Systems Research

Systems Research

Water Conservation on the High Plains

Why Systems Research?

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When trying to define an elusive term like systems research, it’s easier to start with what we know it is not.

Most agricultural field research is component research. Component research is easy to understand -- alter something, say, the amount of fertilizer two plots receive. Then measure something, such as the yield from each of the two plots. Assume the difference in yield resulted from the two different fertilizer rates and call that, well, your results.

Systems research is by design and definition different from traditional research approaches. With systems research, production is only one component of an agricultural system.

“Systems research is dynamic. It cannot be measured by snapshots. It must be tested across time and locations,” said Vivien Allen, Texas Tech University, Thornton Distinguished Chair of Plant & Soil Science, retired. “It is an understanding of the whole and the reasons for its behavior that allow us to begin to move in directions that accomplish our research purposes, i.e. water savings, profitability, environmental protection, as well as productivity.

Vivien Allen

Vivien Allen spearheaded Southern SARE research on alternative crop and livestock systems beginning in 1997. Photo credit: Texas Tech University TeCSIS

“This could never be accomplished in short-term small plot or animal experiments because we are looking at pieces taken from the system that no longer behave as they did within the system,” said Allen. “Once we have the chance to study the system, then we can begin to look at the pieces because we are doing so within the system itself. Now they behave in response to all of the influences and interrelationships that cause them to react as they do.“

The first SSARE-funded grant in 1997 (LS97-082), “Sustainable Crop/Livestock Systems in the Texas High Plains,” set the stage for long-term systems study.

“The things we learned that first year were crucial to the ability to study these systems over time,” said Allen. “SARE provided us with a unique opportunity to explore these relationships. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for SARE support.”

For nearly 20 years, that systems research has continued through nearly $1.5 million in SSARE funding, showcasing the results of long-term alternative production systems, and how those results are being translated into practical field production practices and sustainable agriculture applications.

Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region. This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, through Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, under sub-award numbers: LS97-082, LS02-131, LS08-202, LS10-229, LS11-238, LS14-261, LS17-286, GS02-012, GS07-056, GS15-152 and GS18-196. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and service provider. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Perspectives on Systems Research

Video: An educational video series for researchers exploring systems research, divided into five modules. Some of the nation's top ag leaders in systems research are profiled.

Bulletin: An 8-page bulletin that seeks to demystify the term systems research as it relates to sustainable agriculture.

PowerPoint: An introduction to systems research.