An ambitious project. How scientists of Altai Krai explored the Kulunda steppe

18 November 2020 Department of Information and Media Communications

In 2011, the interdisciplinary project "Kulunda" was launched, bringing together scientists from Altai Krai and Germany. More than 20 research institutes and universities took part in the development of 11 subprojects. Candidate of Technical Sciences, Associate Professor of the Department of Theoretical Cybernetics and Applied Mathematics of AltSU Elena Ponkina and Candidate of Geographical Sciences, Associate Professor of the Department of Economic Geography and Cartography of AltSU, coordinator of the Kulunda project Andrei Bondarovich tell us about the experience of work of the largest scientific agrarian collaboration in Altai. Agrarian science is a priority direction of the development of the Altai scientific and educational center.

Germany comes to Altai

- EP: Big money for science is given to research the global problems of climate change on the planet. The Kulunda steppe is a large territory that was constantly influenced by humans. The adaptation of agriculture to specific conditions will make it possible to emit less carbon into the atmosphere, improve the environment, and will be a testing ground for the application of the latest technical inventions that save natural resources.

- AB: German scientists were interested to see how types of agriculture change from dry steppe to forest-steppe zone. It was interesting to compare similar lands in Germany. In the driest part of the country, Saxony-Anhald is home to our main research partner, the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. It became interesting for colleagues to compare, especially since many predict aridization (drying) of the climate, therefore, in the future, the natural conditions of this German land can be as close as possible to the Kulundinskaya land.

- Why did colleagues from Germany knock on the doors of the Altai scientists?

- AB: In 2007 we had our first educational program "Natural Resource Management", together with Martin Luther University. Some modules were read in German. The next step was the creation of a large interdisciplinary project between the countries. An important role was played by friendly and scientific contacts with Dr. Tobias Meinel, a student of Manfred Fryauf, an honorary professor at AltSU.

Plow from the porch

- At one time, the Kulundinskaya steppe was plowed during the famous Virgin lands. It is believed that the development of this territory has largely generated an ecological catastrophe.

- AB: The authorities had a short-term prospect of feeding the people with bread. The steppe fallow gives a good harvest in the first year of cultivation, and then the soil is depleted. Let's go for the monstrous environmental consequences. Dust storms, silting of small rivers, changes in the traditional way of life. Planned to plow 13 million chestnut soils, in fact plowed 20 million, relying on the slogan "Plow from the porch." And you could look at the experience in the North American prairies 25 years before the Virgin lands. There were monstrous consequences in the Arizona dusty bowl - 2 million emigrants, houses were covered with the top layer of soil up to the windows, children went to school in gas-helmets and masks. Hollywood's Interstellar is one way to rethink this disaster. And we partly walked into the same water twice. We are "lucky" to have a huge country.

- EP: In terms of socio-economic development, it turned out to be an interesting experiment. A large number of new villages were formed, which, with the advent of the market economy and the transition to self-sufficiency, in 50-60 years began to disappear from the map of Russia again. The development of virgin lands and the negative phenomena that arose in connection with this, stimulated the development of agricultural science, in particular soil science. They began to plant forest belts, there were curtain crops, flat-cutting processing of arable land and much more. By the eighties, the number of dust storms had decreased. If we assess whether these lands are used today, then no one has investigated this at present. Therefore, we do not know exactly how many lands plowed in the 50-60s are used to this day.

No-Till

- What was the essence of the experiment implemented as part of the Kulunda project?

- AB: Perhaps the cultivation model became the core. We created plots with four replicates. Three types of tillage were investigated: deep plowing, intermediate technology and No-Till. Then different types of crop rotation and plant protection

- herbicides were used to suppress weeds. The crop rotation also differed: for deep plowing - fallow and 3 times wheat, with a clean No-Till - there was no fallow field, sowed with rape, peas and two plots of wheat. From 2013 to 2016, we monitored the soil moisture and its availability, and our colleagues from the ASAU monitored the yield.

- No-Till - technology without deep tillage. Is the seeding unit designed in such a way that it makes small deepening in the soil (4-5 centimeters), sows seeds and distributes fertilizers?

- EP: In Altai Krai, each farmer has his own No-Till. And everyone understands by this his own way of tillage. Now they say "clean No-Till", when, apart from sowing, there are no interventions on the soil and "mini Till" with loosening and cultivation of the soil to a shallow depth.

- AB: It is important to preserve moisture in the soil, and for this, the technology leaves stubble and mulch - plant residues that are crushed and scattered over the field. Stubble traps snow, while mulch provides moisture and nitrogen.

- EP: This approach makes it possible to stimulate the development of soil biota, as a result, the humus layer increases.

- What are the disadvantages of this technology?

- AB: Experts say that the soil is hardening. When plowing occurs, the soil is loosened, and without this it becomes compressed and dense. Therefore, some Kulunda agrarians use deep loosening every three years, which is not a “clean” No-Till.

- EP: In my understanding, mechanical impact on the soil means the destruction of the natural environment that has developed there. But this structure takes a long time to form! At the same time, loosening enhances the evaporation of moisture.

We counted money

- Elena, did your group analyze the socio-economic component?

- EP: We worked with farmers to analyze the cost-effectiveness of implementing No-Till in relation to other technologies. It turned out that mini-Till is more attractive, since the full implementation of No-Till technology requires new expensive equipment, which only large farms can now afford. The second component of the study was based on the analysis of the factors of increasing the yield. Fertilization is one such factor. According to statistics, Altai Krai lags far behind other regions in terms of the amount of applied fertilizers, as well as in terms of average crop yields. Farmers are not sure if it is worth spending money on fertilizers. It is difficult to predict the effect of fertilization due to climatic conditions. No precipitation - dry fertilizers do not work in the soil.

- You collected data, saw problem areas and what conclusions did you come to?

- EP: We built a model of the territory, from which it became clear that just the fact of applying fertilizers (even without taking into account the dose and quantity) gives a positive result. We have achieved the same results in the application of plant protection products. There is a fact of introduction, there is an increase in yield. Moreover, the methods were not associated with accurate agrochemical calculations and tables, we considered the expected increase in yield and money in an average farm.

- Andrei, did your group investigate moisture conservation in the soil?

- AB: We investigated this problem with modern equipment on three types of soil cultivation: deep till, mini Till and No-Till. On experimental plots of 12 by 60 meters, two stations worked.

- Are they whole spaceships?

- AB: More modest. Six sensors with data transmission in the ground for deep plowing, and the same number for No-Till. Depth 30, 60 and 120 centimeters. One sensor measured the percentage of moisture, air temperature and conductivity. Another is the temperature and sucking strength of the soil.

- Sucking power of the soil?

- AB: This theory has long been developed in Russian hydrology. Moisture is stored in the soil in three forms: there is a capillary form used by animals and plants; there is moisture that the soil binds and does not give up. Depending on the amount of moisture and the type of soil, the proportion changes - both for nutrition outside and for their own existence. As a result, we came to the conclusion that the soils cultivated with the No-Till system are more adaptable to droughts and the moisture lasts longer. With deep soil cultivation, moisture quickly becomes inaccessible to plants, because a sole shoe forms at a depth of 30 centimeters.

- Is it retained by this sole shoe?

- AB: By physical methods, we confirm that the soil at this depth is denser. On the hardness scale, it reaches critical values for crops. According to our version, after precipitation falls, all moisture reaches the compressed plow sole. And then this moisture evaporates very quickly. And with No-Till, during precipitation, part of it evaporates, and part goes to the sole shoe of 60-120 centimeters, where a kind of underground reservoir is formed - such a strategic reserve. Out of the 4 studied years, two years were dry, two with sufficient moisture. In addition, plots with no-till had peas and rapeseed in the rotation, which require more water than wheat. But at the end of the growing season, No-Till in terms of volume and availability of moisture looked preferable to the option with deep tilling.

- EP: There was more humidity under No-Till even compared to a deep plowed steam field. There was more moisture in steam in the spring, and then during the season it evaporated. We can say that the entire amount of precipitation that falls in Kulunda during the growing season completely evaporates! And retaining moisture in the soil is the most important economic task. And from the point of view of the economy, crop rotation also played its role. Traditionally, since Soviet times, many farmers have planted 3 wheat and 1 fallow. According to No-Till, other crops (rapeseed and peas) took the place of fallow in the experiment. So, for example, if the share of wheat in the sowing structure on a farm exceeded 70%, for us it was an indicator of irrational crop rotation and, as a rule, such farms have low yields.

- If I had been a farmer in the Altai steppe I would have switched to No-Till long ago.

- AB: It's not that simple. The fact is that during the transition to this system, the advantage arises gradually. It will take 3-4 years for the soil to change its structure. The farmer buys equipment, starts to operate according to No-Till, and the first years the yield does not grow. A certain time period is required.

There will be an economic effect

- 11 scientific subprojects were involved in Kulunda. A lot of rating articles and monographs appeared in different languages with definite conclusions. A scientific territorial phenomenon has formed, which has united economists, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, physicists, agrochemists, soil scientists, farmers-practitioners and many others. What are the final conclusions of world science?

- EP: For me it was the first experience of working with foreigners and breaking down barriers. In collaboration with the IAMO Institute, new data processing methods have been mastered that combine mathematical methods, GIS technologies and applied analysis of agricultural processes. Agrarian economist Norbert Hershauer demonstrated how to apply theoretical mathematical models to solving applied problems. The results of our research have become the formalization of things that have long been spoken about the methods of cultivating arable land, about fertilizers, etc.

- AB: In world practice, farmers have begun to pay more attention to digitalization. In my opinion, we should start not so much with technology as with understanding what is happening to the soil. It is important to understand how moisture is distributed, the better to feed the soil, whether it makes sense to fertilize "hopeless" areas. It is necessary to build a correlation between climate and yield. There used to be watering that was not counted. As a teenager, I drove such an installation every hour and a half, without taking into account atmospheric precipitation and the degree of soil moisture. Prices for electricity and water were not comparable to current tariffs. Yes, and in fact all costs were covered by the state. Now everything requires finances, so it is cheaper to install sensors, see that moisture has become inaccessible and organize spot irrigation. There will be an economic effect.

- When the experiment ended, did local farmers take advantage of your scientific discoveries?

- AB: Plots of Kulunda moved to a new scientific project "Development of innovative climate-adapted techniques for sustainable use of agricultural resources in the arid steppes of Kazakhstan and South-West Siberia (ReKKS)" "Kazakhstan - Russia - Germany". So research continues.

Master's student is a trained "scout"

- More than 100 German scientists took part in the project. Are these Europeans spoiled by comfort?

- AB: Undergraduates from German universities took part in most of the projects. They are very different from our students. The German undergraduate student is a well-trained "scout". They give him money, set tasks. He comes to another country, begins to get acquainted with those who will help solve his scientific problem. Usually young scientists work in pairs - a Russian-speaking master's student and a specialist who does not speak the language. They integrate quickly without avoiding drunken parties with the local population. Then a professor from the university comes and sets them clear tasks in a specific area. And they "plow" seven days a week. The soil scientists with whom we worked as a team surprised me with their German scrupulousness. In the dry steppe, 4 soil profiles were dug per day, not deviating a single centimeter from the standard.

- Didn’t the field life bother you?

- EP: Everything was fine. We were embarrassed by the lack of toilet paper on trains and the prospect of looking for a “toilet” in the forest belt. But this did not stop us from drinking moonshine with the village outcasts all night.
- How did the village population welcome foreigners?

- AB: The field component of our joint research was seasonal. In the Kulunda steppe, we started work in May, and as a rule, it was on May 8-9, on the holiday of the Great Victory, and we never faced aggression. Everyone understood that two peoples were in great trouble at one time. Altai is multinational. It turned out that many good machine operators in Kulunda have German surnames. Almost all machine operators were called Oscars ...

- Young people quickly adapt to everything, and did accomplished German scientists demonstrate a difference in mentality?

- AB: They do not understand our specifics related to legislation. They are surprised by the lengthy coordination with various services and special services. One of the professors could not understand the administration formula "we do not recommend this research". I studied legislation for a long time, hired a non-university team and, as a result, did not solve the problem.

- Foreigners, data transmission - all this is the domain of special services. Did you help?

- EP: Unfortunately, we did not agree on the rules beforehand, I enetred the project after its approval and launch, therefore there were disputes, agreements and misunderstandings. But in the end, the result is positive, colleagues accepted everything as it is. We process the initial "raw data" ourselves and there is no point in transferring it anywhere, especially since after the analysis it already becomes our scientific results - the basis for joint scientific articles.

- AB: Thanks to control, our systematization has improved, the timing has made us more disciplined. We have even become punctual Germans ourselves.

Sergey Manskov

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