Dr. Mumtaz Cheema is all smiles as he stands in the shade of his first crop of corn, the plants stretching up to 2 metres, straight towards the Humber Valley sun.

"I'm very happy with this crop," said Cheema, a Grenfell Campus, Memorial University professor and agronomist, as he breaks open one ear to reveal creamy kernels, just about ready to be harvested.

But this Pynn's Brook-grown corn isn't going on the barbecue or a boiling pot of water. Cheema hopes his plants, and this project, will help push Newfoundland agriculture into new territory.

corn

An almost-ripe ear of corn in the Pynn's Brook field. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Corn for cows

Cheema's corn is meant to become silage corn — a version of the grain that is processed into animal feed — and to be widely used in island's dairy industry, where self-sufficient feeding is still more of a dream than reality.

"In Newfoundland and Labrador, farmers can grow and fulfil the feeding requirements for their animals only up to 10 per cent, and the rest they import from mainland Canada," said Cheema.

Dairy Cows

Corn silage is a high-fibre, high nutrient feed. (Canadian Press File Photo)

Cormack dairy and vegetable farmer, and president of the province's federation of agriculture, Melvin Rideout, estimates 50 per cent of the island's dairy farmers import feed. 

Rideout's operation is self-sufficient, but none of his cows eat corn silage — a crop that has proved uneconomical to him in the past. 

"We tried corn silage in the past, for a five year trial. And out of the five years, we've only had two successful years," said Rideout.

 "So we weren't able to get the nutrients out of it that were required."

Cheema hopes he can chip away at that problem.
    
"If I am able to produce silage corn, with a high biomass, with good quality traits, i think that will be a big contribution, a big help to the farmers," said Cheema. 

The science behind the stalks

The October harvest is the first in a two-year study to research what corn, and what fertilizers, work best on the island. The project is led by Cheema, but also includes more faculty and researchers at Grenfell Campus' Boreal Ecosystem Research Initiative, the provincial government, and west coast dairy farmers.

Cheema and his team planted five, carefully chosen varieties of corn on the small, 0.2 hectare test site in Pynn's Brook back in June.

"Because on the island, we don`t have high heating units, so we`re growing low heating unit varieties of corn," explained Cheema.

A heating unit is a measurement used to quantify the temperature various crops need to grow. Cheema's corn varieties require between 2000 and 2200 heating units to flourish. To compare - many Ontario varieties typically soak up 3000 heating units.

Throughout the season, Cheema and his team kept a careful eye on the corn - even below ground.

Throughout the field, there are slim cylindrical tubes inserted into the soil: root scanners, that look like subterranean pool noodles, but actually capture images of the corn roots as they grow.

Dr Mumtaz Cheema checking root tubes

Dr. Cheema holding a root scanner, which creates images to allow researchers to analyze the corn's root development. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"We can analyze it through software, actually, and that will tell us how root length is, root diameters, root hairs - all the root characteristics," said Cheema.

That data shows which varieties can send roots deep into the rocky soil and absorb the most nutrients: key factors to corn success.

Looping in local poop 

Another aspect to the project is a first-of-it's-kind study on the island — analyzing the greenhouse gasses associated with fertilizing the crops.

Cheema didn't have to look far for source material.

He used manure from nearby farms, a plentiful, and popular, source for local fertilizer.

Cheema noted farmers on the island fertilize heavily with manure to augment poor soils, but there's no research onto environmental impacts of that usage. 

Pynn's Brook cornfield

The project's corn was augmented with manure from local dairy farms. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

"We know in manure, there's nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, all those micro- and macronutrients available. That again depends on composition of this manure — if the manure has more phosphorus or nitrogen," said Cheema.

Cheema is particularly concerned about the nitrogen present. 

While naturally occurring, when nitrogen in manure breaks down, it turns into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has a far greater impact on the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

"So we need to actually figure out what would be the best practices. By adopting those, we can reduce the emission of greenhouse gases," said Cheema.

Growing forward

Cheema's work is far from done despite the end of growing season. ​

The harvested corn will be analyzed back at Grenfell Campus laboratories, for the quality of its nutrients and other factors.

Then it's on to year two of the project.

"I'm going to select next year, maybe two high yielding varieties. Hopefully, I will get the varieties with higher biomass, with good root morphology, said Cheema.

He is seeking funding to extend the study for more growing seasons, to get a better sense of what works long-term in the climate.

Regardless of that, Cheema just hopes his corn paves the way to greater food security on the island.

"That's really required, to meet the future food requirements of Newfoundland people, and for the dairy industry, and all the stakeholders in agriculture."

Marvin Rideout agrees with that vision.

"Anytime that we can produce something that makes us more self-sufficient, without having to rely on off-island inputs, during the winter months, it's a big bonus for us," said Rideout.