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Modern farming 101

Huxley Learning Center helps tell ag’s story

March 7, 2019
By Darcy Dougherty Maulsby - Farm News staff writer ( , Farm News


HUXLEY - Pop quiz - where's a site the public go to learn about Iowa agriculture? They could visit museums like Living History Farms in Urbandale, the Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence or the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum in Waterloo. But to learn about the latest technologies in agriculture, it's also worth a trip to the Huxley Learning Center.

Article Photos

-Farm News photo by Darcy Dougherty Maulsby

Guests start their tour in the reception area of the Huxley Learning Center. This unique facility is open to the public and hosted more than 7,300 visitors in 2018.

"We tell the story of modern crop production," said Charles Boateng, Ph.D., a Huxley Learning Center agronomist. "If you live in Iowa, agriculture is something you really need to know."

The story of modern agriculture includes high-tech seed science, precision equipment and data science. Interactive tours at the Huxley Learning Center, which is operated by Bayer CropScience, explore the complexities of how farmers plant their crops, using modern equipment and optimizing data to make more informed decisions.

These stories help visitors understand how each American farmer today feeds more than 165 people, a dramatic increase from 25 people in the 1960s, according to statistics from the Agriculture Council of America.

It all starts with the seed

Located along Interstate 35 in central Iowa, the Huxley Learning Center opened near Huxley in 2014. Tours are available by appointment. The Learning Center hosted more than 7,300 visitors in 2018, including many guests who don't have an ag background, Boateng said.

As one of four Bayer Learning Centers nationwide, the Huxley Learning Center focuses on corn and soybean production. Tours start in the Seed Science hallway, where visitors learn about the basics of plant genetics.

"Germplasm is the building block for better seeds," Boateng said. "When it comes to plant breeding, you need diversity. We access germplasm worldwide to find the best genetics for the crops grown here in Iowa."

Visitors also learn about innovative technologies, from marker-assisted plant breeding to seed chipping. "We show how companies like ours help farmers get the most out of the seeds they plant," Boateng said.

Consider Bt corn, a genetically modified organism (GMO) that includes genes from a naturally-occurring soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that produces proteins with insecticidal properties. Some help protect plants against European corn borers, while some protect against corn rootworms.

"When I hold up stalks and roots from corn with Bt and without Bt, people who don't know a lot about farming are shocked when they compare the healthy root system to the one that has been destroyed by insects," said Boateng, who explains how a strong root system is vital for the uptake of nutrients and water that keep plants healthy. "This is a big ah-ha moment."

Traits like Bt have helped reduce pesticide use in agricultural production by 1 billion pounds since 1996, when the first biotech traits came on the market, Boateng added. "In terms of the environmental impact, that's like taking 11.8 million cars off the road for a year."

Boateng also explains to visitors that no one forces farmers to use GMOs.

"Farmers have choices about what they plant," he said.

Going beyond GMOs

While GMOs often dominate the discussion about ag biotechnology, there's another type of biotech that has become a big a part of the agricultural landscape - marker-assisted selection. Instead of spending decades to identify plants that will provide desirable characteristics, from higher yield potential to drought resistance, plant breeders are able to speed this process through DNA screening.

Marker-assisted selection minimizes the lengthy "wait and see" period required in traditional plant breeding. Seed chipping technology, which was developed in the last 15 years, also speeds up the plant breeding process. This technology is based on the fact that a plant's genes are the same in a seed, a sprout or a plant in full production.

"It's more expensive and time-consuming to advance plant genetics with traditional breeding methods, because you only get one growing season a year in Iowa," Boateng said. "By removing a small chip from a seed, you can analyze the DNA without harming the chipped seed's ability to grow."

This helps companies like Bayer bring new seed technology to market more rapidly.

"We deliver new plant genetics up to two years faster with seed chipping technology than without it," Boateng said.

The future of farming has arrived

The Huxley Learning Center also includes precision ag exhibits to help visitors understand the key role of modern equipment in production agriculture.

"Farmers make agronomic decisions to optimize yield, like assessing which hybrids are best for certain areas of the field," Boateng said. "We explain to visitors that there are different soil types, and you shouldn't treat them all the same."

Exhibits on variable-rate planting show how a planter adjusts the seeding rate based on computerized maps of the field and its soil types. Guests also learn about precision planter equipment like DeltaForce, which uses hydraulic technology to adjust pressure row by row, second by second, to ensure seeds are planted at the proper depth.

"Accurate planting depth is vital for even emergence," said Boateng, who noted that corn seedlings that emerge 48 hours after their neighbors likely won't produce an ear. "DeltaForce is one of the best investments farmers can make to give each plant an equal opportunity to reach its maximum yield potential."

The Huxley Learning Center also delves into the importance of seed singulation, with an exhibit on the evolution of planter technology, from plate planters to vacuum technology. Singulation involves way the meter in a planter takes one seed at a time and drops it down the seed tube for planting.

"For every one percent increase in proper singulation, you boost yields by an average of 2.5 bushels per acre," Boateng said. "We've seen yield advantages as high as four bushels an acre in our trials here."

Beyond planting, the Huxley Learning Center explains the role of management zones and digital ag solutions that provide data to help farmers make better decisions throughout the growing season. Real-time connectivity in the tractor or combine cab, combined with cloud-to-cloud data transfers, have ushered in a new era of farming.

"Digital agriculture is the next wave of innovation that's transforming agriculture," Boateng said. "Since there are no do-overs in farming, and mistakes are costly, putting the power of prediction into farmers' hands offers a great way to complement their instincts and experience to produce crops more efficiently."

Along with the indoor exhibits, the Huxley Learning Center tour includes 60 acres of in-field demonstrations, showcasing the latest innovations in precision planting technologies, plant breeding, biotechnology and agronomic systems.

"The future of farming has arrived," Boateng said. "We want to help give people a whole new appreciation for modern agriculture."



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