REDWOOD COUNTY - Just south of Milroy is an acreage that has belonged to the Hicks family since 1885, but these days the field is wired with electronic instruments that transmit data in real time to the University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton.
The center is one of the partners in the five-year United States Department of Agriculture funded Sustainable Corn Project.
"This field is part of a nine-state 40-scientist regional project," said Jeff Strock, a soil scientist with the center. "We're trying to make predictions about climate change and corn production."
Instruments measure soil temperature, moisture and water flow through the drainage structure, which is downloaded through a satellite antenna together with data from an on-site weather station.
According to Strock, half of the 100-acre field has a control drainage structure which allows the flow of water through the tiles to be adjusted to retain sub-surface water at a desired depth. The other half is managed with conventional drainage with an average tile depth of four feet.
"We're looking at drainage and corn and soy rotation," said Paulo Pagliari, soil scientist at the Lamberton center. "We have set up drainage tile and monitor water quality. We measure nitrogen, potassium and total suspended solids. We are also collecting greenhouse gases emitted from the fields: carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and ammonia. We're trying to monitor the effect of climate change on the emissions of greenhouse gases in the field."
The Milroy field is one of a number of sites all over the upper Midwest. Participants in the project include 10 universities and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the USDA research facility in Columbus, Ohio.
"Five years ago the USDA decided to fund research on climate and agriculture," said Project Manager Lori Abendroth of the University of Iowa. "They have a number of projects they've funded and we're one of the largest."
The project is looking at corn, because it is the dominant crop in the region, but is also studying soybean production and looking at other crops that can be rotated in.
"We're looking at the footprint of the cropping system," Abendroth said, "the amount of nitrogen, carbon, and water. We're measuring how much the crop is using, how much is leaving through erosion and harvesting and how much is sequestered."
The project takes no position of the cause of climate change; it just recognizes that it happens. Current models suggest the effects of change are not uniform throughout the world so the project is concerned with projected changes in the Corn Belt region.
Models predict more extreme precipitation in the spring, more extended periods of dryness in summer, and that more moisture in the air will actually hold down temperatures in the summer but lead to higher temperatures at night which tend to reduce corn yield.
"Farmers are going to have to adapt to weather patterns they haven't before," Abendroth said. "With the growing season lengthening they'll be able to plant earlier and harvest later, with all the implications for exposed ground cover. The goal is to discover what practices farmers can employ to make them more resistant to climate change."