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Oklahoma State University

OSU receives $3.1 million research grant to improve sorghum data and savings

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Forage sorghum is being grown in Chickasha as part of the bio-energy research center work on using sorghum in the production of Cellulosic ethanol. Oklahoma received a $3.1 million grant to improve field-level data collection. (Photo by Todd Johnson, Agricultural Communications Services)

A recent $3.1 million grant awarded to Oklahoma State University to study greenhouse gas emissions is expected to help sorghum farmers save money and improve the industry’s sustainable field management practices.

The three-state research project approved under the SMARTFARM program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is headed by Gopal Kakani, professor of crops, energy and climate in the OSU Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. As principal investigator, Kakani is supported by teams of co-investigators at OSU, Kansas State University and Texas A&M University.

The researchers will be looking closely at data related to field-level emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Sorghum was chosen due in large part because of the growing market interest in bio-energy feedstocks, Kakani said. Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma are three of the nation’s main sorghum-producing states and the crop is starting to displace corn in the Panhandle because of its water efficiency. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data through the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 300,000 acres of sorghum was planted in Oklahoma in 2018; grain sorghum alone had a total value of about $40.66 million that year. Nationwide, about 5.07 million acres were planted to grain sorghum, with a value that year of $1.58 billion.

The grant is a good example of federal funds invested at the local level that ultimately will benefit a key industry, said Jeff Edwards, professor and head of OSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

The underlying purpose of the grant, according to ARPA-E, is to examine how data has been collected in feedstock production environments and turn that research toward better sensor systems for quantifying field-level emissions. The work is expected to encourage discussion among technology developers, feedstock producers and other agricultural interests about how to best use the information and improve it even more.

According to ARPA-E, ethanol and other bio-based fuels have the potential to provide an emissions-free source of energy on a net basis, but not without a significant shift in current feedstock production practices. Practices are driven now by yield, and low profit margins leave growers with few options for increasing productivity. Such difficult decisions often result in over-fertilization, which produces unnecessary emissions, affects water quality and increases variability in financial returns that are already difficult for farmers to predict. ARPA-E estimates from $267 million to $702 million in fertilizer costs for all crops are lost annually across the country.

“Our hope is that this data will help grain sorghum producers capture revenue by following more sustainable practices,” Kakani said.

Researchers often use the phrase “ground truth” to describe the reliability and comfort level of the resulting field-level data. For the purposes of Kakani’s research, that means the final product will be gold-standard, publicly available information, he said.

Jordon Shearer, executive director of the Oklahoma Sorghum Association and a producer near Slapout, Oklahoma, said the refinement of data has major implications for his industry and the environment. Producers have already eliminated as much tillage as they can to improve yields over the last 25 years, he said.

“With the modern technology they’re applying in precision nutrition applications, there’s a lot of opportunity to intensify those yields. At the same time, sorghum has tons of biomass that sequesters carbon,” Shearer said. “The costs of equipment, maintenance and repairs just keep going up. Anywhere we can find savings would be appreciated.”

“Dr. Kakani and his colleagues have developed an ambitious project that will benefit Oklahoma producers and farms while also benefiting the environment.  The collaborative project across three land-grant universities will leverage both state and federal funds towards an important goal,” said Keith Owens, associate vice president of the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station.

The university co-investigation team members are: OSU – Jason Warren, Saleh Taghvaeian, Paul Weckler and Ning Wang; KSU – Peter Tomlinson and Eduardo Alvarez Santos; and TAMU – Nithya Rajan and Ronnie Schnell.

MEDIA CONTACT: Brian Brus | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-6792 | BBrus@okstate.edu

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