nutrients over a little bit faster, it adds carbon to the soil. If you build your organic matter than your soil, you get some other, you know improvements in soil structure, very long term kind of benefits of soil management to say, hey, look, I'm going to try and invest in my soil and make this so that I can continue to use this soil for years to come pass it on to my children. Cover crops will also help with some other things that can help manage weeds. So if you're growing a cover crop, then they'll generally outcompete, you know, non desirable weeds. And the cover crop can sometimes be easier to kill the weeds so you'd rather grow something that's easy to kill, and then kill it and then plant your main crop. It can stop erosion. So there's a variety of reasons why.
So there are economic and environmental benefits possibly from growing these?
There are some agronomic and environmental benefits. I will say that there's a lot of discussion as far as the economic benefits, right? So the economic benefits can be tough to pencil out sometimes. It really depends upon the economic benefit would come in and long term. Right?
It's not because it's investment sorry, because you have to because you have to plant it and either whatever it is a seed expensive typically for these things, or is it you know…
It can cost you $20 an acre, which is a substantial amount still a sunk cost.
What kinds of plants farmers wanting?
Oh, there's a whole variety of crops out there the implant as far as winter crops. Looking at triticale Haley and rye and hairy vetch and there are some rapeseeds there's some radishes and some turnips and some sun hemp and some other things that are kind of summer crops that they might grow. It depends on the cropping system when they would, when they would plant it and when they would terminate it.
And what sort of benefits they may be looking for long term right.
Alright, so how about the question? Does it help?
So yeah, and so We didn't know, we did not know at all, and particularly what the effect of cover crops were on water quality in a no till system. So a lot of our producers don't till. And we encourage that that's a great way to stop soil erosion or slow down soil erosion. I can't say stop, but you know, reduce it. And we just didn't have any. And when I started looking through the day, there was nothing out there at all. And I said, Well, you know, this is a great question. It could reduce runoff because the cover crops are using water. initial thought was the cover crops going to use water over the winter, you'll go into the spring with drier soil, you'd have less runoff in the spring. So less potential for loss there as well. And so it seemed like a very interesting thing. But we thought, well, let's do a project. So So we put together we designed a facility we refer to as the Kansas agricultural watershed field lab, where we have 18 experimental units that we can measure Edgefield runoff on and so each one of these units are about 1.2 acres or a half a hectare inside, so it's a little larger than a football field. So pretty, pretty large area. And we collect all the water at one point, and 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, we monitor the runoff that's coming off. So we have equipment out there that takes measurements, I guess once a minute to see if there's any runoff, it's high resolution, high resolution. And then if and then if there's runoff, then it triggers a sampler. The sampler collects water samples so we can measure how much water is coming off how much phosphorus, how much nutrient nitrogen, sediment, everything. So we put this facility together. When I say we it was, you know, some faculty here, we got a lot of support from the university, some administrators bought into this idea I was very grateful for and they gave us some funds to start this project. And then our initial project was funded through the for our research fund, which is a research fund managed by the International plant nutrition Institute and the fertilizer Institute, which basically came from a lot of fertilizer dealers around the nation that said that they were interested enough in understanding these processes that they put money into a pool to investigate it. And so we were funded through that. We've also received some money from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and, and the Kansas corn growers and Kansas soybean commission, multiple partners came in and they were interested in the same questions. So we started this study back in 2015, was our first crop year. So October 2014, was our first when we kind of said, Chris, in the sites that okay, we're starting.
This is the first site in the country like this.
This is a fairly unique site. There are other large studies where they're looking at Edgefield runoff. The unique thing about this is they're very, we have, we have the ability to do replicated research, we have 18 of these plots in a fairly close proximity. I call them plots or small watersheds, but watershed is in a really small edge of field runoff. And so there's 18. So we can replicate treatments, a lot of other places that don't have that many. So there are other sites that have and we visited several of them really good setups, just smaller number of treatments, maybe looking at pasture systems rather than crop systems. So their differences.
So the replications are important because otherwise just sort of guessing at what the causes are and things like that run a heavy
Independent probability you can't treat you can't treat the data the same way.
Year to year weather variability has a pretty big impact. And so if you're going to look at it, like some kind of a trend analysis, say, Well, I'm going to look at one treatment and look at that for a few years and then look at another treatment for another few years, you had different weather and you're going to that whether it's going to override any treatment effect. And so there's some ways to do that kind of research. You know, comparing before and after it's pretty tough, doesn't have very much statistical power.
Is there a lot of variability between the plots one, or the other lot of other factors going into the kinds of things you're studying or
There are definitely other factors, the soils that are out there, the slopes and even just details without getting it all. There's definitely definite plot factors that come in here. Our plots are fairly uniform for this kind of a study. Okay, they're there. They really are. They're fairly uniform in size and in shape and in slope and whatever. not exact but as exact as you can get for an area that big.
But so then the point for looking at the year to year variation is that you get some ideas sort of within a year given the weather, right sort of what's the rain have different possible outcomes that you have like that's that's the part of the point of having that replicability.
From one year to the next definitely. And then also, when once we implement practices like cover crops or fertilizer management, you want to see how that system changes the soil properties over time. So there are some things that might have a very fast response. And then other things in the system that might take a little bit longer to change. So physical properties, organic carbon, those take longer times. And so you really need to look at this over time. And make sure that your treatments have the same impact from one year to the next, as you as a system kind of build. So yeah, so that we set the study up. And now we are in our fifth cropping year.
Nice. So just to get everybody on the same page. What were the treatments? Oh, these 18 plots? What did you do?
Yeah, so the treatments. It's a factorial experiment. So we have two different factors, cover crops, and fertilizer management, we have two levels of cover crop, which would be with cover crop without. And we have three levels of fertilizer management. And this is all focused on phosphorus, because that was our question, three levels of phosphorus management. One is no phosphorus fertilizer. Another one is fall, broadcast, phosphorus fertilizer. And then another one is spring injected phosphorus fertilizer. We are changing multiple things here. If you look at our phosphorus treatments, we're changing rate from nothing to with fertilizer, we're changing sources, because one is using a dry ones using a liquid. We're changing the time and the placement. It's really a system. The reason we chose these systems is because these were typical of the way producers would manage the fertilizers. And we just couldn't replicate every piece of the system. And so we had to say, well, these are the big questions. You know, we'll compare these systems. And so that's why it's set up is really a system. And so it comes up with six treatments, right? Each of the three fertilizer management is with and without, without fertilizer, or with and without cover crop. And then it's replicated three times what was the cover crop changes from year to year, based on when we're able to plant it. Again, this is a little bit the way producers run, the changes aren't drastic. We generally always have a Brassica and a small grain. The small grain has changed from wheat to triticale. Really depending upon kind of the year and, and availability, which one we think is going to grow better for the time we're planting it and when we are going to terminate and what our next crop is. And then the brassicas typically been rapeseed. So rapeseed in winter wheat or rapeseed and try to Kaley
How long do these studies last? We talked about fast and slow changes are we looking at, like we were developing in variety, if we work, it'd be 1012 years that it would have to have to run.
For this study, we will go five years. The first year was really a a year to move into the rotation and the system, right get the get the treatments established. And then four years have more data collection in that system. And those it's a corn soybean rotation. And so that gives us two years of corn and two years of soybean. And so what have you found? Yeah, so this is what this is why we do research. Right. So going into this, I felt positive that we were going to see some good impacts of cover crops on reducing phosphorus loss. I will say that we have seen that. And well, I'll tell you my assumptions going into it. I felt that the cover crops were going to reduce runoff. And by reducing runoff, they were also going to reduce the amount of phosphorus lost from the two systems or from the system. I also thought that we were doing a really good job of controlling sediment already with no till. And so by adding a cover crop to this, it wasn't gonna make a whole lot of difference. And so we weren't going to get a lot of sediment reduction from the cover crop. But we'd get some phosphorus reduction and we'd get some reduction in runoff. And it was wrong in all three accounts.
That's why you do science.
That's That's why you do it. So first, we have reduced sediment loss quite a bit, even in a system where we typically see low set loss, the cover crop is reduced a quite a bit more, we had very low sediment coming off, I mean visually very clean water coming off of the cover crop plots. So that's been great, sort of looking like 70% reduction in sediment not well, it's very consistent year round. It's not just in the springtime or not just, you know, in big storms in the summer, it's year round, we get less sediment loss, less concentration and less overall loss. Typically, with less sediment, we get less phosphorus loss because phosphorus had strongly absorbed to the sediment and so introduce reduce sediment loss, you would reduce phosphorus loss. However, the cover crop reduces the particulate phosphorus to the phosphorus, since it's already the sediment, but the dissolved reactive phosphorus actually increases. And there's a dramatic increase in dissolved reactive phosphorus. And so from three of well, we've got data collected. Now on three years, we're getting our fourth year now of the four years in the rotation. Two of those three years are actually, I think, two of those three years, we had pretty much no impact on total phosphorus loss. Cover crops didn't affect total phosphorus loss, but they affected the form of phosphorus, higher dissolved phosphorus, lower particulate phosphorus and lower sediment loss. The cover crops did not well, the cover crops have had a variable impact on runoff. Where some rainfall events, you'll have higher runoff losses. With a cover crop and some rainfall events, you'll have lower runoff. And so typically, by the time you look at the entire year, the total amount of runoff is about the same.
Going back to the different forms of phosphorus or loss versus with cover crop versus not cover crop is one. Is the partitioning better for water quality one way or the other? Or is it too early to tell?
Yeah, that's a pretty tough question. And probably a better question for an aquatic biologist than an agronomist
have to get one of those on the show.
But I, what I do know is the dissolved reactive is a much more biologically available form of phosphorus. So algae can access that phosphorus much more quickly and easily. They can take it up better. And so it could potentially cause a faster algal bloom whether or not it causes a faster algorithm. That's what you should ask a aquatic biologist.
You know why you're seeing these differences? Like why are the cover crops creating more reactive phosphorus than without?
Let me hold off on answering that question just for a second. The advantage or the disadvantage of particulate phosphorus is you can end up with a lot of legacy phosphorus, so it's going to move slower through the system. So you might lose move a lot of phosphorus sediment, and it might not be immediately available. But that sediment will get deposited in a reservoir, and might be a long term source of phosphorus for years to come.
So even if you stop phosphorus loss at some point, it's still going to be cycling through.
Yeah, it's still gonna be cycling through the system. And so that's why it's kind of tough to say, Well, which one would you rather have? I'd rather just have less phosphorus. Okay. But you're definitely not. You're probably not making it any better by changing those two forms. Okay. Now, your question was, why?
Because this is counterintuitive, right? Because if you read a lot of the literature about cover cropping and things like that, it seems to indicate that phosphorus is going to be retained in the field, right? And their losses are gonna be less yet?
Well, I'll tell you, there's not a whole lot of literature out there. So there's a lot of speculation. So a lot of people want to say there's been a lot of people say that, Oh, cover crops and reduce phosphorus losses. And a lot of this, I think kind of goes back to some of the research done in conventional till, where, you know, conventional till there's a lot of erosion, a lot of phosphorus moving with that sediment. And so when you plant a cover crop and stop that sediment movement, you really stop a lot of phosphorus, okay, because you have a lot of erosion. And so it's kind of taking that same mentality to a no till system saying, well, our cover crops are going to reduce phosphorus loss. Previously, I had said that there hadn't been a whole lot of research done on this. And I should really preface that there had not been a lot of research done in the climates that we have here in Kansas. So the other research had been done in northern climates, such as like Norway, Sweden, Canada, areas that have substantial different climates. And they had found that cover crops caused an increase in dissolved phosphorous, and had attributed that to the freeze thaw cycles and snowmelt runoff that they experienced in their climates. So basically, you get a lot of snowpack around the cover crop tissue, it freezes. And then the next spring when all that snow melts, it releases this phosphorus and, and we have a different system here, we don't have a lot of snow melt run off. Okay, we have some cold winters, but not a lot of snow, a lot of freeze thaw during the winter. And, so it's different system. And so I thought, well, that research doesn't necessarily apply to what we're going to find here. And I still kind of feel like the processes that we're looking at may still be different than what they're what they observed, even though we saw the same result. So there have been other studies that have found an increase in dissolved phosphorus from cover crops. So what is causing it here, it is possible that you could have some additional phosphorus lost from the cover crop tissue. Particularly even though these are winter annuals. So they overwinter and then start growing in the spring, there is some freezing that occurs over the winter. So you can have some tissue that gets frozen could release some cover some phosphorus, after we kill the cover crop, we've seen a little bit of increase in dissolved phosphorus. So it's possible that there could be some phosphorus coming from that cover crop residue. We've done some research and looked at this. And sure enough, we could estimate the amount of phosphorus coming out of cover crop tissue, it's possible that that could be the source. I'm not convinced that's the only source. The cover crops what the cover crops do from a runoff standpoint is they although they're not decreasing the overall amount, overall amount of runoff, they are decreasing the time or increasing the time that the runoff is in or the waters in the field. Or they're decreasing the time of the runoff. Right. So where we don't have cover crops, the runoff comes off the field a lot faster. So you get higher peak flows.
Just faster runoff that help explain the sediment.
Definitely helps explain the sediment. Yeah, so one of the reasons why these cover crops really help sediment is because the runoff is coming off slow. But what that's going to do also is it's going to increase the contact time with soil. So it's possible that we're releasing desorbing more phosphorus from the soil into the water, or even from fertilizer.
Do you see the broadcast applications? Making a difference versus the injected applications in that respect? Is there more desorbed? When it's retained in the field in the broadcast application?
Sure. The broadcast? We haven't talked about the fertilizer treatments at all yet, right? No. So we tend to see higher phosphorus concentrations and runoff from the broadcast treatment until we apply the spring injected. And then after that, they're about the same. And but I will say over time, those concentrations, once we make our broadcast application, over time, those tend to decrease the concentration tends to decrease. And then by the time the next spring comes around, we apply our spring fertilizer, we see an increase in phosphorus loss right after application of the spring fertilizer, and then they're about equal from there on out.
So they're equal rate at that point. But for total phosphorus loss than the total phosphorus total phosphorus.
If you look at the total mass, because there's been lost during this winter and early spring period, the total loss is higher.
Right, sort of and that was consistent with what you predicted then that was great. Except that then the crop didn't help the cover crop mitigate that at all right? Yeah. Well, or change the nature of the runoff, right. Yeah, right.
So there was no fertilizer by cover crop interaction.
Not really no, not nothing consistent. There have been a few years where you see some subtle things. But I would need a lot of graphs, it's probably probably too detailed to discuss.
What's the primary source of variation that you encounter here, primary source of variation, but contributes the most of the variation that you see.
Gosh, there are a lot of things that contributed there's a lot of variation in this kind of data. Weather creates a very big, a lot of variation from one rainfall event to the next. Right. And from one plot to the next, because you have differences, even though I said these are very similar, still huge differences in the amount of runoff that comes off of one plot to the next, anytime we get less than two millimeters of runoff, it's really hard for us to analyze the data, because we get some plots that didn't produce enough runoff. So you have to get enough runoff that you get runoff from all your plots, then you can collect all your data and analyze it. We still get a fair amount of plot to plot variability. These are big plots, differences in crop growth and things like that. So that contributes a lot to variability as well.
Yeah, but Britain, none of that invalidates the approach. So you can take this approach to allow if you want if you needed to or wherever so it's, it has, it has a global reach, potentially, at least it does, it could definitely be expanded.
I will say that what has helped us a little bit with our study is the factorial design, the fact that we have half of our plots in cover crop and half without we have a lot more power to look at some main effects.
So you've seen the yield effects. We didn't get to that.
Oh, yield. Yeah, we have seen some yield effects. And their weather contributes a lot more to the variability because you know, we might get five to 30 Different runoff events in a year, right. So we'll get variability from one event to the next, but we still get runoff yield, we get one yield each year. And that's a factor of all the weather. And we've had a few years they've been pretty tough. And the last two years, we've had some pretty low yields. And so our corn and soybean yields have been pretty low, because of some drought conditions. And there we have not seen the effect of fertilizer, either the amount or the placement really strong. Okay. We have seen the effect of cover crops though, because when you get into these years where we have less water, if you had a cover crop that used water in the beginning of the year, then.
Also the actually uses the water that the crop men can't use, you see lower yields in the cover crop,
See some lower yields where the cover crop is you have some lower yields, you might also the cover crop, you know, shades a little bit, there's a little bit of some slower emergence we've had, we've had some years where we get a lot of cover crop growth in the spring, you've know, there's not a lot of water that grows really well. And then you try and plant a main crop in there and a little bit of a, you know, a yield drag because your emergence is slower.
You didn't kill it off.
Well, you kill it off, but they're still there. Right? It's still there. Yep. And so some of that is learning on our part. And initially, when we moved into this, I wanted, because with water quality project, I wanted to grow as much biomass as we could to make sure that we had enough biomass out there to impact water quality. I've since learned that we didn't need that much biomass, we've had some years where we get very low biomass. This last year even we had, I don't know the numbers, but it was a few 100 pounds per acre, very, very low biomass. But we've seen some very big impacts on these heavy spring rains, even though it's not very much biomass. And so I've learned that this is we don't have treatments that with high biomass and low biomass, but from my observation, we don't need as much biomass as I initially thought. When we were growing a lot of biomass, that's when it hurts, your crop yields a little bit more. And so we've changed a little bit of our management, you know, to and some of this, it's not necessarily even our change, it's what Mother Nature gave us. Right? We had a really cold winter. That's why we had not very much biomass this last year. But we when you get when you don't have as much biomass than the main crop can grow better.
So one of the advantages of growing a cover crop is that adds carbon to the soil which can increase water holding capacity and that sort of thing, which is supposed to make soils more resilient to drought, right. So do you think over time, you'll stop seeing the negative impact of cover crops in these drought years or in Kansas where you have, you know, the Kansas climb and all of that probably won't make as much of a difference. There's a too early to tell. Sure.
There are two sides to that. First off, we need to recognize the soils that we selected for this our soils. This is a runoff study. So we selected soils that are going to give runoff and that but they're very typical of this area of Kansas northeast Kansas has a lot of soils that have heavy clay subsoil, and so you don't get a lot of infiltration, not a fast infiltration into this. And they're on sloping hills and things like that, if you were doing the same study on a soil that did not have a heavy increase in clay, you might see differences in the amount of in the cover crop effect on runoff. Okay, now to your question, because we have that heavy clay subsoil, it's going to take a little bit of time for the cover crop to really improve soil properties there enough to really improve things like water holding capacity, and maybe even change infiltration or, or deep percolation, I would say, so that, for these soils, it's going to take more time for some of their soils, it might be faster.
So what's going to happen with the project does it after the fifth year are you going to try to continue it on or?
We're definitely going to try and continue it on. We're looking at changing up some of the treatments, we'd really like to keep the cover crops in place. Because there are we are seeing some improvements in soil physical properties already, such as improved aggregate stability. In the surface, what we're hoping is maybe that can move down as you get more cover crops, those roots grow down deeper, it's a slow process. So we'd really like to see how the cover crop continues to change the soil properties over many years. From a nutrient standpoint, I'm fairly convinced that the subsurface injection is really improving our nutrient losses, or decreasing our phosphorus losses and making for more efficient system making Yeah, and so that's probably a good way to go. We are in what we call a build and maintain phosphorus management system where we're trying to build the soil test levels up and then maintain them at a high level. When I say high, it's not really high, but it's high enough that the soil could supply all of the crop requirements. And we just replace what the crop takes out. There's a different approach to this, where we could mine the soil, the phosphorus out of the soil, and only apply fertilizer, if we think there will be a yield loss that year if we don't apply it. sufficiency approach. I really think from a water quality standpoint, there might be some advantages. In the sufficiency approach, particularly because we are not applying fertilizer, we see dramatically less phosphorus in our runoff. So our control treatment, which we really didn't talk about much or control treatment is showing noticeably lower phosphorus concentrations year round, from the other fertilizer treatment probably lower yields to you know, as as early in some in, in one year, we saw a very significant yield effect at this out of three years. Another year. It was significant at the 10% level. And then the other year, there was no yield effect that last year, the third year of the project. There was an those because weather had a bigger impact. So there is a yield effect. But actually, the cover crop had a bigger yield effect, then the fertilizer.
Just shows how complicated all of this is. It is yeah.
So sorry. Okay, so I wanted to ask you about that part. So given how complicated this is, right, so all these sorts of questions, right. So all right, you're looking at phosphorus runoff. But oh, you know, there's different kinds of phosphorus runoff and right sort of what's the effective of the cover crop? Well, did you mean on yield? Or did you mean on sort of quality of soil or sort of so many different factors, right. And then, and then there's questions about sort of the, how you translate this right, sort of to what if the weather's a little different? Or what if we're going somewhere else? Right, and sort of, or what if you're doing a sufficiency approach? Right. So, two big questions here, right. So given all that complication, sort of how do you translate a study like this into recommendations, right, number one, and then sort of thinking longer term or down the line? How do you see like in terms of people's uptake, right, sort of, you know, you just did this really complicated study, right. So what do you recommend to them? And sort of, you know, how do you convince them? Where do they get convinced, right? Sure.
Um, you know, from this kind of a study, and particularly where we're looking at a systems approach. Our recommendations are going to be a little bit more broad in general, right. So some of the things we have learned is Cover crops are definitely an advantage for soil concert. They do a great job of soil conservation and reducing erosion. From a water management standpoint, they reduce peak runoff rates. That may that could be an advantage from flood management, stormwater management other things, right, there could be some other advantages from that stream bank erosion, a whole host of other things. I'm not for sure if the impact on the hydrology is enough to impact these other things. But still, I view that as an advantage. So it's slowing the runoff, that's an advantage. So, cover crops still have advantages for water quality, but they are not a silver bullet. Right. And in from some standpoints, using a cover crop may mean that you need to pay more attention to some other nutrient management standpoints. And so from when we look at nutrient management, we're looking at the time you're applying it the source, the rate, the placement, those things, I would say that definitely when you're moving into a cover crop system, I would recommend subsurface placement of your fertilizer, because that's going to reduce the dissolved phosphorus concentration. And that's what is typically being increased from this cover crop. So as far as rate, you know, that's where that would be the next question that that we're looking at is, can you using this cover crop? And from a water quality standpoint? Can we do something different than our typical build and maintain fertilizer management, and still maintain our yields and maintain our economic competitiveness, but still managed? And that's, that's a part that we need more next time need more research on? Because? Well, as I already explained, my assumption here, right, is true.
So we need some science.
Yeah. And so we just look at where we're going to hit at the next step, to try and drill down and improve our agricultural systems. So that we can maintain good quality water.
We hear in popular media and stuff that eutrophication issues are becoming more and more prevalent to the public, right? news organizations pick up issues in Lake Erie or Chesapeake Bay, or even here in Kansas, and different areas. We talked before we started the podcast, where do you see all of this maybe going? All right, I mean, is there going to be governmental intervention? Or are farmers going to are we going to need to come up with more economical ways of managing these nutrients for farmers? So they switch to this where do you see nutrient management going? In a larger and a larger context?
I think definitely there will be more interest in, in reducing losses, and reducing environmental impacts of nutrients. I think we see that from the public in general. And when we see more issues where the public, you know, actually has to pay for this, whether they pay for it in increased treatment costs or something like that, then they're going to naturally be interested in stopping this problem. It's a very complex problem, though, a very, very complex set of issues.
We have because farmers aren't the only ones that are contributing to this, the nutrient sources, exactly wastewater treatment plants and all that also, depending on the system, contribute
there, are other nutrient sources. Some of the water bodies impacted, I'll have to say are not natural. That's a whole nother thing. Right here in Kansas, we've got a lot of reservoirs that have severe algal bloom problems, toxic algal blooms over the past 10 years that have really, really a big change. And some of that has been attributed to nutrient management. But at the same time, we have to recognize these are all reservoirs. There was not a lake there for a reason. So you can't expect it to behave the same as some other water body, right. Anyway, there's a whole whole host of questions related to this. I think in the end, it's still in our head, it's to our advantage. Ours meaning society and ours, meaning the agricultural community and ours meaning farmers. So our advantage to reduce losses. Again, reducing losses is not going to fix every problem. It's not going to make our water crystal clear tomorrow, but it will conserve a resource that we're paying for managing and it will, in the long run, I believe it will improve the water quality. It's going to take a little bit of while we're going to take some time, because there's some legacy nutrient that are in these different water bodies, but it will take time it will improve it and we've seen that in Lake Erie when they initially made a big push to improve water quality, through tightening regulation on wastewater treatment plants, it responded fairly fast. I mean, years, but, you know, they saw improvements. And you know, I, we can see that, again, if we reduce losses from agriculture.
Great. We want to be respectful of your time. Is there anything that you'd like to say that maybe we haven't covered here? We're Scott, and John has anything you like to ask?
Oh, this is your end to end of podcast chance to pull forth?
So I will say that as far as the future, where's it? where's this going to go? You asked about regulation and other things. I think that the future to me is fairly bright on this standpoint, because the industry itself, I talk about the fertilizer industry, the agricultural industry, in general, the leaders in that industry want to see lower losses, they have they see that as an advantage to their industry. There are food consumers or consumers, I mean, like in the food chain, large companies that are looking for ways to document sustainability of their products, and water quality, making sure that they have, that their products are produced in a way that is sustainable from a water quality standpoint, it is an interest. And I think there are probably people in the public that might view that favorably when they're looking at making purchasing choices. And so there are a lot of things going in there. And from different areas that I think would say that in the long run, I think we will move towards a more sustainable system.
Just just quickly to take into their as far as food processes and things like that, what sort of metrics are they looking at for sustainability in that regard? Do you have any examples?
In regard to water quality, we're at the watercooler. Like you can't buy anything right now that has a stamp on it that says, you know, water quality approved or whatever, but no, you see, I mean, is that what you're referring to there?
Well, so the best example of the food industry looking at, at documenting sustainability is the field to market movement. And so they've got web pages, you can look at it, they have a field print calculator that tries to document the sustainability, from energy to like carbon emissions to nutrient loss, all sorts of things, they try and put all this into one thing to give their product or a grain or whatever a sustainability print. The water quality side of that is still under development. They have a very rough rubric. And I know from talking with them, they're interested in improving the metric for water quality, but it's a tough metric to approach.
As we've just discussed, right? Well, Nathan, hey, we really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us and thanks so much. Thank you very much.
Thanks. Thanks for having me. I've enjoyed the discussion.
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Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.