Research Grows Alongside Animals, Crops at WKU Farm

Visit Western Kentucky University’s Agriculture Research & Education Center (more commonly referred to as the WKU farm) and you’re likely to see a variety of work happening.

In the Hilltop Creamery, which celebrated its first anniversary this year, WKU students learn how to make cheese using milk from the farm’s Grade A dairy. Animal science and veterinary students deepen their skills by working with the university’s cow and horse herds. Crop production — including corn, soybeans, wheat, grass hay and alfalfa — provides a variety of hands-on, practical applications, including crop growing and handling.

The WKU farm encompasses 800 acres and is home to a variety of livestock, crops and research.

And throughout the 800-acre farm, ongoing research provides data and analysis to help answer a variety of questions, including how to improve agricultural efficiency.

Fighting a pervasive culprit: soil erosion

When considering how farms can be more efficient, fighting erosion is among the primary concerns.

“Typically if you have erosion here in western Kentucky, the nutrients from the soil end up in the Gulf Mexico, which isn’t a good thing,” said Fred DeGraves, Ph.D., associate professor and interim chair of WKU’s Department of Agriculture. “And the nutrients are removed from the farm operations.”

A team of researchers, including DeGraves, are two years into a five-year project that examines the combination of cover crops, row crops and grazing to find a more efficient method for producing both beef and grain while also improving the soil quality.

Cover crops play a key role in preventing erosion, since their roots help hold the soil together. Then, as those crops end their lifecycle, they break down into nutrients, benefitting the next round of crops that are planted.

There’s another factor to consider: grazing. DeGraves said cattle will graze on some of the row crops, then pass manure that fertilizes the land. But what happens if cover crops are added and cattle graze on that source instead of row crops?

“One of the hypotheses is that grazing a cover crop will result in animals putting on weight,” DeGraves said. “Another is that by using a system of row and cover crops, grain yields will increase and, at the same time, the crops will improve the quality of the soil.”

The WKU farm includes a Grade-A dairy that supplies milk to Hilltop Creamery, a cheese-making business that helps students get hands-on experience. A variety of cheeses are for sale to the public. The photo is from a collection of images taken by WKU graduate students Justin Duckworth and Jacob Osborne.

As a result of this years-long data collection and analysis, DeGraves said one of the intents is to show the efficacy of cover crops and whether or not they’re worth adding to a field. That same question could also be answered about cattle and if, by feeding the cattle with cover crops, a combined agricultural and livestock system could be more profitable.

Data collection is an integral part of any research, but data-driven findings are especially important to the agricultural industry and helping farmers understand why they might consider changes to their own operations.

“The main thing to remember about farming is that it’s expensive and margins are tight,” DeGraves said. “If you want a practice like this that could improve the soil quality and result in less erosion, you need to show an economic benefit.”

Harnessing the potential of hemp

Much of the research happening throughout the WKU is collaborative, giving WKU researchers an opportunity to work with other organizations.

In the department’s fall newsletter, Paul Woosley, Ph.D., director of AREC, said the university continues to collaborate with companies including Syngenta, NK Seeds, Dekalb, Helena, Winfield Solutions and Wheat Tech on agronomic research.

Additionally, WKU is a partner in the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s industrial hemp pilot program, the objective of which, according to KDA Commissioner Ryan Quarles, is “to position the Commonwealth’s growers and processors to ultimately prevail as national leaders in industrial hemp production.”

According to the department’s website, hemp not only has the potential to drive a thriving industry if it’s removed from the federal government’s list of controlled substances; it can also be a productive addition to existing fields.

“Kentucky farmers seeking an agricultural crop for inclusion in crop rotation plans or as a replacement crop may find that industrial hemp is a viable option,” according to the department’s website. “Market prices for fiber and grain are quickly stabilizing, but prices for floral material have wide variation.”

This recognizable gate has become a beloved symbol of Western Kentucky University’s Agriculture and Research Education Center, also known as the WKU farm. The photo is from a collection of images taken by WKU graduate students Justin Duckworth and Jacob Osborne.

On the WKU farm, the university’s hemp research has grown from a quarter-acre to five acres and is examining the most effective ways to control or even suppress weeds like pigweed and Johnson grass, which hinder hemp’s growth.

“Because hemp is not legal at the federal level, there is no pesticide or herbicide that has been legally licensed for use on hemp,” wrote Jackson French for the Bowling Green Daily News.

This data — along with information that’s collected through research projects at other Kentucky universities, as well as through sites approved to participate in the KDA pilot program — will provide a robust resource to help prospective hemp growers better understand the crop, its uses and how to successfully grow it.

Helping students and the community

As in other WKU departments, student participation plays an integral role in maintaining the WKU farm.

“Our animal operations are student-run, which is an important advantage,” DeGraves said. “We have a grad student who oversees the dairy, the beef and the horses. The faculty act as advisors for the operation, but effectively, it’s student-run, so it’s a great way for students to get direct, hands-on experience.”

DeGraves said an increasing number of students arrive at WKU without previous experience on a farm, making the WKU farm an even more important part of their education. Not only can they experience livestock and crop care and growth; they can also participate in classwork and research related to their chosen career path, ensuring they’re better prepared for their post-college journey.

This mural that depicts life on the WKU farm was painted by Barbara DeGraves and is on display in the Department of Agriculture’s student lounge. Photo by Clinton Lewis.

“I run the pre-veterinary program and it’s really important for our students to get hands-on experience, either on farms or through veterinary clinics,” DeGraves said. “A lot of times, they’ll figure out if they love the work or if they should determine an alternate field of study.”

The farm is an important community resource, too. The general public can visit the Hilltop Creamery, which also carries fresh produce grown on and harvested from the farm.

The farm is also home to a mulch yard, a partnership between the WKU Department of Agriculture and the City of Bowling Green to recycle leaves picked up from city collection. The resulting mulch is ideal for flowerbeds and gardens and can be purchased from the WKU farm by the truckload. Proceeds are split between the department and the city: 75 percent funds department scholarships, while the remaining 25 percent goes to the city.

Data collection, food production, education, partnership — there’s no shortage of how the WKU farm helps students, faculty, the surrounding community and the agriculture industry. There’s an argument to be made that farming is the original American dream. And there’s no doubt it lives on thanks to the WKU farm and the people it supports.