Research Programs

SOIL HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

The Department of Soil and Crop Sciences recent discoveries are advancing our understanding of processes responsible for the regeneration of productive soils. Research focuses on the formation and persistence of organic matter in soil, on organo-mineral interactions and the role of the soil microbiome in these processes. We study how soils are affected by land use, environmental contamination and climate change. Our goal is to propose soil management solutions that assure soil health and thus a sustainable future for humanity. Our research on the soil and its microbiome as well as on agricultural management practices, such as reduced tillage or the use of biosolids, manure or biochar amendments, is driving land management changes to promote soil health and the production of more food with less water and nutrient inputs.

50% of the topsoil on the planet has been eroded in the last 150 years. Soil health can be regenerated by correct management.

Humanity depends on healthy soils for the provision of food and other goods and services. Soil health describes the capacity of soils to sustain their biological functions and therefore the provision of these services. Healthy soils thrive with life, have high or increased soil organic matter content, water and nutrient-holding capacity, sustaining biomass production while resulting in net long-term greenhouse gas emission mitigation.

CLIMATE-SMART CROP GENETICS

The Department of Soil and Crop Sciences is a national and global leader in the development of improved crop varieties of winter wheat and dry edible beans. Crop breeders strive to increase yields of different crops in order to improve agricultural productivity for crop producers. Crop geneticists conduct research, often in collaboration with crop breeders, to develop novel traits in crop plants using molecular genetic techniques, transfer important traits from crop wild relatives, and improve our understanding of how characteristics of crop plants are affected by the genetic potential of the plant and the environment.

70 percent – Colorado acreage planted with wheat varieties developed at CSU

Development of disease and insect resistant varieties helps to stabilize production for the farmer, reduce pesticide application costs, and potentially eliminate the need for pesticides that may have harmful environmental or human toxicity issues. Improvements in various facets of end-use quality address rapidly changing current processing issues, and nutritional needs and consumer preferences, which are often changing due to societal demographic shifts.

CLIMATE SMART AGROECOSYSTEMS

The Department of Soil and Crop Sciences is a leader in evaluation and management of climate-smart agroecosystems. We work to optimize the efficiency of water and nutrient resources across a range of agricultural contexts. This work includes the development of tools for the accurate measurement of water fluxes along with precision technologies for the efficient delivery of nutrients and irrigation water to crops. Our researchers take a systems approach to understand a diversity of cropping systems and integration of crops and animal components across rotations and agricultural landscapes. In addition to crop and livestock production, our faculty specializes in understanding and managing a range of other fundamental services provided by agricultural systems – these include carbon sequestration, water quality regulation, erosion control, and pollination and biodiversity conservation.

40% - surface of the earth devoted to agricultural land

2X – amount of reactive nitrogen added to the biosphere each year resulting from agricultural activity

Assessment of entire agricultural systems is critical for understanding how different crop and livestock system components interact with environmental drivers to influence productivity and the overall sustainability of agriculture.

Picture of a irrigated corn field

SUSTAINABILITY METRICS

The Department of Soil and Crop Sciences has developed leading decision support tools and monitoring technologies for agricultural water use, soil and air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions. These tools help farmers improve management decisions and communicate land use impacts to food companies and consumers. They have been adopted by the federal conservation agencies, farmers and ranchers, land managers, supply-chain companies, University Researchers, and NGOs. To increase accessibility, these tools and technologies utilize mobile applications and open-source technologies, such as the Water Irrigation Scheduler for Efficient Application (WISE) mobile app that allows farmers to monitor crop water status to use water more efficiently.

Agriculture is responsible for 15-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s freshwater to produce food.

Faculty members are also at the forefront of designing cutting-edge, low-cost environmental monitoring technologies to measure air quality and crop water stress. As one example, faculty partnered with Google and others to develop a new method to quantify natural gas leaks from urban pipelines. By reducing the costs of environmental monitoring, we are developing broader monitoring networks and improving access to environmental quality data for farmers, companies, and consumers across urban and rural areas.

TRAINING THE NEXT GENERATION

Student Success Stories

PhD student Molly McLaughlin’s research focuses on quantifying the impacts of produced water (i.e. oil & gas wastewater) spills on agricultural land. Another project aims to understand the health impacts that may result when minimally treated produced water is discharged to sensitive aquatic ecosystems that serve as important sources of drinking water for both people and livestock.

PhD student Jessica Moore assessed the influence of novel wheat glutenin genes on agronomic and end-use properties of Colorado wheat. This was the first study of its kind done in US Great Plains winter wheat germplasm. Jessica also reported on genome wide association and prediction of pre-harvest sprouting tolerance using genomic selection and genome-wide DNA markers obtained through genotyping by sequencing.

PhD student Steven Rozenzweig is studying dryland cropping systems in Eastern Colorado and has shown great dedication to advancing science and to engaging diverse stakeholders in agricultural research.

PhD student Grace Miner developed a new type of sap flow gauge for corn and sunflower. Sensors were made with desktop 3D printers and data were collected using open-source electronics like the Arduino. This low-cost technology is 10 times less expensive than commercial options and could revolutionize studies of crop water use and irrigation management.

RESEARCH IMPACT

  • COMET-Farm (CarbOn Management and Evaluation Tool) is one of the leading tools used to evaluate the impacts of different land management practices on soil carbon storage and greenhouse gas emissions. COMET-Farm is a free, online tool that has been adopted by the major corporations.

  • Researchers in our department are working to integrate grazing and forage resources into cropping system rotations within diverse contexts (e.g. Colorado, El Salvador and Peru) as a means to reduce erosion, improve soil quality, provide high quality feed for livestock and support a range of other critical ecosystem services in agroecosystems. This work has generated considerable interest and has led to early adoption of these techniques.

  • Our recent discovery of biogenic uranium may introduce a paradigm shift in the way we think about ore genesis and mining – from implications for human health, to restoration practices, to how mining companies calculate how much they can earn from a given site.

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