By KAREN SCHWALLER
SUTHERLAND – Paul and Karen Mugge knows what it is to teach, not only in the classroom, but in the hands-on world of agriculture as well.
The Mugges were one of 11 Iowa couples selected to receive the Practical Farmers of Iowa Master Researcher Award during PFI’s annual conference in February in Ames.
On-farm research is the backbone of PFI’s farmer-to-farmer organization. The Cooperator’s Program gives farmers practical answers to questions they have about on-farm challenges through research, record-keeping and demonstration projects.
The Mugges are organic farmers and have conducted numerous field experiments with organic at the base of their learning. They have been part of PFI since the early 1990s – shortly after PFI organized.
In 2012, they tested aphid-resistant soybeans and a variety of weed management strategies. They have compared ridge-till practices with full tillage practices, soil nitrate tests and experimented with several different third rotation crops including flax and canola.
The work, Mugge said, is a matter of seeing whether cover crops or third crops will grow organically in Northwest Iowa, how they can be used for weed control and how those plants affect soil quality.
He has experimented with winter wheat, rye, barley and now triticale – a small grain which is a hybrid between winter wheat and winter rye. Mugge raises it mostly for seed, but said it is an excellent feed for both animals and humans. It’s seeded in the fall and harvested in mid-summer.
Mugge plants one-third of his acres to organic corn, which goes to California to feed organic milk cows. One-third of his acres is planted to organic soybeans, which go to Japan and are used to make tofu, and the final third of his crop land is planted into whatever small grain is most in demand at the time.
He currently works with an organic marketing cooperative in Wisconsin, where he sells his organic alfalfa hay.
Mugge works with various small grains to see how well they grow in the Midwest under organic practices. More recently, the Mugges have experimented with aphid-resistant soybeans.
“There are several aphid-resistant soybean lines out,” Mugge said, “mostly Iowa State numbers.
“They’re tested and sold for seed if they are effective and yield well.”
Mugge said that even though organic soybeans can’t be sprayed for any pest, the demand for them continues to grow, and so experiments on how to grow healthy and prolific organic soybeans continues.
Mugge said he has conducted tests on late-spring nitrates, and experimented with weed control without chemicals.
One experiment included a four-treatment trial utilizing (1) rye on the ridges as a biological control, (2) flame cultivating, (3) the combination of both the rye and the flame cultivator, and (4) a control using neither of the weed control treatments.
The fall rye planted in the spring on the ridges prior to soybeans was effective in suppressing weeds.
“The rye exudes chemicals from its roots that reduce the germination and early growth of weed seeds,” Mugge said. “The rye is removed with the ridge-till planter, but the roots remain to provide a natural herbicide.”
Other experiments explore bio-weed control using cover crops. He plants a red clover-tritical mix and his findings show that he gains 80 to 100 pounds of nitrogen with that practice, and that it contributes significantly to keeping weeds down. He said he is also able to secure adequate bio-mass to build organic matter in the soil.
“That combination also keeps the ground moist and keeps the soil from eroding,” Mugge said.
He added that his experiments have taught him much about what works and what doesn’t work with various crops in relation to farming organically. He has organized several field days, inviting other producers to see what he’s doing and what his findings are in terms of organic rotational crops, weed control and cover crops.
“There’s a place for teaching in the classroom, but there’s also a place for on-farm research,” Mugge said. “And with ISU scientists helping with the research and presentation of results, everyone is learning a lot.”
Mugge’s fields are inspected every year to verify that organic production practices have been followed, assuring the integrity of his products retaining his certification.
While he doesn’t know if he will continue holding field days, he will continue research on organic aphid-resistant soybeans and other new ideas.
“ISU now has identified three or four genes that contribute to aphid resistance,” Mugge said. “The variety I’ve used had one gene incorporated, and now there are two genes stacked for aphid resistance in soybeans.”
Mugge said that, while organic farming alone is a lot of work, experimenting with all of these variables complicates that work. But the weather, he said, can be the most frustrating part of all.
“As with all farm research, weather can really screw things up,” he said. “You can end up with meaningless results easily if the weather doesn’t cooperate, and that can mean (a growing season) of research that doesn’t result in any significant findings.”
The information Mugge collects from his field trials go directly agricultural scientists at ISU via PFI.
Mugge, who is a part-time math and science teacher at Remsen St. Mary’s and Granville Spalding high schools, said his on-farm organic research is time consuming and sometimes difficult, but that he continues with it because he is committed to the future of sustainable agriculture.
“I like the environmental aspect to all of this,” he said. “It’s more work, and it’s not easy.
“If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”
The master researcher award is new this year and was created as a way to recognize the efforts of those who have conducted extensive on-farm research and demonstration. Producers needed to conduct 20 or more on-farm research trials, and needed to host at least five PFI field days to share knowledge gained through their research.
Research is conducted in-field by the farmer, many timesin cooperation with scientists at Iowa State University.
PFI’s research is also supported both directly and indirectly by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at ISU.Other Northwest Iowa farmers receiving the Master Researcher’s Award included Ron Vos from Ireton, Sioux County, conducting research for Dordt College; and Dan and Lorna Wilson, of Paullina, in O’Brien County.