Nebraska On-Farm Research Network

Laura Thompson portrait

Nebraska On-Farm Research Network Helping farmers improve, profit.

Interview with Laura Thompson
By By Diana Marcum

Helping farmers to improve production practices and increase profitability are goals of the On-Farm Research Network, a part of Nebraska Extension at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. An early network was established in 1989, with 20 producers from Saunders County who were interested in improving their techniques and profitability. In 2012, the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network was formalized through Nebraska Extension, officially bringing together all the on-farm research programs across the state. 

“Any producer, statewide, is invited to be a part of the network,” according to Laura Thompson, assistant Extension educator. Interested individuals may visit cropwatch.unl.edu/on-farm-research for more information or to become involved.

Each year, the network conducts about 80 research projects, each widely varying in topic. Research into performance of multi-hybrid planters was conducted in 2016 and 2017; research into seed treatments for sudden-death syndrome (SDS) – a fungal disease in soybean crops – was conducted in 2015 and 2016; and crop canopy sensor research, to measure nitrogen levels in soil was conducted in 2016 and 2017. Every project relates to individual farmers and their interest areas, Thompson said. Separately, each farm’s data is recorded, analyzed and presented back to the farmers with results and answers to predetermined questions, with which they can define further action. Each farm’s data and final report is catalogued to be viewed in aggregate and by a wider audience, Thompson said, including farmers, agronomists and researchers.

NETWORK RESEARCH 

Topic ideas for the on-farm research projects can vary depending on the farmer’s interest. Projects range from new product advertisements to new cropping methods, Thompson explained. Another way a project can be developed is through a university researcher or Extension specialist reaching out to farmers with new technological advancements or farming practices. Farmers collaborating with the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network may be especially interested in new technology and, “trying to see how a new technology may fit in their operation, and what return on investment they might see for using that technology,” Thompson said. Two projects in the 2017 season included sudden death syndrome seed treatments and nitrogen management with the use of crop canopy sensors and drones. 

SEED TREATMENTS FOR SUDDEN DEATH SYNDROME 

In agriculture, sudden death syndrome is a fungus disease, primarily present in soybeans, that produces toxins and kills large numbers of plants. The Nebraska On-Farm Research Network is collaborating with farmers whose fields have evidence of SDS, and are working to eliminate losses with the use of commercially available seed treatments. Aerial imagery will help to determine the treatments’ success rates. 

“With SDS we know that the disease occurs in pockets throughout the field; by using aerial imagery and looking at specific wavebands, we can gain an understanding of where those hot spots [SDS presence] in the field are, and the response to the seed treatments within those specific areas. This can help us target future seed treatment applications to areas in the field that are most susceptible, which improves efficiency,” Thompson said. 

PROJECT SENSE – MANAGING NITROGEN

Project SENSE is an ongoing research project focusing on improving nitrogen fertilizer management by using crop canopy sensors to measure properties of the corn crop, Thompson said. SENSE is an acronym for “Sensors for Efficient Nitrogen Use and Stewardship of the Environment,” she explained. The project uses crop canopy sensors, mounted on a high-clearance applicator to record plant reflectance. The applicator then applies nitrogen fertilizer in real time, based on varying nitrogen needs within the field.

Research projects conducted in the summer of 2017 used drones to collect information to direct more precise nitrogen management. The drones scanned the fields with multispectral sensors, collecting data from distinctive wavebands related to the nitrogen status of the corn crop. This information was later analyzed and a nitrogen application prescription map was developed based on the corn nitrogen need in various portions of
the field. 

“Nitrogen management is really important for Nebraska. Using these technologies allows us to apply nitrogen when and where the crop needs it, allowing farmers to be more profitable and productive, while reducing environmental concerns such as nitrate in groundwater,” Thompson said.

Once a research project is completed and the data collected and analyzed, all of the information is organized into a final report for the On-Farm Research Network participants. The final reports include site information, objectives, plant types, rainfall data and soil information, as well as a summary of the measurements and data collected. Farmers can use the information in the final reports to accept or reject their research theories about how a product or practice will impact their productivity and profitability. If the data shows they should consider a different management strategy, they will have the data to make any needed adjustments. These final reports and project results are shared not only with the participants, but also at network annual meetings where conversations can begin and new ideas can form.

WHY RESEARCH?

The Nebraska On-Farm Research Network provides farmers the opportunity to lead in a hands-on research experiment tailored to their growing environments. 

“It is the hope of the network to help guide the producers in making management changes based on accurate and reliable research data, so that they can be confident in their decisions,” Thompson said. Through the active participation with the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network, farmers also gain the ability to critically evaluate other production claims and research studies they might discover. 

As the producers become more profitable in their practices, others in the state and beyond also benefit, Thompson said. As the agricultural economy grows, so will the state’s economy. There also is a positive environmental and sustainability impact that can appear through management practice changes. An example of this is with nitrogen management adjustments, which have the potential to significantly improve groundwater nitrate levels and help to protect water quality for communities in Nebraska. 

“I think it really comes down to being able to get actionable insight [recommendations] from the data,” Thompson said. “We want producers to use research data and technology to make management decisions that will make them more profitable and productive.”