KCARE Research Today

From the Director

Dan Devlin

Welcome to the first issue of the new KCARE newsletter series! KCARE focuses on projects that find and implement solutions to issues around agriculture and the environment, such as water quality, irrigation and water quantity, the impacts of cover crops and tillage practices, fertility, climate change, air quality, etc. We want to make sure that we get information about this important work to you as soon as possible – and this newsletter will play a large role in that. This monthly publication will spotlight Kansas State University research and extension faculty as well as provide summaries of cutting-edge research and extension projects conducted here at K-State. I am excited to bring this information to you, and I thank the faculty and staff for their support.

You will also notice that the KCARE website is being completely revamped with much more current information – on both faculty and projects. Keep checking back to find new updates!

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Growing more with less: Using irrigation technologies to extend the life of the Ogallala Aquifer

Researcher installs soil sensors below crops

Water use is something that both researchers and farmers have explored for decades: what happens to a crop when irrigation is reduced? All backyard gardeners or self-proclaimed green thumb know that plants need water. But how much water is enough? What amount still guarantees healthy plant growth and a good yield of wheat, corn, alfalfa, sorghum, or sunflower? Agricultural engineers are experimenting with new ways to grow more with less water in a process called deficit irrigation: it’s a practice where farmers reduce the amount of water applied to a crop, allowing mild stress to the growing plants.

According to the FAO, irrigated agriculture uses more than 70 percent of the water withdrawn from the earth’s rivers; in developing countries around the world, that figure can exceed 80 percent. In Kansas, irrigation accounts for 85 percent of all consumptive water use ­– mainly from the Ogallala aquifer. With unsure rainfalls and aquifers diminishing faster than they can recharge, the trick is knowing exactly how much stress a crop can take, and precisely adjusting irrigation to still result in a profitable harvest. Dr. Isaya Kisekka, an assistant professor in K-State’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, is working to take the guesswork out of the equation and give farmers the tools they need to maintain their net profitability and protect the state’s water resources for future Kansas farmers.

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Wearing down the problem: Building a model to solve ephemeral gully erosion

Student uses backpack camera to photograph field

Erosion can be a major problem for Kansas farmers: with every downpour or major weather event, precious topsoil slides away from arable fields. This eroded soil can leave large, unplantable tracts in what should be rich agricultural land. One such type of erosion yields larger rills called ephemeral gullies: they often form in the same place year after year and although they can be removed, it all adds to the farmer’s management time and cost.

Not much is known about the effectiveness of current practices for the reduction of ephemeral gully erosion. Some producers use terraces or winter cover crops to mitigate the problem. Others try creating obstacles or artificial swales to stop gully formation. It’s a time-consuming process that eats away at the farmer’s ability to focus on planting, growing, and harvesting.

That’s where Dr. Aleksey Sheshukov and his team come in. They want to assess ephemeral gully erosion by monitoring soil loss for ephemeral gullies on several no-till fields in Kansas. This will help them to evaluate the factors contributing to this type of soil loss by creating a predictive model. Once this model is complete, the team will use it to create a set of best management practices for farmers to slow ephemeral gully erosion or, better yet, keep it from happening at all.

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Planting new foundations: Streambank stabilization on the Smoky Hill River

Excavator removes trees from stream bank

Streambank erosion in Kansas is a serious concern, particularly upstream of reservoirs. In just one year, normal changes in rainfall or storm events lead to tons of soil from streambanks washing away into the water, headed downstream. That same sediment, when unchecked, also can diminish reservoir capacity, degrade wetland areas, and create problems with municipal water systems.

With approval from the Corps of Engineers and funding from both the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and Watershed Restoration and Protections Strategies (WRAPS), watershed specialist Ron Graber and his team partnered with a select few landowners along the Smoky Hill River interested in trying an untried method of streambank stabilization. This experiment is called a “woody revetment,” and, if successful, could save landowners tens of thousands of dollars – more, if there are several unstable streambanks on a property.

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Spotlight on: KCARE Scientists

Isaya Kisekka

Dr. Isaya Kisekka didn’t dream about becoming an agricultural engineer. In fact, while taking his university entrance examinations in his home country of Uganda, Kisekka was imagining his future in the field of electrical engineering.

It wasn’t in the cards. In Uganda, the government influences what students will study while at university, especially for those students like Kisekka who received merit government scholarships. Kisekka’s test scores missed the mark for electrical engineering, but paved the way for a new path: agricultural engineering.

“I thank God I ended up as an agricultural engineer because I have found it to be a very fulfilling career: you do things that directly impact peoples’ livelihoods,” he says.

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Spotlight on: KCARE Students

Kari Bigham

Kari Bigham was a typical Kansas farm kid: like any adventurous youngster, she spent her time fishing, fossil hunting, building forts, and exploring the banks of the creek on her parents’ farm just west of Marysville. When she thought about her future, Kari entertained ideas of becoming a park ranger or a meteorologist, but thanks to advice from her father and brother (a K-State civil engineering student at the time), Kari discovered she had an interest and aptitude for engineering.

“As a senior in high school, I didn’t know what an engineer was. Coming from a railroad town, I thought an engineer was just a train conductor,” she said. Later on, she realized that choosing to be a water resources engineer actually combined her two original career paths. Like a meteorologist, her work develops and uses models to make predictions; but, instead of forecasting weather patterns, Kari predicts the environmental processes surrounding streams. Plus, like a park ranger, her work protects and promotes the environment – all while avoiding being “bound to a desk.” According to Kari, her job provides the best of both worlds.

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