- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is lobbying Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to maintain support of the Columbia Plateau Conservation Research Center north of Pendleton.

The station stands to lose $911,000- nearly half its annual funding - in President Barack Obama’s proposed 2016 budget. Such deep cuts would force the center to end its research into no-till farming for winter wheat and lay off three staff scientists.

Established in 1970, the station is part of the federal Agricultural Research Service, or ARS, which serves as the USDA’s principal in-house research agency. Located on Tubbs Ranch Road, the Pendleton center shares a building with Oregon State University’s Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, though they are different programs.

In a letter sent April 7 to Vilsack, Wyden, D-Ore., said the president’s budget would end critical research on cropping systems for the Columbia Plateau, one of the largest wheat producing areas in the Pacific Northwest.

Wyden also hopes to save forage and turf grass research on the ARS chopping block in Corvallis.

“The research developed in Oregon will have lasting impacts on advances in precision agriculture and have clear benefits to farm productivity and profitability of wheat production nationwide,” Wyden said.

Wyden had proposed a budget amendment to continue funding for all agricultural research through 2025, though it was not adopted into the president’s final recommendation. Money from the cuts would be shifted to pay for what the administration has identified as higher priority projects within the ARS.

Since 2010, the Pendleton center has experimented with reduced tillage and no-till practices to save farmers money and improve soil health. Jerry Zahl, a crop consultant from College Place, Wash., and liaison between the ARS and OSU, said he cannot think of a greater return on taxpayer dollars than finding new ways to increase the region’s farm production.

The project also has support from the Oregon Wheat Growers League, the industry’s foremost advocate for local growers.

Stewart Wuest, soil scientist and lead researcher on the project, said the idea is to find more and more places where wheat farmers can cut down on their tillage, which if done right could save them money on fuel and boost their bottom line.

“Growers are slowly experimenting with no-till, but it’s a very gradual process,” Wuest said.

Because the region is so dry - some areas receive less than 14 inches of rain per year- farmers are unable to plant a crop in every field for every season. Instead, they rotate one year of winter wheat with one year of fallow, which allows moisture and nutrients to rebuild enough in the soil to generate decent yields.

When farmers till, it allows them to tap into that water underground and plant their wheat earlier in the fall, usually around September. Otherwise, they won’t be able to plant until the next big rain, which might not come until late October.

The concern with starting late is it gives the plants less time in the ground before harvest, and could drop yields as much as 30 percent.

Wuest’s trials, however, have shown no-till can be just as productive. Without tilling, the soil stands a better chance of keeping water from evaporating and withstanding erosion. Farmers could also save 0.45 gallons of diesel per acre if they don’t have to run their tractors as much in the field.

“In some of the driest areas, we’re finding that we can get good yields even with late-seeded wheat,” Wuest said. “There’s still the opportunity to improve crop yields and reduce fuel use, making the systems more profitable and more sustainable at the same time.”

Hydrologist John Williams and soil scientist Hero Gollany also work on the project. The researchers are working to draft a new five-year plan under the program, so long as its funding can remain intact.

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