Ag Researchers New Knowledge Benefits Nebraska, the World

By Derek Brandt

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has a long-standing reputation for being one of the world's most respected sources of research and information, especially in the field of agriculture and natural resources. According to Ron Yoder, associate vice chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Nebraska is the 16th most-cited institution in the world in agricultural research.

But who uses this research, and why?

"There are several communities of users of our research," said Yoder. "One would certainly be the farmers and the ranchers of Nebraska and our region who use, and have used, for over 100 years, the results that come from research done here."

One of Nebraska's most respected research topics is in the area of tillage. Nebraska specializes in no-till or conservation tillage. Tillage is the preparation of soil and the land for growth of crops. It is a subject that UNL has researched extensively in its history and, according to Yoder, is recognized as one of the world's leaders in the subject.

Nebraska is known for its research crop water use, management of irrigation, wheat breeding, meat science and the relationship of allergens to food.

"What is being done in the Food Science and Technology department in that area is being recognized as possibly the very best in the world in that area," Yoder said.

UNL's results come from years of research. That research is used by other research institutions to incorporate their own ideas and create unique hypotheses. Other institutions use the information found in the UNL studies and use it to build their own research programs.

Commitment to Nebraskans

Ron YoderBut most of all, UNL has a commitment to the people of Nebraska. One of UNL's main goals is to make sure that Nebraskans can benefit from its research.

"As a public land-grant university, we feel like we have a significant commitment to meeting the needs of the people of Nebraska," Yoder said. "That is a key part of what we do. That is to engage those people who can benefit from the work we are doing, and also to get feedback on what kind of research and what kind of outreach we should be doing."

A good example of the type of research that is being done at the University of Nebraska is in irrigation. Yoder has been closely associated with management and use of water for irrigation research. Researchers work with farmers to calibrate and adjust the amounts of water being used for irrigation of crops. Depending upon the amount of water used, it has been shown that on a broad range of farms, up to two inches of water per year can be saved.

"Just to put that into perspective," Yoder said. "If you take that two inches and you were to extrapolate that across all of the irrigated acres that we have in Nebraska, that would be enough water to fill Lake McConaughy to 80 percent for one year. That is how much water we would save in one year." Lake McConaughy is a 56-square-mile reservoir in west-central Nebraska.

Water is a finite resource and its conservation is a university priority.

"Industry uses it for cooling and processing," Yoder said. "Agriculture uses a lot of it and of course, when water is used for agriculture, it is really using it directly for people because people eat the food that is produced by the agriculture."

Yoder said people need to recognize those that came before them, the plants and animals and the entire ecosystem. These are all competing for the use of water and balance must be maintained to keep a healthy environment. UNL is researching the most eco-friendly ways to use water.

"So, there is a lot of debate," Yoder said. "And one of the key contributions of the University of Nebraska is to provide science-based information for making difficult decisions on natural resources and how to allocate the different parts of the water system."

Extension: spreading the word about UNL research

The University of Nebraska, through extension, passes along research to those who need it. Yoder believes UNL does a good job of passing along the research results and information.

"As a land-grant university, we have an excellent extension division," Yoder said. "The extension division has individuals that are located in most of the counties in Nebraska, as well as here on campus, and work very closely with the people of the state to get the information to them."

According to Yoder, the way that the research information is being passed along is evolving rapidly. Along with the extension division representatives, it has become much easier to share information over the past two decades with the advent of the Internet and social media. It hasn't always been easy or fast to spread information across the state, though.

"There used to be trains that would go across Nebraska and the train would be loaded up with extension people," Yoder said. "They would stop in every town they came to and they would give an extension program and demonstration. Today, that has progressed all the way to where social media has become a way to spread information and provide information. Between those two extremes, almost any way you can communicate to people has been used."

Research- methods and history

Tractor with GPS"Most good research is hypothesis-driven," Yoder said. "In other words, you look at what has been done, you look at what is not known, you look at what you think would solve a problem or address an issue. If you know an answer and then you come forth with a hypothesis of what might be and you do the research, you design the research to answer that question and to prove or disprove the hypothesis."

Researchers at UNL also measure natural phenomena and compare what happens. For example, according to Yoder, in crop water usage research, a researcher is measuring the amount of water that a crop uses and then applying varied conditions in which the crop is growing.

"You're making measurements of all the factors that go into determining how much water the crop is using," Yoder said. "And then from that, you can develop relationships and algorithms that can be used to predict how much water we use under other conditions."

These experiments, among others, are done on UNL's experimental farms

"Today we have a series of facilities across the state that are set up to do high-tech, high-level agricultural research, Yoder said. "Many of those farms have sophisticated irrigation systems, sophisticated systems for managing animals and making measurements."

There are experimental farms in different areas of Nebraska, due to the greatly-varying growing conditions throughout Nebraska. These farms are located near Sidney, North Platte, Concord, Mead and Scottsbluff, as well as in the Nebraska Sand Hills.

Some of these experimental farms have been in operation since UNL began its initial research in the late 1800s. Nebraska has been conducting agricultural research since the university was founded in 1869.

"Our first experimental farm was set up in 1871," Yoder said. "The Nebraska Agricultural Experiment Station began in 1887 and then in 1974, the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources was founded and throughout that entire history, the university has been involved in doing that sort of research that increased agricultural production in Nebraska as well as conserve the natural resources, and soil and water resources of Nebraska."

Research that expands personal understanding of a subject can be the most gratifying, according to Yoder.

"I think most research is actually incremental. There are very few researchers that have the privilege of making the really big discovery and the really giant step," Yoder said. "For many of us, it has been a matter of small steps where we ourselves have begun to understand things which have led us to think about a particular problem or particular issue differently- and then to approach that in a slightly different manner. Those things all build together, along with other colleagues, to paint the whole picture."


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