New research facility at U of M will help corn farmers adapt to changing climate

Dr. Tim Griffis working in one of the temperature and water-table controlled rhizotrons.

Dr. Tim Griffis working in one of the temperature and water-table controlled rhizotrons.

Corn farmers will never win their battle with Mother Nature, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to make the fight a little less one-sided.

A new research facility at the University of Minnesota supported by Minnesota corn farmers through their corn check-off is seeking to help farmers better understand how climate change is affecting corn production and its impact on the environment.

One of the challenges of corn farming — especially recently — is the unpredictable weather. Minnesota’s springs have been wet and cold the last couple of years, making corn planting difficult. When fields are finally planted, summers have been hot and dry. This year, an early frost also put a serious dent in yields for most Minnesota corn farmers.

“The weather has been especially volatile lately,” said Minnesota Corn Growers Association President Bruce Peterson, a farmer in Northfield. “We’re seeing once every 25 years rain events happen every other year.”

That’s why the research being done by the U of M is critical. Corn farmers are looking for ways to adapt, and to learn more about how the decisions they make in this changing climate will impact not only their yields, but also water quality and the environment.


The dirt used in the rhizotrons was trucked in from a corn-soybean field in Southern Minnesota.

“We’re working to address questions that are difficult to carry out under field conditions,” said Dr. Tim Griffis at the Department of Soil, Water and Climate at the U of M. “It’s a very forward-looking effort that will cover a lot of ground.”

The research is being conducted at what is now known as a Mesocosm Facility. A mesocosm brings a small part of a natural environment into controlled conditions. Using 12 large rhizotrons — square chambers filled with soil from a drained corn-soybean rotation field in southern Minnesota and planted with a modern corn hybrid — researchers control elements such as temperature and moisture to replicate what’s happening in a typical Minnesota corn field.

The facility is also equipped with an air handling system and two laser systems to monitor greenhouse gas emissions.

“There’s a lot we’re going to be able to do in this facility,” Griffis said. “We’ll be able to come up with data that will benefit Minnesota corn farmers with planting and management decisions, but there’s also going to be a large teaching element to this entire effort.”

One question researchers hope to answer with this project is how will corn growth and yields improve under warmer, wetter and higher CO2 conditions? Another question focuses on growing season greenhouse gas emissions, nitrates and nutrient management.

Students using the technology and tools in the mesocosm facility to work on a project.

Students using the technology and tools in the Mesocosm Facility to work on a project.

To help answer these questions, researchers will warm air temperatures by 5.5 degrees F and increase precipitation by 20 percent in the controlled rhizotrons. They’ll also boost daytime CO2 concentrations. All of this will be done to replicate future climate conditions in order to gather data and insight that will help corn farmers adapt to changing weather patterns.

Results will go a long way in complementing ongoing field research and helping Minnesota corn farmers guide future funding priorities that focus on adapting to our changing climate.

“We need all the information we can get on this issue, and this project will help us move forward,” Peterson said.

The rhizotrons will also come in handy for learning more about ag drainage, nutrient management and other challenges Minnesota farmers face that are easier to replicate in the controlled setting of the mesocosm than in the field.¬†Students studying agriculture and soil sciences will benefit, too, from having a modern facility on campus that is capable of replicating field conditions found throughout Minnesota’s diverse farmlands.

“It really is a large, collaborative project across a number of different colleges,” Griffis said. ¬†“It’s going to provide a lot of new insight for both corn farmers and anyone looking to learn more on adapting to a changing climate.”

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