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Features from the Farm: News from the West Central Research and Outreach Center

The West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), Morris, has a long-standing reputation for providing value-driven and evidence-based agricultural outcomes not only for Minnesotans but also for the greater region. We continue to seek ways to mitigate challenges that face agriculture and producers, which leads us to two exciting research projects for 2018: studying organic swine production, and recycling runoff.

Organic Swine Production

Swine producers looking to transition into organic production will soon have additional resources and support from the University of Minnesota swine research team.  Yuzhi Li, Associate Professor of Swine Behavior and Welfare at the WCROC, was recently awarded funding through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to look at ways to better support organic swine producers.

As a U of MN entity, the WCROC is uniquely positioned to solve some of the issues surrounding organic swine production using a multidisciplinary approach.  Production areas such as cost, return on investment, organic feed, genetics, health, and welfare will all be evaluated.  Yuzhi will partner with other staff and faculty from the WCROC, U of MN St. Paul campus, USDA-ARS, and other ROC's to look at utilizing cover crops, such as camelina, as feed ingredients to reduce feed costs for organic swine producers.

One of the goals of the project is to "provide scientific-based information to producers to help them in organic swine production," says Yuzhi.  "Small scale organic producers face different problems from large scale producers, and would benefit from University research as well."

A large component of the project is outreach. By better understanding the issues that organic producers face, programming and recommendations can be developed.  A series of seminars and focus groups will aim to identify issues and challenges that organic producers face.

A small percentage of the swine herd at the WCROC will transition to organic practices for purposes of this project. At this time, we have not determined if organic practices will continue past the life of this project. This research is made possible by the USDA National Institute on Food and Agriculture (NIFA) through two grants entitled: 1) Integrated Research and Extension Planning — Organic Swine, and 2) Breaking barriers to organic swine transition: Utilizing cover crops as feed ingredients to reduce feed cost.

Recycling Runoff

Eutrophication is primarily driven by excessive nutrients [i.e., carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P)]. The impacts of these nutrients entering the watershed, and ultimately other water sources, include increased production of algae and other aquatic plants, shifts in habitat characteristics, production of toxins, and deoxygenation of water leading to fish death. Fortunately, advancement in renewable energy systems and agricultural practices can contribute to offsetting some of these deleterious environmental consequences through strategic capture, conversion, and recycling of N and P back into animal feed or biofertilizer which is applied back to production soils. These approaches ultimately improve soil resources and agricultural sustainability. Essentially, algae will grow on N and P from non-point agricultural sources, this project is a way to grow advantageous algae upstream of watersheds to mitigate the N and P before it causes eutrophication.

Rob Gardner, Assistant Professor of Renewable Energy at the U of MN WCROC, was recently awarded funds through the MnDRIVE Environment 2017 Seed Grant for the development of an integrated project focused on efficient and strategic microbial capture, conversion, and recycling of human-generated CO2, N and P from urban and agricultural runoff.

Dr. Gardner's approaches have potential to be translational across multiple scales and geographic areas. The goal of this project is to demonstrate sustainable recycling of N and P using useful algal strains isolated from local environments. These algal strains use sunlight as a renewable energy source, CO2, and in some cases N2 from the atmosphere. Local strains of algae will be tested for nutritional characteristics, lack of toxin production, and their influence on soil physiology and fertility.  Dr. Gardner maintains lab space at the USDA-ARS Soils Lab facility in Morris.

Funding for this project includes hiring of a post-doctoral associate, which will be located at the WCROC.

MnDRIVE - Minnesota's Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy — is a landmark partnership between the University and the state of Minnesota that aligns areas of University research strength with the state's key and emerging industries to address grand challenges.

For more information about research happening at the WCROC, visit