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Agronomy History

Agronomy has over 100 years of service in to Pennsylvania and consists of the three major program areas of crop science, soil science, and turfgrass science that share a common mission of education, discovery, and communication for the purpose of improving the understanding and management of plant and soil ecosystems.

Breeding of Grain Crops

Corn

Charles Noll, a charter member of the department, was one of the first agriculturalists to foresee the advantage of hybrid corn. Other faculty continued his work, and by the late 1940s, a number of hybrids adapted to Pennsylvania had been developed. In the 1960s, an early maturing hybrid (PA290) was released and widely grown in regions with short growing seasons. In the ensuing years, more emphasis was placed on developing improved corn genetic materials for use by private companies, including corn inbreds and germplasm populations resistant to viruses and gray leaf spot. Since 1948, more than 135 corn inbreds have been released, along with numerous germplasm populations. The average yield of corn in Pennsylvania in 1907 was 34 bushels per acre compared to recent average yields of up to 140 bushels per acre—certainly much progress has been made.

Small Grains

Charles Noll also developed outstanding small grain varieties such as Patterson and Keystone oat and Nittany soft red winter wheat. By 1933, Nittany accounted for 40 percent of the acreage planted to wheat in Pennsylvania. Further breeding efforts led to the release of Pennoll wheat, which was cited as one of the outstanding achievements in agronomy during the 1950s. Other small grain varieties developed by faculty in the department include Pennrad, Pennco, Pennbar 66 and PA8649-95 winter barley, Pennfield and Hercules spring oats, and Pennmore and PA8769-158 winter wheat. The most recent winter barley (PA9550-151) was released in 2006 having good resistance to powdery mildew, high yield, and a test weight that is 2 pounds higher than that of Pennco.

Breeding of Turfgrasses

The Penn State turfgrass program began in 1928 with the goal of developing superior grasses for golf courses and parks. In 1954, a seeded variety of creeping bentgrass called Penncross was released and quickly became the standard putting green grass for the golf course industry worldwide. No other variety of any turfgrass species has had such a profound impact on the world’s turfgrass industry. Penn State’s turfgrass breeding tradition continued with the release of Pennfine, a variety of perennial ryegrass with desirable turfgrass properties. Further bentgrass releases included Penneagle, Pennlinks, Seaside 2, and the series known as Penn A1, A2, A4, G1, G2, and G6, which are heat-tolerant strains that can stand up to the extremely low mowing heights. Penn State’s bentgrass releases are now used on 90 percent of golf courses around the world.

Breeding of improved grasses for golf courses continues today with efforts focused on annual bluegrass for its many characteristics that make it desirable as a putting surface, including its upright growth, high shoot density, and ability to tolerate extremely close mowing heights. In addition, the department annually conducts tests of commercially available turfgrass cultivars and experimental selections at Penn State to provide turfgrass managers, seed industry representatives, county educators, and other interested people with information about turfgrass characteristics and performance.

Conservation Tillage

Conservation tillage may well be the agronomic practice that most revolutionized crop production in the last half of the twentieth century, greatly reducing farmers’ time, effort, and fuel usage while contributing to improved water and air quality. The department played a pivotal role in the development of conservation tillage systems. Starting in the 1960s, researchers attempted to renovate pastures and grow corn without tillage, but the early results were mostly unsuccessful due to the lack of effective herbicides and planting equipment. But perseverance paid off and excellent weed control was achieved with the advent of new herbicides. Further equipment innovations in collaboration with agricultural engineers led to successful demonstrations with a wide variety of crops, and Penn State began to promote no-till through its extension program. By the mid 1970s, several companies started manufacturing no-till drills, further promoting this practice.

The 1985 Farm Bill mandated that all federal crop program participants have conservation plans regulating the amount of annual soil loss. Residue cover using no-till planting helped many farmers comply with this regulation. In response, the Penn State conservation tillage program shifted to evaluate the impact of various minimum tillage tools on crop residue cover. In collaborative efforts with county extension educators and USDA personnel,
regional and county conservation tillage conferences were organized and the Crop Management Extension Group (CMEG) developed a series of fact sheets and other publications on crop management in conservation tillage. A surge of interest in no-till led to the formation of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance in 2005. We are now poised to develop highly sustainable no-till systems that rely less on external inputs while maximizing residue.

Nutrient Management

In the 1980s, the decline of the Chesapeake Bay focused attention on nutrient loss from agriculture. The department became heavily involved in this issue with research programs focusing on nutrient behavior and fate and whole-farm nutrient management. This research was closely linked to the extension nutrient management program. This integrated research and extension program led to significant impacts on farms in the state. For example, new nitrogen (N) fertilizer recommendations were developed and implemented; new in-season testing systems for N were adapted to Pennsylvania conditions, field tested, and implemented; and nutrient management planning systems were developed and tested on Pennsylvania farms.

In the 1990s, nutrient management legislation was proposed and department faculty provided science-based technical advice to the legislature and government agencies that were developing these laws and regulations. College publications such as the Penn State Agronomy Guide and nutrient management fact sheets were codified in the regulations as the standard for nutrient management planning. The department’s Nutrient Management Extension program was given the specific mandate in the law for providing education in support of this legislation. To date, plans have been written based on Penn State guidelines for almost 2,500 farms covering 600,000 acres in the state. These plans direct the management of more than half of the manure produced in Pennsylvania to achieve both agronomic production and environmental goals. Implementation of these plans is helping Pennsylvania meet water quality goals for the waters of the Commonwealth and for the Chesapeake Bay. More recently, the emphasis has shifted to phosphorus (P), and the department was instrumental in developing the P Index that is now part of regulations in Pennsylvania.

Academic Programs

Over the past 100 years, the department has awarded more than 4,300 degrees and certificates. The first bachelor of science degree in Agronomy was conferred by Penn State in 1864, and since then more than 1,450 bachelor of science degrees in Agronomy have been granted. In 1990, the department initiated a separate degree program in Soil Science, and 55 bachelor of science degrees have been awarded in Soil Science/Environmental Soil Science. The first master’s and doctoral degrees in Agronomy were granted in 1914 and 1934, respectively, and the first graduate degrees in Soil Science were granted in 1993.

The Two-Year Golf Course Turfgrass Management program was initiated in 1957, and more than 1,500 certificates have been awarded. The first bachelor of science degree in Turfgrass Science was awarded in 1993, and the rapid growth of this program is evidenced by the current total of nearly 500 degrees. A unique aspect of the turf program is the availability of online instruction. The first course taught on the Penn State World Campus was The Turfgrasses in 1998. Since then, the number of enrollments in individual courses has exceeded 3,400.

Penn State is known for its emphasis on interdisciplinary research and education; the department has been an active contributor to these efforts. In 1998, the undergraduate program in Agronomy was folded into an interdisciplinary major in Agroecology; 35 bachelor of science degrees have been awarded in this program. Furthermore, at the graduate level, the department participates in the Intercollege Graduate Degree Programs (IGDP) of Ecology, Plant Physiology (Biology), Genetics, and Material Science.

The department remains committed to its educational mission, and the faculty look forward to preparing the current generation of students for the challenges ahead.