Seeing Western Ag Issues in Every Grant Proposal

February 19, 2024

The most important function Western SARE performs is providing grant funding to support agriculture and rural communities in the American West. The importance of that financial support – to university researchers, Extension professionals and farmers and ranchers looking to improve their own operations and help their neighbors – cannot be overstated.

The numbers bear that out. In 2023, Western SARE awarded more than $7.36 million in grant funding, broken down like this:

  • $603,000 in Farmer/Rancher grants
  • $297,000 in Graduate Student grants
  • $810,000 in Professional + Producer grants
  • $4 million in Research and Education grants
  • $1.1 million in Professional Development Program grants
  • $470,000 in Research to Grass Roots grants

However, there are other ways Western SARE’s grants serve Western agriculture beyond the financial. The 165 proposals Western SARE received in 2023 also illuminate current agricultural problems and priorities.

“As an organization, we have a broad and diverse Administrative Council and do a lot of engagement around identifying priorities throughout the region,” said Clayton Marlow, Western SARE’s regional coordinator. “But there’s no better way to understand what farmers and ranchers and the agricultural professionals who serve them are concerned about right now than reading the grant proposals they send in. Writing a proposal requires time and effort, so the problems applicants identify there are the ones they’re really looking for help with.”

Adapting to climate change is a good example of that. Before 2005, Western SARE wasn’t getting or funding many proposals focused on adapting farms and ranches to changing climate conditions, but those numbers have grown steadily in the years since.

Another very interesting function of Western SARE grants is to show trends and changes in the way farmers and ranchers and researchers are thinking about agriculture.

“You can see the way ideas spread and innovations capture imaginations,” Marlow said. “We’ll get multiple proposals from around the region looking at different aspects of a technology or idea or innovation, each geared toward that applicant’s own conditions, but also part of a larger trend.”

There are several examples of that in grants funded in 2023. Here are some of those broader connections seen in multiple projects.

Using Grazing a Tool and Virtual Fencing

Western SARE has funded many grazing-related projects over the years (and will continue to do so), but these focus more as using grazing to accomplish other benefits, or using the new technology of virtual fencing to target grazing as a way to accomplish other benefits. Here’s a sample:

Goats - Invasive Weed Reduction and Native Plant Reintroduction on River Bottom and Sage Habitat - Farmer/Rancher FW23-423

Along the Nowood River of Wyoming, we have a serious issue with non-native and invasive weeds. These have choked out lots of native grass species on the river bottoms and rangeland. We are looking to goats as a holistic way to reduce the weed population and re-introduce or increase the native grass species with seeding. We plan to run 3 test groups, one seeding BEFORE grazing, one seeding AFTER grazing and one test group of grazing alone. Our theory is that positive hoof traffic and manure deposits can help work the seeds into the soil without tillage. This will help reestablish and restrengthen native grass species while removing non-native, invasive ones. We know goats have proven to be great at removing and reducing weeds, but can we also utilize their hoof traffic and manure by seeding at specific times to help reestablish native grasses with better results than grazing alone.

Testing Virtual Fence Systems for Fire Fuel Management – Farmer/Rancher FW23-421

The objective of the project is to test the viability of virtual fence technology for managing fire fuel in invaded grasslands and steep shrub communities with grazing animals in Santa Barbara County. Currently there is a large opportunity to link food and fiber production with large scale fuels and environmental management using prescribed herbivory practices. The current limitations mostly revolve around the extremely labor-intensive practices of constantly moving animals, monitoring for effective ecological outcomes and moving through extreme or unnavigable terrain where fuel management is often the most important or where invasive weeds are stubborn. Virtual fencing systems, or GPS-controlled shock collars, could potentially solve this problem. We have just received a contract to service 1,000 acres per year for Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council and have also just been accepted to the No Fence virtual fence pilot program and have an opportunity to try 100 shock collar units. With these, we will not only be able to make a determination on future investments in the technology, but we will be able to demonstrate and present our findings to other operators and fuel management agencies.

Virtual Fencing to Build Soil Health, Range Productivity and Rancher Wellbeing in Drought-Prone Ranches – FW23-411

Bare ground is increasing in New Mexico at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country according to NRCS. By herding cattle in small areas, progressive ranchers have observed a very interesting sequence of events: Cattle eat the good grasses and the not-so-good as well, the overall forage consumption takes longer than it used to, and the overall harvest amount is increased. In this project, we will demonstrate virtual fencing in a drought-stricken region for three years and compare existing management and animal condition records with the values after using virtual fencing. Additionally, we will leverage open source, satellite-based data on plant community and bare ground to relate changes to healthy soil. Finally, we will share results through on-ranch trainings and to wider audiences through a webinar and podcast to reduce barriers to implementation of rotational grazing. Our ultimate educational goal is to engage enough neighboring producers to share land or leases by using this novel technology and thus build stronger ties among rural food system communities.

Targeted Adaptive Grazing Cattle as a Tool for Range Management: Targeting Cheatgrass and False Annual Wheatgrass to See the Impacts of Restoring Native Species – Farmer/Rancher FW23-426

In this project, we will evaluate the merits of Targeted Adaptive Grazing in shifting the species composition in a range setting. We will establish stocking densities and measure Animal Unit Days per acre with this grazing strategy. We will compare species composition, forage biomass production, and soil biological populations within our treatments. This research will advance range renovation and regeneration in the west. We also expect to gain fundamental insights regarding Targeted Adaptive Grazing on non irrigated arid western rangeland.

Sheep in Unexpected Settings

Sustainability Outcomes of Integrated Sheep Vineyards Systems – Research and Education project SW23-949

Vineyard producers are rapidly adopting regenerative production models to address sustainability challenges arising from input-based conventional production. Integrating livestock onto cropland is a key practice in regenerative agriculture, providing opportunities to meet sustainability goals by building soil health, reducing input and labor costs while creating new markets and added value. Integrated sheep-vineyard systems are gaining traction in the coastal regions. This project will quantify the impacts of grazing and grazing intensities on vineyard soil health, biodiversity, vine health, yields, berry quality, forage quality and input use. This data, along with farmers interview will be used to analyze the economic performance of these viticulture systems and develop a cost-return planning tool.

Integrating Cover Crops and Sheep Grazing in Almond Orchards – Professional + Producer OW23-376

Interest in integrating cover crops and grazing into conventional almond farming practices is growing. However, almonds are harvested by shaking the nuts onto the ground, sweeping them to row middles and mechanically collecting them. Since about 70% of almonds are not pasteurized, the presence of grazing animals and manure on the orchard floor raises concerns about food safety and the industry standard to maintain food safety is to avoid grazing in almond orchards. Documented benefits of cover crops in orchards include more effective nutrient cycling, reduced fertilizer use, and increased water infiltration. Grazing further enhances these benefits by reducing herbicide use, synthetic fertilizers, and fuel for tractors. However, the actual food safety risks of sheep grazing in almond orchards are unknown. We propose to assess the presence of foodborne pathogens in orchard soils where cover crops are grazed by sheep. For broader adoption of sheep grazing, in addition to data on food safety risks, producers need to know the economic feasibility of using sheep to manage vegetation in orchards. A cost analysis will help producers understand the tradeoffs and make the best decision for their operations. We will compare the costs and returns of conventional almond production to the costs and returns in a livestock-integrated almond orchard system.

Cut Flower Production

Flower production can be an overlooked aspect of agriculture because it doesn’t produce food or fiber, but it does support rural communities and farming families who have to deal with all the pest and production issues other growers face. Here are some floraculture projects SARE funded in 2023.

Study of Hydroponics in Cut Flower Production to Increase Water Conservation and Crop Quality – Farmer/Rancher FW23-429

There is an increasing demand for locally grown, sustainable produce, including cut flowers. In Utah, like much of the West, water availability is a major concern for farmers and this will likely only continue. While the benefits of growing locally are substantial, water use for conventionally grown flowers is increasingly unsustainable. We will look at the feasibility of growing high-value crops, such as dahlias, hydroponically indoors to mitigate both the high-water usage and pest and environmental pressures of field-grown crops. Research species will include five common floriculture crops chosen for their profitability and species diversity: dahlias, snapdragons, cosmos, scented sweet peas and lisianthus. We will test the best methods for each crop grown and compare water usage directly in conjunction with a field crop of the same variety. We will measure water usage, supplemental fertilization and amendment needs as well as the quality of the flowers with this research, focusing on stem number and length per plant, bloom size, and overall quality.

Reduction of Water Use on Peony Crops by Using Shade Cloth – Farmer/Rancher FW23-420

Water is a limited resource in the drought-prone West. Although peonies use relativity less water than most cut flower crops once they are established, they still require consistent watering to produce new eyes and good bloom size.  Shade cloth has been shown to reduce water needs in crops like fruits and vegetables. Our project will test the use of shade cloth as a way of reducing the amount of water needed to establish our plants (planted fall 2021) while still producing comparable blooms to the control group being watered with one inch of water per week.

Research and Sustainable Integrated Pest Management Implementation on an Organic Central Coast Cut Flower Farm to Reduce Losses from Key Pests – Farmer/Rancher FW23-418

Crop losses due to certain key pests like cucumber beetles, aphids, thrips, lepidoptera larvae, fusarium and more have been persistent problems in the organic cut flower industry. Currently, there is a minimal amount of readily available and regionally specific information regarding sustainable Integrated Pest Management practices for organic cut flower farms that are effective and economical. The question our research project is designed to answer is what IPM methods are cost-effective for reducing losses due to key pests? This project will utilize monitoring, data collection and analysis; followed by implementation, further monitoring and data collection, and additional refinement as needed. During the monitoring phase, we will identify key pests. During analysis, we will identify the highest-pressure pests, establish economic thresholds, and analyze what the best sustainable management methods are. Following this, we will implement those methods, while continuing to monitor and record pest pressure and efficacy of the implementation utilized.

Expanding Cut Flower Production Education Supports Agricultural Professionals and Small Farms – Professional Development Program WPD23-008

Cut flowers are a rapidly growing and dynamic crop that attract new, underrepresented demographics to agriculture and redefine the profit potential for small farms. Cut flowers require a high level of expertise to produce and are challenging to grow in Utah’s high-elevation and arid to semi-arid climate that results in long winters, strong temperature variation, intense solar radiation, alkaline soils, and water limitations. Most cultivation guides come from states with nearly opposite growing conditions. To address this, Utah State University began a cut flower crop production program in 2018 and the need now exists to compile, organize, and expand upon our resources by creating a comprehensive Utah Cut Flower Production Guide. This 12-chapter guidebook will cover key topics from planning a flower farm; to sustainable soil, nutrient and water management; integrated pest and disease management and safety; crop-by-crop production requirements; innovative season extension options; and marketing decisions that strengthen agricultural competitiveness.

Analyzing Crop Profitability and Financial Metrics on Flower Farms, Phase 2 – Professional + Producer OW23-381

The domestic cut flower industry is growing, yet we lack key financial and profitability metrics. With few references of profitability to aspire to, new flower farmers have no sense of potential yield for individual crops, or sales and net margin goals. Without this information, flower farmers are making business decisions based on trends and market pull, rather than knowledge of the profitability of their production and marketing systems. This project will expand and improve upon work done in a 2022 Farmer/Rancher grant to address these problems. Phase 2 will work with 12 established sustainable flower farms over two years to track cost of production per crop, and compile and analyze key financial metrics. These farmers will learn to make smart decisions for their businesses by identifying their more profitable crops and will be able to compare their larger financial pictures to that of the other farmers in the study.

Using Flowering Cover Crops to Attract Natural Predators of Floriculture Pests – Farmer/Rancher FW23-410

This project will evaluate the efficacy of planting flowering cover-crop plots to attract beneficial insect predators to nearby annual and perennial cut flower fields in Southcentral Alaska. Insect pests such as aphids, thrips and tarnished plant bugs can damage important cut flower crops such as dahlias, stock, anemones and ranunculus. Controlling these pests using insecticides has potential downsides and we seek to provide growers with region-specific data about the efficacy of an alternative pest management tool: biological control. Specifically, we will be researching what types of flowering cover crops best attract beneficial insects such as hover flies, big eyed bugs, damsel bugs, minute pirate bugs and wasps that are predators to aphids, thrips and Lygus bugs. While the use of cover crops, living mulches, and margin strips have been shown to be effective in attracting beneficial insect predators, many studies note the need for further research regarding how specific plant species, regionality, planting methods, or timing affects the efficacy of these practices. In order for these practices to be more widely adopted by growers in Alaska, they need to be demonstrated and proven locally.

Other Connections

Every year, there are a number of projects focused on cover cropping projects, integrated pest management and soil health. In addition to many of those, other 2023 projects illustrated interesting connections or patterns. Here’s a brief sample:

  • Mushrooms – Two 2023 involved mushroom production
  • Technology – Several 2023 projects focused on high-tech, including projects on robotics, automation and drone technologies; tech tool for rangeland management; a project focused on skills and tools for complex adaptive thinking
  • Shade cloth – Several producers are experimenting with it in different crops and systems
  •  Aquaculture – Projects in Guam and Alaska are aquaculture focused, including one looking at kelp farming systems

You can read full proposal summaries and project reports for all Western SARE-funded projects in our public database.

Related Locations: West