MU capstone course brings land-grant functions together
The University of Missouri is part of the land-grant system and is designed with three functions: research, teaching and Extension. A good example of how these functions work in unison is found in Agricultural Systems Management 4970, a capstone class.
Capstone classes ask students to complete a final project utilizing knowledge accumulated during their time in college.
"In the capstone class we look at developing both a technical analysis component as well as an economic analysis component," said Joe Zulovich, an Extension agricultural engineer who has taught the ASM capstone within the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. "My experience has been that if students have actual real-life problems they can relate to, they tend to do better and are more excited about what they are doing."
Several students with an interest in cropping systems chose a project researching equipment that would incorporate the herbicide atrazine into the soil to reduce runoff and prevent erosion.
Reducing runoff into watersheds is a big deal. Current regulations only allow three parts per billion of atrazine in drinking water. Atrazine is presently used on more than 85 percent of the corn acres in the state and is one of the most effective and least costly herbicides in use. If atrazine were banned, it would substantially impact the cost of corn production, according to Bob Broz, an Extension assistant professor who presented this idea to the class.
The cost of using atrazine is about $12 per acre, Broz said. The next most effective herbicide option costs $26 per acre more than atrazine.
Atrazine is a highly water-soluble product that can bond with water and run off a field very quickly. It also bonds with the soil, and research has shown that incorporation is one of the best ways to keep atrazine where it is placed. There is atrazine loss through soil erosion, so finding a farming system that combines incorporation and reducing soil erosion is important.
"This class allowed us to look at what types of equipment are available that not only can incorporate atrazine from a half-inch to an inch deep but still provide us with 30 percent crop residue cover to prevent soil erosion," Broz said. "If we can keep atrazine where we place it and reduce the amount of runoff from the field, we'll have a much better chance to keep it as a viable product in these watershed areas."
The students' work led to a research and demonstration project. Broz sits on a state review committee with the Environmental Protection Agency, MU and Syngenta looking at atrazine monitoring in the Midwest. At one of those meetings, the topic of the students' project came up.
"EPA and Syngenta talked with us about this and said they would be willing to provide some funding if we were willing to do a demonstration plot," Broz said. "So that led us to write the grant based on the recommendations from the students and then preparing this demonstration plot."
Several research and demonstration plots were developed to look at three different farming systems. Researchers led by Bob Lerch, a soil scientist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, looked at the application rates and then took soil and water samples, looking at how much residue cover there was, how much runoff was found from rain, how much herbicide was in the water, and how much sediment was in the water.
"This is a prime example of the way the land-grant system is supposed to work," Broz said. "We have done some research, but we also have an idea of a need. We take that research and use it as a cornerstone for getting the students involved to look at other things in practical application."
Lerch says this process was a great model for collaboration among three arms of the land-grant system.
"The students definitely helped us do some things we wouldn't have had time to do," said Lerch, who is also an adjunct assistant professor at MU. "Extension was important because Broz helped the students understand the bigger context of the water-quality problems that are being dealt with. So Extension was the link between the students and the research."
There was also a fourth role, which was industry. Lerch says that Syngenta had a keen interest in demonstrating that the company was sincere about addressing the atrazine problems in claypan areas. Syngenta was willing to fund the research, and Lerch says the company was very hands-off.
"I think a lot of people maybe assume that I took money from industry so therefore they somehow biased the results," Lerch said. "Everything I've presented to any audience has been my interpretation of the results. Syngenta did not try to hide or obfuscate or influence the outcome one bit."