CLAY COUNTY — For farmers trying to make a living on the land, today’s high input costs, low commodity prices and vexing weed problems are a few of the great challenges to be faced.
The good news, it could be argued, is that a University of Nebraska-Lincoln research facility right in the heart of Tribland is addressing those challenges in a systematic, scientific way.
Wednesday was a day for UNL’s South Central Agricultural Laboratory to celebrate itself and share the knowledge being generated there with producers, crop advisers and other interested constituents.
More than 100 people were on hand for lunch in the middle of the 2018 SCAL Field Day, which showcased research by several UNL faculty members and the staff members who assist them.
In all, more than 100 applied research trials are conducted annually on the Ag Lab research farm, which covers 640 acres within the expansive Roman L. Hruska U.S. Meat Animal Research Center om Clay County. UNL faculty and scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Ag Research Service head up those projects pertaining to irrigation and water management, soil fertility, entomology, weed science, cropping systems, disease management and crop variety testing.
Mike Boehm, UNL’s Harlan Vice Chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and University of Nebraska system vice president for agriculture and natural resources, addressed the crowd at the first SCAL Field Day he has attended since starting work at the university in early 2017.
Boehm said he is impressed with the SCAL operation, which is situated in the middle of Nebraska’s most abundant irrigated corn- and soybean-growing region, and hopes to build on its strengths in the future.
Needed facility improvements include a new or modified building with a roof tall enough to allow a combine to be pulled inside, Boehm said. And a bigger aspiration would be to enlarge the experiment farm itself, allowing for more projects.
“I’ve actually made the pitch that we need another section of land here at SCAL with irrigation,” he said.
Prior to 2003, the Ag Lab was part of a larger operation known as the South Central Research & Extension Center. SCREC was dismantled due to university budget cuts, and most faculty members who were in residence there were transferred to UNL’s East Campus in Lincoln.
The research farm remained, however, and some of the same faculty members who once maintained their offices at SCREC still conduct research there, commuting from Lincoln frequently and assisted by technicians who work on the farm full time.
Boehm acknowledged that the university is in a difficult budget position once again; he has made $2.5 million worth of permanent cuts to the IANR since his arrival there and has turned back another $4.5 million in unspent cash to state coffers.
But the Ohio native, who is a plant pathologist by training, said he still aspires to increase the level of activity at the Ag Lab.
“It’s not to go back in time,” he said. “It’s really to look at the importance of what we do here in Nebraska. No promises, but I wanted to let you know we think this is important.”
IANR has about 1,800 employees, including about 180 Nebraska Extension educators who provide programming in all 93 Nebraska counties. Boehm said the institute’s mission is to promote food production and grow tomorrow’s leaders for a state endowed with wonderful natural resources.
“It’s about food production,” he said. “It’s about producing food and being mindful of our soil, water and air and the people who produce that food.”
Participants in Wednesday’s field day could choose several field tours and presentations to attend. Topics included cover crops, corn ear issues, insect management, fertilizer management, crop disease issues, water management, and soybean weed control challenges and opportunities.
Suat Irmak, Harold W. Eberhard Distinguished Professor of Biological Systems Engineering at UNL, briefed listeners about a three-year research trial (2015-17) comparing an irrigation program in which a fixed, uniform amount of water is applied across a field, versus one in which advanced technology is used to tailor water applications to specific areas within a field based on needs.
Given the production and economic conclusions of the Ag Lab research project, Irmak said, it may not be surprising that almost no one has adopted variable-rate irrigation for commercial production in the United States up to this point.
The variable-rate program was advantageous in certain situations, Irmak said, but overall the crop yields were not better and the venture would have been less profitable as a private endeavor.
“Our research does not show that variable-rate irrigation had an advantage over fixed-rate irrigation,” he said. “In fact, just the other way around.”
Amit Jhala, UNL extension weed management specialist, led a tour of research plots where he, colleagues and students are comparing methods of weed control in soybean fields — understanding that many weed species today have grown resistant to glyphosate (Roundup), atrazine and other popular herbicides.
Herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth (pigweed) plants stood more than 6 feet tall in parts of the SCAL research field participants toured. Other species included herbicide-resistant waterhemp, velvetleaf, volunteer corn and others.
Keys to success controlling weeds today include both pre- and post-emergence herbicide applications; use of multiple herbicides to provide different modes of weed-killing action; crop rotation; and variation in the herbicide program used from year to year, Jhala said.
Meanwhile, the growth in the number of Nebraska field acres infested with glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth — currently, the fourth-largest behind marestail, waterhemp and kochia — is alarming.
“Palmer is going to be the No. 1 weed in the next few years,” he said. “You can quote me on that.”