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Cutting-edge agriculture research spotlighted for farmers by Cornell University experts

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Dairy farmers in the north country power up equipment every day to finish chores, but they rely on the brainpower of researchers to tell them the latest strategies for making their operations profitable.

That’s why about a dozen farmers took time Tuesday at the Ramada Inn, 21000 Route 3, to listen to researchers from Cornell University, Ithaca, report findings from multiyear research projects funded by the Northern New York Agricultural Development Program.

Highlighted were studies on how predatory worms called nematodes are being used to combat the invasion of the alfalfa snout beetle, the latest strategies for planting winter cover crops and a free online tool that helps farmers cut spring fertilizer costs.

Many farmers are applying the microscopic roundworms called nematodes to their alfalfa crops to battle the alfalfa snout beetle, said Cornell entomology professor Elson J. Shields, who has conducted research on the beetle since the late 1980s. Results have been especially promising in an ongoing study since 2007 on the effectiveness of the method. Research has been conducted in 161 fields on 51 farms in six counties, mainly Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence.

Equipment for treating fields with nematodes is simple and inexpensive. Once the nematodes are mixed with water in a large bucket or garbage can, they are applied to fields in rows with a golf cart or ATV equipped with a spray rig, such as a PVC pipe with holes, that allows gravity to distribute the water. Farmers can breed their own nematodes by purchasing cups of wax worms to inoculate. A $150 purchase of wax worms to breed nematodes will allow treatment of an estimated 5 acres.

Mr. Shields said nematodes usually need to be applied only once. Once the microorganisms are in the soil, they may be spread farther throughout fields by plows and harvesting equipment.

The study suggested that if the presence of the snout beetle is left untreated, alfalfa losses can climb up to $381 per acre after four years. In contrast, the cost to apply nematodes is roughly $30 an acre.

“Once you treat an infected area, you can restore the alfalfa when the beetles die out,” Mr. Shields said. “And two years’ worth of plowing can spread (nematodes) to an entire field.”

Farmers have a good reason to be Internet-savvy — an online tool that helps them save money on nitrogen fertilizer was highlighted by Cornell researcher Bianca Moebius-Clune, who has worked on the project for the past decade.

The free service, “Adapt-N,” helps farmers accurately predict how much fertilizer they need by using a computer model that factors in current farm and weather patterns. The tool is available at http://adapt-n.cals.cornell.edu.

Farmers normally use the same amount of nitrogen fertilizer every year. Doing so is problematic, however, because rainy weather during the spring calls for more fertilizer than usual, while dry conditions call for less. That’s where the online tool becomes useful: Based on 60 trials on farms in Iowa and New York since 2011, farmers saved anywhere from 25 to 60 pounds of fertilizer by using the tool, Ms. Moebius-Clune said. Eighty percent of farmers who participated in the study saved on fertilizer costs — an average of $24 an acre.

For example, dairy farmer Robert Donald of Moravia in Cayuga County saved about $70,000 in fertilizer costs by using the online tool. He used 210 pounds of fertilizer to treat 1,000 acres of corn in 2010, which he dropped to 80 pounds in 2011 based on calculations from the program.

“This is a very precise tool that farmers have never had before,” Ms. Moebius-Clune said.

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