Sustainable Integrated Systems Research: A Brief History
Author: Philip Brown
The need to develop long term sustainable integrated systems is growing and vital not only to agriculture but to the global community as a whole. Environmental issues, world hunger, water depletion, renewable energy and economic impacts are just a few of the many factors that are affecting our changing world. We must develop long term solutions to these problems if we are to continue living on this planet.
To address these solutions we must study the long term effects of systems over many years to evaluate the intracacies of these factors and how they interact and impact the environment and the system as a whole. Long-term research is difficult and expensive in that it requires a substantial investment in both land area and a commitment by the research team undertaking such research. The potential benefits, however, far out-weigh the costs when you consider the information that can be garnered and some that would never be discovered if this research were not in place for a long enough period of time. This type of research allows a much broader scope and potential if allowed to be a platform for a diverse range of research scientists, used as an education tool for students and agricultural producers and allowed to aid in government policy making decisions. It takes a unique group of individuals to work together and in tandem to make an undertaking of this magnitude both successful and beneficial.
Our sustainable research program has come a long way from its beginnings in 1997. At that time a small group of individuals including Texas Tech & Texas A&M researchers, USDA-NRCS, High Plains Underground Water District and area producers came together to discuss the need for integrated systems research. Issues were discussed and thanks to an inital grant by the USDA SARE-ACE program the work began at the Texas Tech Agricultural Research field laboratory near New Deal, Texas on approximately 35 acres of land.
We initially set out to integrate the enormous cotton monoculture of the Texas High Plains with livestock production to produce feedlot ready stocker steers for entry into the massive feedlot industry of the area. The original goal was to compare a cotton monoculture to an integrated crop/livestock production system that would decrease water use, decrease fertilizer and chemical inputs, improve soil health, and maintain or improve profitability. An advisory committee was formed consisting of area producers, the agricultural commodities industry, High Plains Underground Water District and local businesses to help guide our research objectives and address the needs of the area.
This research was expanded in 2002 with another USDA SARE grant that allowed us to expand our research to include an integrated cotton/livestock dryland system, and an irrigated all perennial forage based system on an additional 105 acres of land provided by the Texas Tech College of Agriculture. These systems required a longer startup due to the infrastructure that had to be put in place including a new water well , irrigation system, planting of forages, fencing, and livestock water devices. This infrastructure could not be put in place using the federal grant funds and we used our local resource reserve to put this infrastructure in place.
In 2004 our research led directly to a $6.2 million grant from the Texas Water Development Board to establish a "real world" demonstration project on area farms and relate our research to the demonstration project and evaluate producer practices, thus, the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC) was born. This program directed by a board of area producers in Hale and Floyd counties has grown to over 27 producer sites on over 4,000 acres with diverse production and irrigation systems. The TAWC is an alliance of producers, industries, universities, government agencies, and area businesses. The inital charge of the TAWC is to "use less water and make more money" for agricultural producers while conserving our water resource. It is an opportunity for those involved to make a difference in conserving our most precious natural resource and help guide policy lawmakers in decisions concerning water and other related issues.
In 2008 a third USDA SARE grant allowed us to utilize the platform put in place in 1997, while maintaining its longterm integrity, and to reconfigure and study the potential for forage finished beef and/or shorten the finishing time required in the feedlot due to the increased grain prices and cost of carrying cattle for long finishing periods. Due to the time of establishment 2010 was the first year of cattle on study, however the two drought years of 2011 and 2012 have delayed further research. Our intent is to reinitiate this study in 2013.
In 2010 we received a fourth USDA SARE grant for long-term systems research to support the continuing efforts of studying long term effects of systems and the effects on our natural resources. This reviewed and potentially renewable grant is intended to provide basic support for the existing ongoing research. This will allow the original systems research to grow and expand the research efforts through new state, federal, private grant and other funding opportunities while maintaining the necessary support for the basic operations of the original long-term platform research established in 1997.
The Texas High Plains are unique in that it represents not just one of the most intensive agricultural production areas of the U.S. but it presents many of the issues that are faced world-wide with many similarities to other ecosystems around the world. This provides a unique opportunity to study global issues and how parts of a system and the resources available interact and work together. Our forage/livestock systems program has grown from a small research area of a few acres to over 150 acres, added over 4,000 acres in the TAWC project, incorporated area producers, local businesses, industry, multiple universities, private research intities, regulatory agencies and federal and state government agencies. Since our beginnings in 1997 we have developed into the Texas Coalition for Sustainable Integrated Systems (TeCSIS). Our opportunity is to address not just issues affecting our area, but the U.S. and the world as a whole and to take the lead in providing solutions to many of the world's problems that we face today and into the future.
We thank the USDA-SARE program, Texas Water Development Board, Texas Tech College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, our local producers, businesses and industry for their involvement and support, but the need to continue this type of long term research is critical if we are to find solutions to the global issues confronting us today. We can make a difference, but support for these types of programs are critical to our success and to the survival of this planet!