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  • Getting to the root of the matter

    Monday, September 19, 2016
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    When you're studying agriculture, your research is best conducted in the field.


    Dr. Mumtaz Cheema is getting down to the dirt on a 0.2 hectare test field in Pynn's Brook. There he's studying the roots and biomass yield of five corn hybrids, the soil they grow in, and the manure that feeds them. His goal is to find the best hybrid of silage corn for west coast Newfoundland's dairy farmers.


    There are nearly 30 dairy farms in Newfoundland and Labrador and one of the biggest challenges farmers face is sourcing local cattle feed. Currently, over 50% of the fodder/silage/forage used in the province's dairy production is imported from the mainland. This is an expensive part of doing business and much of the imported silage is of inferior quality. Silage is green plant matter stored in an airtight silo and used as animal feed in the winter. Corn silage is commonly used on dairy farms as it is high energy crop


    Dr. Cheema is working with local dairy farmers to create self-sufficiency. "I'm interested in addressing famers' issues in ways that they already work," he said.


    Over a three-year period he will be studying corn silage production with the goal of finding a hybrid/variety that not only tolerates Newfoundland's climate, but also generates the maximum biomass and the highest nutritional content. The end result of his study will be a recommendation on which hybrid is best for Newfoundland and Labrador's dairy farming industry.


    A hearty root system is essential for plant growth. Roots absorb nutrients and water from the soil and help prevent erosion. "Roots are the hidden half of plants, and play very important role in water and nutrients uptake "said Dr. Cheema. "In some cases, the hidden part is deeper than the plants are tall."


    Dr. Cheema and his research team use root scanners to see what's happening underground. A small camera is inserted into a clear tube installed in the ground and the non- destructive colored images can be obtained. Root scanner's software help in determining the root length and diameter, root volume, root hairs which are indicators of root health.


    Crop Heating Units (CHU) is also critical to corn growth. Newfoundland's cool temperatures and short growing season create a unique set of challenges for growing corn, but Dr. Cheema believes these challenges can be overcome, creating self-sustaining silage production for local dairy farmers.


    Dr. Cheema planted five seed varieties with low CHU requirements. To help the plants along, he and his team also use typical agricultural techniques such as covering newly seeded plots with sheets of biodegradable plastic, creating a greenhouse environment with higher CHU.


    Another integral part of growing strong plants is use of dairy manure as a source of plant nutrients, particularly phosphorus. Dairy farm operations across NL produce a large quantity of manure, which is a cheap and abundant source of plant nutrients. For instance, a single dairy cow produces about 10 to 30 kg of phosphorus and 90 to 150 kg of total nitrogen in a year. Use of dairy manure can improve the soil health, enhance corn silage biomass and may reduce cost of production, and eventually improve the economy of dairy sector in the province.


    Dr. Cheema's project is the first study in the Province to look at greenhouse gases emissions from corn silage cropping systems in western Newfoundland. Emissions are measured by collecting samples in the field using static chambers inserted in the center of corn rows. Soil temperature and soil moisture is also measured to see the impact of these two factors on greenhouse gas emissions.  Soil and plant samples will be collected for analysis in the state of the art laboratory housed on Grenfell Campus as part of the Boreal Ecosystem Research Initiative (BERI.)



    Research & Development Corporation of Newfoundland & Labrador

    Forestry and Agrifoods Agency

    Boreal Ecosystems and Agricultural Sciences Academic Unit



    Throughout the semester we will highlight some of the interesting research taking place at Grenfell Campus. The articles will appear here, and will be compiled on the research webpage.


    Article prepared by Alli Johnston

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