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Research shines light on farming, its effect on the environment: A-J News Link

image image A collaboration of research efforts spanning more than a decade takes a closer look at how West Texas producers farm and how farming affects the environment. The shared goal of finding methods that would keep agriculture profitable for producers and preserve natural resources linked Texas Tech with the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension, farmers, the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No. 1 and the USDA, among other agencies.

In 1997, the group organized a sustainability research project in the South Plains because of the area’s thriving agriculture industry and declining water resources, said Vivien Gore Allen of the Texas Tech Department of Plant and Soil Science. The Texas Coalition for Sustainable Integrated Systems (TeCSIS) research project compares the traditional cotton-only – or monoculture – farming system with one that combines cotton, grain crops, grass seed and livestock production.

Since the region is so “cotton-concentrated,” there was little integration of the cotton and livestock agriculture systems, said Philip Brown, senior research associate in forage/livestock systems at Texas Tech. “With cotton in a monoculture situation, you’ve got more risks involved,” he said. “We were just looking at some possibilities … to diversify the risk from a monoculture cotton but also find ways to reduce the water being used from the Ogallala (Aquifer).”

The group of researchers established TeCSIS with a $222,125 grant in 1997 from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. The project began on about 35 acres at the Texas Tech Research Farm in New Deal and expanded to more than 100 acres through two additional USDA-SARE grants.

Including investments from Texas Tech, industry, state and community, TeCSIS received more than $1.8 million for equipment and supplies. From those grants, three phases were established to determine the profitability, productivity and environmental impact of various agriculture systems.

Phase I consisted of cotton monoculture and an integrated cotton/forage/livestock system. Phase II, in its sixth year, compares cotton monoculture with a dryland integrated cotton/forage/livestock system and an all-forage system for stocker steers. Phase III started this year and added an integrated crop/forage-finished beef cattle system and a forage sorghum monoculture to the project. Both systems use sub-surface drip irrigation and dryland components.

“It’s a very complex, very focused project to understand how these systems work,” Allen said. “From that understanding, we are then able to design systems that are more sustainable, have a far less negative impact on the environment and use less resources but remain profitable.”

She said other parts of the world where water is scarce could learn from the research obtained from TeCSIS and start similar projects. While each agency in TeCSIS focuses on a different subject, the long-term research has benefits for everyone involved. TeCSIS may even be the largest research project of its kind in the country, she said, because it connects producers, policymakers, scientists and the USDA, and allows for a constant exchange of information.

Making the change from a monoculture system to an integrated crop/livestock system will be difficult for those accustomed to monoculture farming, Allen said, but the long-term research appears to favor diversification. After 10 years, researchers found the integrated crop/livestock system used less water and nitrogen fertilizer than cotton monoculture, improved soil health and brought in added income.

Although diversification equates to more work for the producer, Schur said it leads to more income in the long run. Should the crop have low yields or the weather ruin the cotton crop, there will still be other means to earn money. This year on the research farm, Brown said, 99 black Angus cattle were added to feed on a variety of native and perennial grasses for Phase III. In the coming years, he will study the effects of the grass types and a mostly forage diet on the cattle’s weight and nutrition.

By Alyssa Dizon

CONTACT: Vivien Allen, Horn Professor and Thornton Distinguished Professor of Forages, Department of Plant and Soil Science, (806) 742-1625 or

0712NM10 / Photo Illustration: N Martin

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