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Dryland cropping research in western Nebraska

By Dr. Drew Lyon, Dryland Cropping Systems Specialist
Panhandle Research and Extension Center

On April 7, 1967, the U.S. Government made available to the University of Nebraska 2,410 acres of land northwest of Sidney, which had been part of the Sioux Army Ordnance Depot, for agricultural research and education. This land was to become the university’s High Plains Ag Lab, a unit that has been instrumental in conducting research into dryland cropping systems.

The work of the Cheyenne County Rural Area Development (RAD) Committee, largely through its crops committee, was instrumental in getting the High Plains Ag Lab established. Committee officers were Ralph Spearow, president; Ray Cruise, vice president; and Harold Tremain, secretary.

Charlie Fenster
Former UNL dryland cropping system specialist Charles Fenster inspects winter wheat stubble in a chemical fallow field in 1974. Fenster retired in the 1980s, after a long career at the unversity.

The need for the field laboratory was underscored in 1964, when there was a severe outbreak of black stem rust, wheat streak mosaic, and crown and root rot of wheat in the Panhandle. In the same year it was announced that the Department of Defense was phasing out the Sioux Army Ordnance Depot. The RAD Committee immediately explored the possibility of utilizing some of the land and facilities for an experiment station.

After extended negotiations, the government issued an interim use permit for UNL to initiate operations. The deed was issued in August 1970.

On April 17, 1967, Ray Cruise and Col. Williams drew a symbolic furrow on what had now been named the High Plains Agricultural Laboratory (HPAL). Thus, after much effort, time, and travel expenses by the members, RAD had succeeded in getting the laboratory established.

When the RAD Committee was terminated on July 1, 1971, Director John L. Weihing of the Panhandle Station prevailed upon the members to become the advisory group for the HPAL. The advisory board continues to provide valuable input and support.

Under the guidance of Charles Fenster, a research program was initiated immediately. The emphasis of his program was on the efficient use of soil and water and optimizing crop yields under the semiarid conditions prevailing in the High Plains. This has remained the focus of the dryland cropping systems effort. The research program has grown in extent and depth since its inception, and today is recognized internationally for its many and continuing accomplishments.

Fenster had been hired by the university in 1956 and appointed to a newly created position to study the total management system for winter wheat production. He began his university career at the Northwest Agricultural Laboratory near Alliance. His headquarters were moved to the Panhandle Station near Scottsbluff in 1967.

Fenster was known internationally for his work with stubble-mulch and no-till conservation tillage systems. He and Dr. Gary Peterson, soil scientist in Lincoln, established the Long-Term Tillage plots in 1969 at the HPAL. These plots compare various tillage regimes (moldboard plow, stubble-mulch, and chemical) during the fallow portion of a winter wheat-fallow rotation on winter wheat production and soil quality.

More than 40 years later, these plots continue to result in new knowledge about the effects of fallow tillage on soil quality. Fenster also worked with colleagues in weed science on some of the first chemical fallow work with atrazine, paraquat, and glyphosate. Fenster retired in 1982 after a distinguished career at the Panhandle Station.

Over the next eight years, three individuals led the dryland cropping systems program in the Panhandle: Dr. Mark Hooker (1983), Dr. John Havlin (1984-1985), and Dr. Duane Martin (1986-1988).

In 1990, Dr. Drew Lyon was hired to lead this program. Lyon emphasized cropping system intensification and diversification to reduce the frequency of summer fallow, increase precipitation use efficiency, reduce the risk of soil erosion, and break weed, disease, and insect pest cycles of winter wheat.

Lyon was named the first Fenster Distinguished Professor of Dryland Agriculture in 2008. This professorship was the first at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln established for faculty not located on the main campus in Lincoln. The professorship was established with a $250,000 gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation from Charles and Eunice Fenster.

Lyon worked closely with Dr. David Baltensperger through 2006, when Baltensperger left to become a department head at Texas A&M University, and subsequently with Dr. Dipak Santra. Both Baltensperger and Santra served in the role of alternative crops breeding specialist, to identify promising crops that could be profitably incorporated into dryland crop rotations.

Proso millet, sunflower, and corn are now grown as an integral part of the crop rotation on a significant number of dryland acres that previously produced only wheat in a winter wheat-fallow rotation.