Research continues at Extension farm

Posted 8/7/20

Jim Heitholt’s fascination with plants began in his 10th grade biology class. During a class project, they grew corn and soybean plants in a beaker.

“For us to be able to take a seed …

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Research continues at Extension farm


Jim Heitholt’s fascination with plants began in his 10th grade biology class. During a class project, they grew corn and soybean plants in a beaker.

“For us to be able to take a seed and make food? I saw that and I was hooked,” Heitholt said.

Today, he is a crop physiologist and the director of the Powell Research and Extension Center (PREC). The facility lies just north of Powell and looks like any other farmland in the area. However, while most farms are trying to produce enough yield to turn a profit, PREC is running experiments to help improve farmers’ processes.

Modern farming is a complex industry. There’s a huge risk involved anytime a farmer does something different. Working with razor-thin margins, a bad choice can result in an unprofitable season.

That’s where PREC comes in.

“Hopefully we can make the mistakes and producers don’t have to,” said Camby Reynolds, PREC farm manager.

Run by the University of Wyoming, the facility has the time and resources to try different approaches to farming and see what might work better and what might not, without worrying about turning a profit on what they produce.

One of the projects the research center has undertaken this year looks at spacing and seeding rates of dry beans. Flood irrigation practices dominate agriculture in the Big Horn Basin, and spacing rows of dry beans 22 inches works well for that type of irrigating. However, more farms are switching to the pivot and lateral sprinkler irrigation systems.

“Although our Big Horn Basin dry bean producers have a very tried-and-true system with 22-inch rows, we are looking at other row-space options that might bring more revenue,” Heitholt explained. 

Since seeding rate and row spacing factors often interact, Heitholt said, the PREC researchers often test these factors together in what he calls planting configuration tests.

An experiment in how dry bean spacing impacts yields is not just a matter of setting up 1 acre at 22 inches, another at 15 inches, and another at 7 inches. To get good data, the researchers need to replicate and work with different varieties of beans and different amounts of water.

They also have to spread those varieties out over a randomized pattern across the project field. That way, if one patch of soil happens to sprout weeds — as will sometimes happen even with the most careful practices — they won’t have one variety getting bad results that have nothing to do with the variety itself. Basically, they make sure their eggs are never in one basket.

The project fields also have buffer rows between different irrigation treatments, so if one plot is getting 100% of the water it needs, for example, it’s separated from another plot that gets only 80%. They also surround the projects with a buffer zone at the edges of the fields, as those first few feet get better sunlight and better water than the interior portions.


Important but not romantic

In another dry bean project for the Wyoming Bean Commission, PREC researchers are looking at how planting dates impact yields. They have another project looking at the effects of deficit irrigation and phosphate fertilizer rate on chickpea yield, with six different varieties of chickpea under examination. And another project is looking at reduced tillage and cover crop management within a barley-sugar beet-dry bean rotation.

It’s a labor-intensive process to run the research projects, which is another reason producers would have a hard time doing it themselves. If you’re not a farmer or otherwise engaged in plant science, it might not be the most exciting stuff. Heitholt said it’s not always easy to find undergraduate students who want to study plant science. Most agricultural students are interested in animals. 

“When we have recruitment days down at UW, the majority of recruits will come in wanting to be a vet. We start showing the plants, and it’s not romantic. It doesn’t move and you can’t pet it,” he said.

Reynolds, farm manager at PREC, is among those students who found the plant side of agriculture more appealing. He grew up on a farm near Cody and now holds a Master of Science degree in agronomy from the University of Wyoming.

“It’s always appealed to me,” Reynolds said. “I guess when you grow up with it, it’s easy to love it.”

Among the projects he’s working on is research on how micronutrients impact sugar beets. The results will give some insight into how the soil and spray-on treatments of those nutrients result in different crop yields, sugar content and diseases. On the field where the project is being run, there’s a number of treatments, but the plants all look pretty uniform.

“You’d be hard pressed to say you see a visual difference,” Reynolds remarks.

After harvest, they send the produce to a lab and through that analysis, they report the sugar quality data that is provided.


Reduced research

Like Reynolds, PREC research associate Sam George has a background in production agriculture. He is pursuing a Master of Business Administration online while he works at the PREC facility.

There are some academic fields where a researcher’s career is largely determined by the grants he or she obtains, which is always a struggle.

The PREC facility is fortunate in this regard, as there are a lot of producers and companies interested in the data they’re getting from their trials.

“It’s amazing how much support we get from industry,” George said.

This year, George had a proposal that would test Roundup Ready alfalfa and compare it to conventional strains. He spent January through March reaching out to companies to see if they’d be interested in participating, and he got a great response.

“It’s primarily because they sell their varieties around here or they want to sell their varieties around here,” George said.

The study involves 12 varieties of Roundup Ready alfalfa and 17 varieties of the conventional alfalfa. They are laid out in a random block design, just like the dry beans, to make sure that researchers get accurate data across the field for each variety; the conventional varieties are separated from the Roundup Ready varieties by buffer rows.

In the past few months, center staff has, like everyone else, had to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic. Heitholt said it’s reduced the amount of research they’re doing this year, but it’s hard to quantify by how much. The PREC normally does about 23 projects, whereas this year, that number is down to around 18. However, not all projects require the same amount of resources, so it’s hard to put a percentage on how much the pandemic impacted their work.

Besides reducing the research projects, the research center also decided to cancel its annual field day, typically held in mid-July. Reynolds said the event takes months to plan, and with all the planning that went into how to carry out research safely, they decided not to bite off more than they could chew. Instead of a large public event, PREC is planning some smaller demonstrations for producers.

Despite the challenges of doing research in a pandemic, PREC staff is managing to continue their work. While its most direct benefits are to the agriculture industry, Powell wouldn’t exist without farmers.

“We are not better at producing than the farmers we serve. We just have the facilities and people to set up these trials properly,” Reynolds said. “If we can find something that works and share that with the producers, that’s what we’re all about — helping them to do what they do better.”