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Ursinus Research Collaboration with Penn State to Give Farmers a Boost

Denise Finney, an assistant professor of biology, is part of a team that recently received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The Penn State-led research will help organic corn producers decide how much nitrogen to apply to their crop fields. Farmers must apply sufficient nitrogen to support crop growth, but excess nitrogen contributes to water and air pollution and climate change.

“It is a delicate balance,” Finney said.

Currently, farmers rely primarily on rules of thumb to decide if they need to invest in additional nitrogen, or if they are potentially generating excess nitrogen.

“This project seeks to provide an alternative to these rules of thumb that can more accurately predict how much nitrogen is available from organic sources during a crop season in the form of a predictive model,” she said.

Finney, who earned her Ph.D. from Penn State, has been involved in the research since she was a doctoral student. She said, “We have used data from several different experiments to develop a preliminary model to predict nitrogen availability from organic fertility sources, specifically cover crops.”

The new grant will support the next phase of model development and enhance a web-based tool that will be available to farmers who want to use the model on their farms, Finney said.

Her lab is engaged with validating biogeochemical pieces of the model. “In other words, we will be conducting experiments to determine how the size and function of soil microbial communities—the organisms that drive nitrogen cycling—vary in different soil types and in response to different types of organic fertility sources,” she said.

In addition to funding for materials and supplies, the grant will also support a research technician and student researchers who will be involved in setting up, maintaining and collecting data from laboratory assays based at Ursinus. Student researchers will also be involved with field data collection that occurs at Penn State’s agricultural research center and on farms in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Finney said that the collaboration is “a great opportunity to connect students with the vast array of agricultural research happening through PSU, and I look forward to providing opportunities for student researchers to attend educational field days as both learners and presenters.”