Farm Talk

September 17, 2013

The plant mechanic

Laura Mushrush

Parsons, Kansas — “I consider myself an auto mechanic of plants,” Gretchen Sassenrath said. “I understand how they work and why they don’t.”

 The plant physiologist is one of Kansas State University’s newest hires at the Southeast Agriculture Research Center in Parsons, Kansas.

Growing up in Florissant, Missouri, Sassenrath’s closest tie to agriculture was her family’s two acre garden.

“I’m one generation removed from farming. My grandfather was a farmer, my mother grew up on a farm, but I didn’t,” she said. “I was always interested in agriculture and how plants work.”

While not being very knowledgeable of production agriculture when she first started school, Sassenrath caught on quick. With a masters in Biophysics, a PhD. in Plant Physiology, two postdoctoral projects and 21 years of cotton, corn, soybean and irrigation research in Mississippi under her belt, she is ready for her next challenge: solving the yield decline issue in southeast Kansas.

“I started looking at historical records of production in Kansas,” Sassenrath began.

What she noticed was something other researchers have seen — trending decline in crop yields.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s we had huge increases in yield. Crop genetics, fertilizers and tractors improved,” she stated. “The yield increase was very steady and strong year after year. That stopped around the ‘90s and it leveled off, it’s quite dramatic and it’s quite extreme.”

“Certain areas are worse than others. In southeast Kansas, wheat production leveled off a lot sooner than the ‘90s and flatlined,” she continued. “I want to find out why. Is it climate, is it soils is it fertilizer inefficiency?”

Sassenrath believes there are several factors causing this potentially devastating problem.

“They’re having huge problems in Europe with yield stagnation in wheat, it’s just dropped,” Sassenrath claimed. “What’s going on in Kansas is an indicator of what’s coming, so we need to figure this out. It’s not just for Kansas, it’s not just for America, it’s for the world.”

The plant mechanic will be collaborating with other researchers in Kansas State University’s Agronomy Department and hopes to form a team with research stations around the state. She will also be working with a Climatologist to compare growth environments of particular years and seed breeders to see the different genetic backgrounds on a variety of crops.

Since the research plots are small and she needs a good idea of what’s going on in the soil, Sassenrath is working with area farmers.

“I know it’s not easy because all of a sudden they have a strange person running around doing stuff in their fields,” said Sassenrath. “But I really appreciate it, because otherwise I can’t see what’s going on in the farm ground.”

It will take Sassenrath around two years to make her initial assesment, which will require a massive amount of data collecting.

At each site transects will be taken. These are done manually in lines throughout the field during harvest.

“The crops and soils collected from the transects through production fields are used when comparing weather parameters, soil parameters and growth crop parameters,” she explained. “Its a big mix. It’s kind of like a needle in a haystack when you put all the data in and do some computations to try and see what’s going on.”

Soil samples to find soil quality and depth of topsoil will be an essential part of the assesment.

“We don’t have a lot of soil here to deal with, but I think what we do have is very good,” she continued. “When it erodes, there is nothing left. So we have to do something to manage the soil by building the organic matter, getting the right pH, nutrients and holding onto it.”

Sassenrath’s favorite part about southeast Kansas, is the opportunities for integrated agriculture that combines animal and plant production. Since her area of expertise is in plants, she has been working with Jaymelynn Farney, Beef Extension Specialist at the research station.

“Can we come up with a cover crop that would help improve the soil and can also be used as a forage to help provide feed in winter months?” Sassenrath asked.

Sassenrath is hoping to make other working relationships with area Extension agents to help put her research data into a functional format for farmers. She has already reached out to Josh Coltrain and Scott Gordon of the Wildcat Extension District.

“I have an enormous amount of respect for Extension,” she said. “I want to work with these guys to take my research results to hand off to the farmers because that’s the way it needs to be.”

Since her arrival in May, Sassenrath has hit the ground running and has fully embraced the area.

“I am so excited to be here, I think it’s a great place to be. Love Parsons, I think it’s a beautiful town. And southeast Kansas is about perfect,” she concluded.  £