From adaptive multi-paddock grazing to agrivoltaics, Nuria Gomez-Casanovas, Ph.D., is investigating strategies to enhance the ecological and environmental sustainability of agricultural land in her new position with Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Vernon.
Gomez-Casanovas, an assistant professor in regenerative system ecology in the Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, has been on the job about a month.
She hit the ground running, building on her previous work with Richard Teague, Ph.D., who retired and whose position she filled at Vernon. These projects concern adaptive multi-paddock grazing, AMP — a form of rotational grazing where one paddock is grazed at a time while other paddocks recover, and livestock numbers are adjusted to match available forage — as well as pasture cropping with AMP grazing.
Gomez-Casanovas said she is also looking forward to bringing to the Rolling Plains new research on bioenergy and agrivoltaics, which is the dual use of land resources through the collocation of solar panels on agricultural land to simultaneously produce solar energy and food.
“I want to investigate novel strategies that in theory should enhance the environmental sustainability of agriculture land,” Gomez-Casanovas said. “But I also will have a strong focus on making sure these strategies are profitable for our farmers. Otherwise, these new strategies will not really be sustainable.”
Building a regenerative farming program
Gomez-Casanovas began her research program on regenerative farming as a research scientist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, after earning her bachelor’s and doctorate from the University of Barcelona, Spain.
From this work, she began studying grasslands to understand how grazing affects these ecosystems, including the emission of greenhouse gases such as methane.
“While I was at the University of Illinois, I was primarily working on two government and privately funded projects that aimed to improve the sustainability of food and energy security portfolios,” she said. “Our projects studied the environmental sustainability of pastures under AMP management and the environmental impact of growing sugarcane as a bioenergy crop compared to the typical land use in Florida, which is grasslands and pastures.”
In Vernon, she will adapt and continue this previous research in a different climate.
“My original AMP grant focused on how the management strategy affects the environmental and ecological sustainability of pastures in the subtropics. But I have applied for a multi-million-dollar grant to expand the project to the temperate zone – the northern Great Plains – with colder temperatures and less precipitation, and I am starting a new pasture cropping AMP project in Texas with other AgriLife Research scientists.”
Pasture cropping with AMP, which integrates direct seeding of annual crops into dormant perennial grasses, is a novel, cost-effective strategy that has been studied in other regions of the world but is relatively new to the U.S. This strategy is gaining increased attention as a way to build soil function and enhance the productivity of grasslands.
An aspect of this work involves bioenergy. Gomez-Casanovas aims to continue her bioenergy research with another multimillion-dollar project involving the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation in collaboration with 22 U.S. universities and institutions to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Agrivoltaics in the Rolling Plains
Similar to how landowners and producers have learned to continue agriculture production under giant wind turbines, Gomez-Casanovas believes agrivoltaics can be used to mitigate climate warming while enhancing productivity and efficiency in the use of land and natural resources.
Her current agrivoltaics project, a collaborative effort between several universities and multiple stakeholders on a U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Sustainable Agricultural Systems project, is investigating the benefits and trade-offs of agrivoltaics.
She said agrivoltaics is still developing as a practice, so the research team is using agronomic, physiologic and synthesis approaches to understand how the practice affects productivity and how it could benefit ag systems. The team is also studying how agrivoltaics could affect the environment, including impacts on the accumulation of soil organic carbon, biodiversity and emission of greenhouse gases.
“My idea is to see how agrivoltaics affects pasture productivity in arid and semi-arid regions, where we get low precipitation,” Gomez-Casanovas said. “These solar panels keep the moisture in the soil, so they can be beneficial from a hydrological standpoint due to the shade the panels provide and a reduced amount of water lost by plants and soil.”
One question she is determined to answer is how to effectively sustain and enhance food productivity – whether on crops or pastures – under the solar panels and how this will impact the environment.
“Details are extremely important. The height, density and orientation of the panels, the materials used in their construction, and the types of plant species will play a major role in plant productivity and the environmental and economic viability of this novel strategy,” she said.
She plans to run simulations on different agrivoltaics designs to determine plant productivity and then test those experiments in the field.
“The idea is to use a combination of advanced panel technology and thoughtfully choose plant species that allow to increase plant growth while harvesting the energy from the solar panels,” Gomez-Casanovas said. “Both plant productivity and the solar energy generated are higher in an agrivoltaics system as compared to a conventional system, so we are getting more benefits from our land.”
Broader bioenergy research for regional solutions
Gomez-Casanovas said as she continues her grant work, she also plans to tackle several issues important to Texas and the neighboring states.
“The aspects I’m concentrating on are the biogeochemical changes that occur when grasslands are converted to grow sugarcane or another bioenergy crop and the impact of this land conversion on the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and on our water resources,” she said.
Gomez-Casanovas said she will continue working with scientists in Illinois, Florida and Alabama, but also will begin collaborating with scientists in Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana who are studying bioenergy sorghums.
Additionally, she will work with other AgriLife Research scientists on amending soils with biochar to see if that can enhance productivity of semi-arid ecosystems.
“It would be benefitting the water cycle of these systems and provide plants more water for growth while enhancing soil health – it could be a win-win practice in semi-arid systems,” she said.