Course Syllabus

Welcome to Agronomy 531 at Iowa State University!


Instructor: Laura Merrick
1015 Agronomy Hall
Ames, IA 50011-1010

Office Hours: Key activities in Office Hours include answering unclear content from modules, review of key module content, or assignment issues/questions.



Course Description: Ecological principles underlying crop production systems. Crop production in the context of management approaches, system resources and constraints, and interactions. Emphasis on the ecology of row and forage crops common to the Midwest. Required course for the Master of Science in Agronomy degree program.

Course Prerequisites: AGRON 501, AGRON 502, AGRON 503; AGRON 512 and AGRON 514 recommended. Restricted to graduate students enrolled in MS Agronomy online degree program at ISU. Students from other departments must get permission.

Course Overview

  • What are the similarities and differences among crop management approaches?
  • What is the underlying ecology of crop production?
  • Why are different crops prevalent in different regions?
  • How can cropping systems and management strategies capitalize on ecological processes to optimize productivity?
  • What are some management tools that can be used to improve crop production and agricultural sustainability?

This course emphasizes the ecological principles underlying crop production systems. These principles can be applied to develop cropping systems and practices that can take advantage of ecological processes to improve production and agricultural sustainability. Crop production will be examined in the context of management approaches, environmental resources and constraints, and socioeconomic considerations.

Case studies will be used to illustrate principles. Several problem-solving tools will be studied and applied to systematically analyze problems and develop solutions.

With an understanding of various management strategies and crop ecology, you will be better prepared to develop and evaluate crop management recommendations and plans.

Course Objectives

  • What are the similarities and differences among crop management approaches?
  • What is the underlying ecology of crop production?
  • Why are different crops prevalent in different regions?
  • How can cropping systems and management strategies capitalize on ecological processes to optimize productivity?
  • What are some management tools that can be used to improve crop production and agricultural sustainability?

Course Structure

Online Course Materials Format

The online course materials in Agronomy 531 consist of 13 modules modules. Some modules may take longer than others to complete. Be sure to check the course calendar and note all due dates carefully--unlike some other courses in the MS Agronomy program, the day of the week for discussion or assignments deadlines varies widely.

Your typical activities in each module will include the following:

  • Reading the online modules and utilizing the included learning tools such as Study Questions and Try This! Activities.
  • Reading any required textbook pages and external resources.
  • Completing and submitting each Assignment. The assignments are designed to provide practice with concepts in the modules and, in some cases, to inspire deeper thought.
  • Responding thoughtfully to each Discussion Topic. The Discussion Topics are designed to help you gain perspective on how the concepts in the module might be applied in various situations. Some modules have more than one Discussion Topic.
  • If you are the Discussion Moderator, you are responsible for completing the Discussion Summary so that all students may learn from the groups’ discussions.
  • Completing and submitting each Module Reflection. The reflections are designed to help you think about the module concepts as a whole, to consider how module concepts apply to practical applications, and to let me know what is still unclear to you and/or if something has sparked an interest and you want assistance finding resources to learn more about the topic.
  • Participating in Office Hours if needed.

Required Textbook

The 2010 National Research Council book, TOWARD SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURAL SYSTEMS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, provides an excellent set of case studies of real farms. Some are updates from the same farms in the case studies published by the NRC in 1989. Other cases were new profiles prepared for the 2010 book. Each is well researched and thorough, yet concisely presented. Technologies, regulations, and other facets of agriculture have continued to change since this book was written; some of the practices described are now rather commonplace. We will use these NRC books to illustrate principles and to provide real situations to which we can apply the concepts learned.

All modules will have required readings in addition to the NRC textbook readings. If they are not freely available on the Internet, assigned readings will be available to you via the Agronomy 531 page in the University Library's Course Reserve system, which is linked in the Canvas menu bar.

Sections of the following books are also used as textbooks in the course; all of these books are available electronically!

Instructor Information

Laura Merrick is a faculty member in the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University. She has been at ISU in faculty and research or administrative staff positions since 1998, within Agronomy as well as previously in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology. She also served as Assistant Director of ISU's University Honors Program. While at ISU, Laura has had a long association with teaching and developing curriculum for online graduate programs—including not only the Master of Science in Agronomy program since its early years!—but also the Master of Science in Seed Technology and Business and the online/distance option for the Master of Science in Plant Breeding. She also has taught a range of introductory or upper-level undergraduate courses in agronomy and environmental biology. Some of her course involvement has focused on controversial issues surrounding agriculture, food, and sustainability of natural resources and the environment (AGRON 342, AGRON 592), while other courses have focused on crop ecology and management (AGRON 531 !), breeding and crop genetic resource management (AGRON 511, AGRON 523), statistics (AGRON/STB 536), and ethics in agriculture (AGRON 565D).

Laura’s research background spans the following key areas: crop evolution, breeding, and biosystematics of several agronomic and horticultural crops; crop genetic resource management and evaluation; landscape ecology, natural resource management, and GIS; and water quality monitoring in regional watersheds. Laura has conducted research and taught at two other land grant universities besides ISU: University of Maine and University of California-Davis. A subset of her research and outreach work has been international. As one facet of a nine-year collaborative research and training project that focused on traditionally-managed cropping systems in Mexico, Laura was an adjunct faculty member at three universities in Mexico and conducted research and trained both undergraduate and graduate students—Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Colegio de Postgraduados, and Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. During those years she collaborated with farmers on participatory plant breeding as well as agronomic and botanical field work in central Mexico. Several years ago, she worked as curriculum developer and program coordinator for a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contract-funded partnership between Iowa State and three African universities—Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, Makerere University in Uganda, and University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa—that entailed a Master’s level training collaboration for plant breeding. In the past Laura has conducted research for several U.S. federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Institutes of Health. Laura served as a farm inspector for a state organic certification program in Maine and has been both a Board member and consultant for a non-profit in NE Iowa called the Seed Savers Exchange.

Ph.D. Botany (minors Plant Breeding, Plant Ecology), Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1991
M.S. Botany (minors Plant Breeding, Vegetable Crops), Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1983
A.B. Chemistry, Harvard University, 1978

Introduce yourself to your classmates by completing the Introduction Discussion in Canvas. I have posted my own introduction here as an example.

Instructor Interactions

Office Hours: Key activities in Office Hours include answering unclear content from modules, review of key module content, assignment issues/questions, and preparation for exams.

Email: Feel free to message the instructor via the Canvas Inbox if you have any questions or concerns.

Discussions: Instructors actively read all discussion posts, and will engage the discussion early in the week. Feel free to draw the instructor into the discussion with a question. 

Graded Feedback: All graded assessments will be returned with constructive, personalized feedback within 7 days of the due date. Be sure to check your graded submissions for constructive, personalized feedback regarding your work.

Grading Procedures

Your course grade will be composed of several categories. Grades are not weighted by category but work out to the approximate percentages listed below.

Assignments ~36%
Discussions ~47%
Discussion Moderator ~02%
Module Reflection ~11%
Professionalism ~04%

Your current score is available on the Grades tab in Canvas. Final grades will be adjusted at the end of the semester based the overall distribution of student grades for this class.  



Assignments provide opportunities to apply the information learned and to practice your professionalism. Both content and writing quality count. Assignments will be evaluated based on content, clarity in the presentation (ideas arranged logically and flow smoothly), and writing mechanics (proper spelling and grammar).

Module Reflections

A Module Reflection appears at the end of each module. Each Module Reflection is worth 10 possible points. The last question asks which concepts are still unclear. This serves to identify the areas of the module that need improvement. Many of the questions do not have a singular correct answer with all other answers being incorrect.  The purpose of the questions is to stimulate critical thinking and reflection.  


Discussion participation is graded. Points are earned through your active participation and based on your total contribution to the discussion of the given topic. The number of points earned will reflect the quality of your contribution. You are encouraged to draw on your experience, information learned in this and other courses, and any other pertinent information. Visit the discussion board frequently and respond to your classmates' postings and their comments on your postings. Postings made after the topic's closing date will not be included in the evaluation of your participation unless prior arrangements are made. 

The class will be divided into four discussion groups. You will only have access to your group's discussion board; thus, no need to be concerned about which group is yours. Your instructor will review your posting in the IntroductionYou can find your Agron 531 discussion group by clicking on the Groups tab in the red bar in Canvas. (Everyone has access to the Discussion Summaries and the Course Questions discussion.) 

Discussions are more interesting and informative when everyone makes multiple contributions to the 'conversation.' Don't wait until the due date to make your initial posting! (Your discussion score is based on your total contribution to the given discussion.) A good rule of thumb is to post your initial response within 2 days of the start of the module.

Discussion Moderator

Group members will take turns serving as discussion moderator. The purpose of moderating is to build your leadership and professional skills. The moderator's task is to promote thoughtful and in-depth discussion on the given topic, and to encourage everyone to contribute to the conversation. The moderator may start the conversation by asking one or more open-ended question relevant to the topic. The moderator will respond to others with follow-up comments, expand on comments, ask additional questions, or request for clarification, as needed. If the discussion becomes fragmented or gets off track, the moderator will re-focus the conversation on the topic. Finally, at the end of the discussion, the moderator will summarize the group's discussion and communicate the summary to the entire class via that module's Discussion Summary in Canvas—another opportunity to practice your professional skills. Each student will be the Discussion Moderator for approximately four discussions. The summary should communicate the highlights of the group's discussion in just a few sentences (i.e., no more than 150-200 words). Focus on the main points made and any conclusions or recommendations that came out of the discussion; do not include who said what in the summary.  I suggest that the summary be shared first within the group to check that the group agrees that it is representative of the discussion. The summary should be written logically, flow smoothly, and be free of writing and spelling errors. In this way, each group can learn from the others without having to read all of the individual postings. It's interesting to compare the findings of the different groups. Of course, the conversation can be continued in the Discussion Summary.


Practice and polish your professionalism. Professionalism includes your active participation in discussions, timely postings and submission of assignments, constructive reviews of assignments, clear and logical expression of ideas and thought, and general esprit de corps. Because most communication in this course is written, writing quality is important.


There are no exams in this course. Rather, your level of understanding of the principles and concepts presented will be evaluated through assignments and discussions. Assignments and discussions provide opportunities for you to demonstrate and apply what you have learned.


Communication Policy

All communication within the course should adhere to university standards of Netiquette at ISU. Specifically, communication should be scholarly, respectful, professional, and polite. You are encouraged to disagree with other students, but such disagreements need to be based upon facts and documentation. It is the instructor’s goal to promote an atmosphere of mutual respect in our interactions. Please contact the instructor if you have suggestions for improving the interactions in this course.

Please contact me by email:  

The Community Message Board discussion forum is an excellent place to post questions and comments relevant to the module or of general interest or share resources with your colleagues in the course. This forum is also used for general communications among students and instructor. Although this discussion is not graded, you are expected to read and participate in this forum regularly. Make sure to subscribe to this Discussion Forum immediately as the semester gets underway.

General announcements will be posted to the Announcements section of Canvas.

Be sure to properly configure your Notification settings or commit yourself to checking Canvas daily for new communication. Use the Subscribe feature in the Discussion Forums if you want to receive an email when someone in your Discussion Group or the instructor or other classmates post a comment.

Additional guidelines apply to communication within your discussion topics. Please review the Discussion sections above.

Iowa State University supports and upholds the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and the principle of academic freedom in order to foster a learning environment where open inquiry and the vigorous debate of a diversity of ideas are encouraged. Students will not be penalized for the content or viewpoints of their speech as long as student expression in a class context is germane to the subject matter of the class and conveyed in an appropriate manner.

Feedback Policy

All graded assessments will be returned with constructive, personalized feedback within 7 days of the due date. Be sure to check your graded submissions for constructive, personalized feedback regarding your work.


All deadlines are posted on the Course Calendar in Canvas. Any changes to deadlines will be followed up with an Announcement in Canvas.

Late Submissions. Unless the instructor approves other arrangements, a 10% per day penalty will be assessed for late assignments and module reflections; items more than 4 days late will not be accepted.

Academic Integrity Policy

The class will follow ISU's policy on academic dishonesty. Anyone suspected of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Students Office. It is your responsibility to understand ISU's policy on academic plagiarism. All Discussions and Exam Questions will be screened for plagiarized content. There are several resources available to help you avoid committing academic misconduct.

Disability Accommodation

Iowa State University complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Sect 504 of the rehabilitation Act. If you have a disability and anticipate needing accommodations in this course, please contact the instructor to set up a meeting within the first two weeks of the semester or as soon as you become aware of your need. Before meeting, you will need to obtain a SAAR form with recommendations for accommodations from the Disability Resources Office, located in Room 1076 on the main floor of the Student Services Building. Their telephone number is 515-294-7220 or email Retroactive requests for accommodations will not be honored.

Harassment and Discrimination

Iowa State University strives to maintain our campus as a place of work and study for faculty, staff, and students that is free of all forms of prohibited discrimination and harassment based upon race, ethnicity, sex (including sexual assault), pregnancy, color, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, or status as a U.S. veteran. Any student who has concerns about such behavior should contact his/her instructor, Student Assistance at 515-294-1020 or email, or the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance at 515-294-7612.

Religious Accommodation

If an academic or work requirement conflicts with your religious practices and/or observances, you may request reasonable accommodations. Your request must be in writing, and your instructor or supervisor will review the request. You or your instructor may also seek assistance from the Dean of Students Office or the Office of Equal Opportunity and Compliance.

Study Tips

Steps to Success

This list of modules is provided to help you plan ahead and anticipate the number and approximate closing and due date of required discussions topics and assignments for each module; minor changes may be made during the semester. Refer to the online course calendar in Canvas, as well as the Course Questions discussion, for due dates and up-to-date information.

Assignments, graded discussion postings, and module reflections are due by 8:00 a.m. Central Standard Time on the due date, unless otherwise stated on the course calendar or prior arrangements are made with the instructor. Again, please note that some assignments and discussions will be completed over a period of several weeks or modules. Module reflections are due on the start date of the next module. Discussion summaries are generally due two days after the topic's closing date.

The point value of each discussion and assignment reflects the relative amount of time and effort required. For example, some discussion topics ask for a well-reasoned opinion, whereas others require additional reading. Regardless of the potential points for the given discussion topic, moderating is worth a total of 15 possible points for each discussion topic: 5 for moderating the discussion itself, plus 10 points for the quality of the summary.

Be sure to check the course calendar in Canvas weekly for current start and due dates, and other important scheduled events.

Module Number Module Topic Discussion Topics (Points) Assignments(Points)
1 Management Approaches DT 1.1 (15) None
2 Challenges in Agriculture in an Era of Climate Change DT 2.1 (15)
DT 2.2 (15)
3 Agricultural Ecosystems DT 3.1 (15) A 3.1 (75)
4 Management Tools DT 4.1 (15)
DT 4.2 (15)
A 4.1 (75)
5 Indicators and Monitoring Tools DT 5.1 (15)
DT 5.2 (15)
A 5.1 (50)
6 Crop Geography and Adaptation DT 6.1 (15) None
7 Crop Functions DT 7.1 (15)
DT 7.2 (15)
8 Cropping Systems 1—
Rotations and Sequential Cropping
DT 8.1 (60 total)
Part A-4th wk Oct
Part B-4th wk Oct
Part C-early Nov
Part D-early Nov
A 8.1 (200)
peer review: early Nov.
final edition: early Dec.
9 Cropping Systems 2—
DT 9.1 (15)
DT 9.2 (15)
10 Water Management
(Note: This 2-week module contains a lot of material. Don't procrastinate on it!)
DT 10.1 (15)
DT 10.2 (15)
DT 10.3 (15)
11 Forage Growth, Development, and Quality DT 11.1 (15) A 11.1 (50)
12 Forage Management DT 12.1 (15)
DT 12.2 (15)
(Final edition of 
A 8.1 due mid Dec.)
13 Multifunctional Agricultural Landscapes: Benefits to Ecosystem Processes DT 13.1 (15)
DT 13.2 (15)


Get the most that you can from this course. Here are some study tips.

  • Start each module on the date indicated on the calendar. Spread your study time over several days—you'll learn the material more thoroughly and retain it better. Work ahead when you know that you will be out-of-town or unable to do a module during its designated period. Don't get behind! 

    As you begin each module, preview each of its discussion topics and assignment; use the quick links at the top of the screen to rapidly locate these. The preview will better prepare you to participate in the discussion and to complete the assignment.
  • Do each In Detail as you come across its link in the module. In Details contain required information.
  • Read each FYI link for more information about a topic. FYI links are optional unless otherwise noted.
  • Do each Study Question and Try This! as encountered. These interactive features are specifically designed to enhance your learning, to provide opportunities to apply the information presented, and to enable you to evaluate your understanding of the material. They often expand on the concepts and contain important information, so don't skip these.
  • Be sure to submit all assignments on time. They are an integral part of the course. Please note that some assignments overlap modules; these should be started as soon as they are assigned so that they may be completed in a thoughtful and timely manner.

    Your instructor understands work, life, and travel.  If you know in advance that you will have difficulties completing an assignment on time, please let me know as early as possible.
  • Module Reflection is required. Its purpose is to enhance your learning and information retention. The first two questions are designed to help you reflect on the module and obtain instructor feedback on your learning. The last two questions are designed to help you evaluate and improve your learning skills in this uncommon learning environment. Your answers also help course developers improve module and course design for future students in this course.
  • Interact with your classmates and instructor.
    Visit the discussion boards often! Discussions need not be limited to assigned topics—use the discussion board (or e-mail) to ask questions, share an interesting article or observation, or comment on current and relevant events. If you work ahead, be sure to go back and check the discussion boards (and post your comments and responses to classmates) during that module's scheduled period.
  • Do the readings. 
    Readings from the text and other materials included in your course packet supplement or expand on the information presented in the module and are required. Don't skip these opportunities to learn.
  • Something unclear? 
    Please consult with your instructor and/or classmates.


Category Description Action

Course Content Support

Questions related to course content or grading should be directed to the course instructor. Instructor via Canvas Inbox

Student Support

The Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching is an organization dedicated to supporting, promoting, and enhancing teaching effectiveness and student learning at ISU.

Self-guided orientation which you may find useful.

CELT: Online Learner Support

Self-Guided Orientation

Canvas Technical Support

If you experience any technical issues while using Canvas, contact the Solution Center. The Solution Center's hours are posted on their website.

Solution Center

Technology support

If you have any technical issues while using the University Library's Course Reserves system, please contact the The Library's Help Desk hours are posted on their website.

For all other technical issues, contact Agron DevLab Support. The Agronomy Development Lab staff is guaranteed to respond to requests within 24 hours during regular business hours. All requests made during the weekend will be addressed first thing Monday morning.

Agron DevLab Support

Library staff

Writing Support

The MS Agronomy program has built a Writing Guide to help answer some of the questions you may have while working on your courses.

Deborah Burns is available for one-on-one consultations and can assist you with any part of the writing process. Schedule an appointment with Deborah through the CELT's website or via email.

Writing Guide

CELT Website or email.

Library and research support

Anita Kay is the liaison librarian to the Department of Agronomy. She can help find any article, book or any other piece of information that you want assistance finding.  Anita has also built a really useful Agronomy Research Guide.

Anita Kay
Agronomy Research Guide

Department Contact

Contact Dr. Allen Knapp, Associate Chair for Academics in Agronomy, if issues persist after working with the support systems listed above.

Dr. Allen Knapp

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Course Summary:

Date Details Due