Retiring High Plains Ag Lab Farm Manager Tom Nightingale reflects on career

Posted Jan. 30, 2015

By David Ostdiek, Communications Associate
Panhandle Research and Extension Center

The High Plains Ag Lab north of Sidney, operated by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, will be 45 years old this year. For nearly 40 of those years, Tom Nightingale has managed the farming operations there, overseeing work in the research plots where scientists try to improve the productivity, profitability and sustainability of dryland agriculture in the High Plains region.

Nightingale will retire at the end of January. But in nearly four decades, he has seen a lot of changes in dryland farming methods and in personnel at the research facility.

Tom NightingaleThe High Plains Ag Lab, located north of Sidney, is a satellite unit of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff. HPAL covers 2,400 acres, one-third in dryland crop rotations and two-thirds in pasture. Research trials are conducted by scientists based at the Panhandle Center as well as UNL's Lincoln campus and neighboring states. Nightingale began working at HPAL in 1975 as a research technician for Charles Fenster, the now-retired dryland cropping specialist. He was born and raised on the family farm northeast of Sidney and received a bachelor of science degree in biology from Kearney State College (now the University of Nebraska at Kearney). Before coming back to the High Plains Ag Lab, he spent a couple years working for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, as assistant park superintendent at Windmill State Park east of Kearney.

Several years after Nightingale began at HPAL, then-farm manager Ken Barton moved on, and Nightingale was hired to fill the post. John Weihing was district director of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, one of five directors during Nightingale's tenure. The others were Robert Fritschen, Charles Hibberd, Linda Boeckner, and currently Jack Whittier. Burt Weichenthal and Gary Hergert also served stints as interim directors.

In addition to Fenster, faculty supervisors at the High Plains Ag Lab have included Crop Breeding Specialists Lenis Nelson and David Baltensperger, Dryland Cropping Systems Specialist Drew Lyon, and several others. The current supervisor is Hergert, Soil and Nutrient Management Specialist at the Panhandle Center.

"I've enjoyed them all," Nightingale said, adding that it's always a challenge to get to know a new supervisor and learn to anticipate their preferences.

Hergert said Nightingale has been a significant part of the success of dryland farming research at HPAL over the years. "Tom has a calm demeanor and has great patience in working with the many scientists and their demands as they conduct their small plot research within his production fields. Tom was always willing to help faculty when they had an emergency with plot work. He has done a great job of running a large dryland farming operation in addition to helping with facilities management. He was a great help during the construction of our new building. He has been a great spokesman for the University and an asset in the community. He will leave some huge shoes to fill," Hergert said.

In four decades of dryland agricultural research, one of the major changes has been the abandoning of the plow and emergence of no-till systems of crop production, according to Nightingale. "When I was hired, Charlie (Fenster) was just starting to work with it," he said. The tillage system has become widely used in the years since.

Another change has been the crops that farmers raise. In the 1970s, wheat and millet were the two dryland crops. Those two crops are still around today, but also in the rotation are sunflower, dryland corn, and field peas. Other alternative crops have come and gone, such as amaranth and safflower.
In recent years, interest has increased in forage crops, including those that can be grazed. Nightingale said many producers are adopting systems that alternate grazing and cropping. Karla Jenkins, cow-calf and range ecology specialist, has been conducting research into forages.

Precision farming also has gained acceptance, according to Nightingale. An increasing number are using GPS (geographic positioning systems) and precision planting.

Nightingale will remember the people he has worked with, both at HPAL and the professional staff at the Panhandle Center in Scottsbluff. He said he has particularly enjoyed graduate students, especially foreign grad students.

Nightingale said he doesn't have definite plans for retirement, aside from spending plenty of time engaging in two hobbies he really enjoys – gardening and fishing.


Photo: Tom Nightingale sorts sunflower seeds from a research plot at HPAL.