In Depth: PSS researchers search for innovative ways to improve cotton
By: Karen Michael
For roughly 45 years, Matt Farmer has been growing cotton just east of Lamesa, and he wants nothing more than to take care of his land so that his children and grandchildren can continue working the land as he and his father have.
He's seen many changes over the years. As profit margins have gotten smaller, tractors have gotten larger -- from limited-row versions of the past to massive two- and four-track configurations capable of handling large planters and implements now -- and much more expensive. Farmer has also seen changes in how much things cost, and he is more careful about what he is putting into the land.
Farmer is relying on research like that of Texas Tech's College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources to make his operation more efficient and profitable in the future. CASNR researchers are working on a broad spectrum of research related to cotton from using use robots to speed up crop analysis to using drones to monitor crop health; from taking poor quality cotton and transforming it into a biodegradable, plastic-like product to examining microbial solutions to bind soil.
Associate Professor of Crop Physiology | PSS Department Chair
Ritchie has worked to monitor water use and consumption with remote sensors by running robots through the fields to take measurements of how big each plant was growing and how much cotton it was producing.
"It got really time consuming to try to go out and take measurements on thousands of plots in a week," said Ritchie. "We started looking at ways we could speed this process up."
Ritchie said he had a very talented graduate student who worked with him to build a robot from scratch, using an Xbox controller to drive the robot. The robot could be driven between plants to take measurements, and as an added bonus to its speed, it was also more consistent than human eyes.
While a human could get through 40-50 plots per day, the robot could do hundreds of plots in four hours. "It wasn't nearly as cool as WALL-E. It wasn't able to look around, but it was able to go out, and for this one task, it was very good at picking out where the bolls are," Ritchie said. The robotic research team recently received another BASF Project Revolution grant to continue the project, Ritchie said.
Assistant Professor | Crop Ecophysiology & Precision Agriculture
Joint appointment - Texas AgriLife Research
Just like humans can run a high temperature when ill, cotton and other plants display the same temperature spikes when there is a problem with the plant. Guo is using drones to determine the health of plants.
At Texas Tech, most of Guo's research focuses on improving cotton production, but he said most of his research related to remote sensing could be applied to other crops because the principles are the same. His drones, which are about six feet wide and can carry 20 pounds of sensors, can measure or assess temperature, stand count, height, leaf area, canopy cover, and plant maturity.
"Mostly, we use the drones for remote sensing. We mount some sensors on the drone so that we can monitor the plant health conditions during the growing season," Guo said. "If a plant is under stress, especially water stress, we use canopy temperature and other information from these sensors to assess the severity of stress for improving crop management."
If farmers have data from drones about their fields that indicate where plants are consistently underperforming, they can focus their water resources on the areas of the field that are more productive, Guo said.
"We have to think how to more wisely use our resources, especially water. If we apply water and nitrogen more than needed, there could be environmental concerns," Guo said. "We can produce more with less input using technology. That's one of the goals in precision agriculture."
Leidigh Professor | Managing Director - Fiber & Biopolymer Research Institute
When cotton quality is low, farmers still need to sell the product. Texas Tech researchers
are exploring new ways to use cotton that may not be ideal for a shirt or jeans.
Abidi's team has found a way to make a profit with low-quality cotton by mimicking another product entirely. They have broken cotton fibers down into cellulose that can be molded in a gel form and shaped into a plastic-like substance. When handled, the smooth and pliable product looks and feels very much like the same plastic found in sandwich bags. It can also be made into thicker forms for other needs.
Unlike plastic, which does not easily decompose, cotton used for this purpose is biodegradable. "It is basically going from the soil to the soil," Abidi said.
Assistant Professor | Soil Microbial Ecology/Biochemistry
Another Texas Tech researcher is looking into ways to improve the health of the soil in West Texas. Slaughter specializes in soil microbial ecology and biochemistry. She is interested in the relationship between agricultural plants and the microbes that are both above and below the ground.
Slaughter said research that Texas Tech has been involved in for years before she came to Lubbock is interesting to her, because it involved growing cotton on land for a few years, then taking it out of rotation and allowing cattle to graze in those areas.
"We need a little bit more of that research ongoing to find ways that cotton farmers may be able to diversify their production systems while still making money, which is one of the big caveats," Slaughter said. "Maybe you want to grow something else besides cotton for one year, maybe you ought to have a small section of your farm that has a really high-value crop. But really, our primary outcome is profitability and water savings."
Slaughter's research is in its third year and has focused on whether adding more microbes to the soil can increase soil health and cotton yield. She said in the first year of research, there was little change, but that wasn't entirely unexpected because the environment in West Texas is harsh. But after the second year, she said her team saw some differences in the soil microbes.
"There could be long-term effects on soil because of what microbes do in terms of helping it to be more stable, helping bind it together a little bit better, to keep it from blowing away as badly, or helping pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in that soil," Slaughter said.
Assistant Professor | Plant Physiology
Separately, Laza wants to find traits that will be used by breeders to develop cultivars for our increasingly changing climatic patterns.
"With the plateauing of cotton yield under current growing season, shifting cultivation by early planting will allow crops to grow under a more favorable seasonal pattern, used stored spring water, and avoid late season diseases and pests, with a potential for increase yields," said the plant physiology specialist.
Laza has been at the Texas Tech for just over a year after working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Also, with the recurring seasonal droughts, farmers may have to adjust their production systems by using climate resilient genotypes suitable for their growing regions," Laza said.
CONTACT: Glen Ritchie, Department Chair, Department of Plant and Soil Science, Texas Tech University at (806) 742-4325 or firstname.lastname@example.org
1201NM20 / Editor's Note: For the full-text version of Karen Michael's story, please click here. Michael is a senior editor with Texas Tech University's Office of Research Development & Communications.
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