Soils can be enriched with nutrients to grow strong, healthy grass for livestock to consume. Many of the nutrients transfer to your plate when you eat meat, or the fruits, vegetables and grains harvested.
Dr. Melissa Bledsoe, associate professor in the Darr College of Agriculture at Missouri State University, has conducted many research projects focused on the chemistry and nutrition in soil.
“I’ve always loved plants. My father worked for John Deere, so agriculture was part of our family.”
In recent years, the agriculture community has emphasized the importance of testing soil composition then improving the chemistry. Farmers may do this by adding nutrients to the soil or to the solution that waters the field.
“Not only can you grow more food, but it’ll be healthier. And in turn, you might not have to add supplements to your cattle’s food,” Bledsoe, a plant physiologist, said. “By investing a little bit more in your soil, you can get a better benefit.”
In Karls Hall at MSU, Bledsoe teaches her students to test soils and plant tissue. These tests can show how soils need to be adapted to meet the goals for the crop.
Bledsoe integrates research into her teaching, and she values building projects around her students’ interests and questions.
She relates this back to her own experience as a graduate student studying under Provost Dr. Frank Einhellig. He inspired her to dig deeper into research and ultimately pursue her doctoral degree.
Grass tetany, a fatal disorder in cattle, is related to low magnesium in a cow’s diet.
In previous work, Bledsoe and colleagues found soil must have adequate phosphorus levels for magnesium to reach the leaves of tall fescue.
“The Ozarks has acidic soils, which means our phosphorus levels are low,” she explained. “Grass tetany is more of an issue in our tall fescue pastures than in many other places.”
This led to another study, and another publication in 2019. This time, the team focused on other common crops, such as winter wheat, oats and cereal rye.
Starting small, her students set up the experiment in hydroponics. This allowed them “to manipulate the mineral nutrition very specifically to see how the plant responds.”
Then, they expanded the study to the field, hoping to zero in on how adding phosphorus to the soil affected the magnesium in the winter plants.
“Our abilities are flexible. So when a student says, ‘I’m really interested in growing vegetables,’ we think about a way we can solve a question about that.”
While winter wheat was responsive to the addition, the other winter annuals were not.
Though the study didn’t indicate that there were benefits for the other winter annuals, Bledsoe spins it positively.
“Even finding that some plants don’t respond is still an answer,” she said, noting that it’s a learning opportunity for students. “It gives them a reason to continue testing the techniques with other variables, too.”
At Journagan Ranch, a Missouri State property in Mountain Grove, Missouri, Bledsoe has worked alongside Drs. Michael Goerndt, William McClain and Toby Dogwiler on a major U.S. Department of Agriculture grant project since 2018.
Here they have established a silvopasture to study.
In simpler terms, a silvopasture means you’re optimizing land to grow trees and grass together in a way that benefits both to get higher yields.
“We want to grow forages for grazing cattle in this area. If we can grow forages under trees, we can get a second crop with trees,” Bledsoe said. “Meanwhile, we’re providing shade and cooler temperatures for the cattle.”
It takes a long time to establish these plots before they are producing at full capacity, Bledsoe stressed. All along the way, the team monitors and measures tree health, soil nutrition and forage growth for baseline data.
“We can map the area but also monitor how those trees are growing, how the grasses are growing and see what stresses they’re under. Ultimately, over time, we can also monitor production and growth with drone flights, and we’ll have on the ground measurements to compare that to.”
As the roots deepen and the trees thrust upward, the team will continue to track at periodic tipping points throughout the year:
“We want to prove how a silvopasture system can benefit a producer and how these systems might help the trees and forages be healthier,” she said.
In her role, Bledsoe mentors students in agronomy and horticulture. Her interest in soil health and nutrition serves as a springboard for a broad range of students to jump into research, she noted.
“We have students that range from horticulture to agronomy and we want to have all those students be interested in research.”
Her projects dig in many different directions – garlic, microgreens, and fescue to name a few. At the root of each, she sees a commonality.
“We’re trying to help local producers have healthier soils and healthier forage production, so they can have fewer issues with their cattle,” Bledsoe said. “For me, I love working on real world problems that can alleviate the pressure on these producers.”