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The dawn of a new era: Engineer to design new tilling and seeding system to increase yields. // PHOTO: KAREN NIEDZWIECKI

Creating sustainable food systems

NSERC supports conservation agriculture study

February 15, 2017 — 

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) announced new funding today for a University of Manitoba study that aims to increase the efficiency of farm fields by a factor of two.

Through NSERC’s Strategic Partnerships Grants Project, biosystems engineering professor Ying Chen will receive $369,642 over three years for her project investigating conservation agriculture, specifically, new ways to till and seed soil.

Conservation agriculture is a practice that protects soil’s integrity and it is key to sustainable food production. (Read more on soil’s wonder here.) In conservation agriculture, 30-100 per cent of crop residue is left in the fields to provide benefits such as halting erosion, boosting soil fertility, and minimizing nutrient runoff. This practice, however, plugs up traditional tillage and seeding equipment – hindering yields.

North American farmers solved part of this problem by creating the concept of vertical tillage (VT) and some equipment is being developed. But professor Chen is proposing a more robust solution: she created the concept of vertical seeding (VS) and with NSERC’s support, her lab will research how VT and VS can be combined to greatly increase yields while lowering energy consumption.

“As an engineer, this is a really exciting problem to solve as it offers many technical challenges, which will be great training for our team of graduate students. But it is also of great importance to the health of our environment and agricultural economy. I’m very thankful to NSERC for supporting this,” says Chen.

Chen will team up with two large Canadian manufacturers (Buhler Versatile Inc. and Atom-Jet Group) to develop VT and VS machines that will increase field efficiency by a factor of two with crop residue reaching levels of 100 per cent.

“This project offers a giant step forward right when the global community is wondering how we can feed an increasing population, and Dr. Chen has thought of an innovative way to boost production while protecting the environment and lowering carbon emissions,” says professor Gary Glavin, Acting Vice-President (Research and International) at the U of M. “This project will have a lasting impact on our economy and I congratulate Dr. Chen and thank her industry partners, who will offer new insights that will lead to even more innovations in this critical endeavour.”

This project will involve seven graduate students being trained by 11 team members, including faculty members and industrial researchers, engineers, and technical staff. Their efforts will result leading-edge technologies, new VT and VS machines, and possibly new production lines at the manufacturers, creating new jobs. All these will greatly benefit Canadian sustainable agriculture, food security, the environment, and the economy.

Research at the University of Manitoba is partially supported by funding from the Government of Canada Research Support Fund.

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