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Agents, Specialists Prepare for 21st Century Extension Work

NDSU Extension agents and specialists take advantage of educational opportunities.

One day last summer, Alicia Harstad felt like she’d stepped into a scene from the “Jack and the Beanstalk” fairy tale.

Harstad, North Dakota State University Extension’s agriculture and natural resources agent in Stutsman County, was standing next to a Palmer amaranth plant that towered over her.

Like the fairy tale beanstalk, Palmer amaranth is a fast-growing plant; it can shoot up 2 to 3 inches per day in optimum conditions. A single plant can grow to be 8 to 10 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter, and produce up to 1 million seeds per plant. This aggressive, invasive weed has reduced yields up to 91 percent in corn and 78 percent in soybeans in other states, and it’s very prone to being resistant to herbicides.

Harstad was among 37 people from North Dakota, including 15 Extension agents, Extension specialists and North Dakota Soybean Council members, who traveled by bus to Nebraska in August 2017 to learn strategies University of Nebraska specialists, agricultural consultants and producers use to combat Palmer amaranth. North Dakota is one of the few states without the weed, and North Dakotans would like to keep it that way.

This opportunity also is an example of the many ways NDSU Extension agriculture and natural resources agents and specialists gain the skills and knowledge they need to engage with producers and others in the agricultural industry and help them improve their lives and livelihoods.

The visit to Nebraska was the first time many on the bus had seen a live Palmer amaranth plant.

“We’ve talked about it for a while, but going and actually seeing it in person was a real eye-opener,” Harstad says. “This is as bad as people make it out to be.”

If Palmer amaranth invades North Dakota, it could change the way farmers grow crops, especially soybeans, according to NDSU Extension sugar beet agronomist Tom Peters, who was among those on the trip.

Palmer amaranth is particularly hard to control in soybeans, and the cost of control would make soybeans unprofitable to grow, he notes. For instance, the average cost of seasonlong control of Palmer amaranth in Nebraska is $144 per acre. For comparison, North Dakota producers spend $48 per acre to control kochia, a very troublesome weed.

“If this is a challenge for us, think about what $144 per acre would be,” Peters says.

The best part of the visit for him was hearing agricultural consultants and a farmer talk about their weed control and crop yield goals, crop rotation, cover crops, and types of manual and chemical controls they use. For the Nebraska farmer, manual control means daily scouting for Palmer amaranth and hand-pulling plants before the weed can spread throughout his fields.

Even before returning home, the North Dakota Extension agents and specialists used what they learned to start developing PowerPoint presentations, handouts, problem-based learning scenarios, and other teaching resources to increase awareness of and ability to identify Palmer amaranth, and methods of controlling it. That effort resulted in five educational modules.

The agents and specialists held a train-the-trainer workshop for Extension staff in January 2018 to introduce the new materials to colleagues, get feedback and make improvements. Soon after that, agents began presenting the information at winter agronomy meetings and other educational events.

Agriculture and Natural Resources Academy

The North Central Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) Academy is another way NDSU Extension ANR agents and specialists prepare themselves for Extension work in the 21st century. This multisession, multivenue training program was born at the 2012 North Central Cooperative Extension Association meeting of ANR program leaders with an idea from Charlie Stoltenow, NDSU Extension’s assistant director for ANR.

“Agriculture is changing rapidly, and so are the expectations on Extension staff on campus and in the field,” he says. “Successful specialists and educators are far more than technical experts. They are trusted brokers of science-based information, effective adult educators, catalytic leaders, project managers, critical thinkers, technical advisers and more. These characteristics are skills that can be learned but they must also be nurtured and grown.”

NDSU Extension agents Angie Johnson of Steele County and Katelyn Hain of Nelson County were selected to join colleagues from South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana for the 2017 academy. During their first three-day session in Des Moines, Iowa, they discussed agricultural production in their states, then broke into self-selected teams to focus on issues of mutual interest and expertise.

Their discussions led to the development of tools for Extension agents and specialists to teach producers about soil health and water quality, agricultural technology, equipment sanitation, how to understand agricultural research results and agricultural sustainability.

During their next three sessions, they learned about precision agriculture, soil health and how soils are changing, and toured a large corn and seed breeding company in Iowa, a large corn and soybean wholesale seed company in Indiana, the Kellogg Biological Research Center in Michigan, and General Mills’ corporate headquarters and the Gold Medal Flour Mill in Minnesota. Between sessions, the teams met online.

“Because of the academy, I now have colleagues across 12 states who can help me with production questions or issues that arise here in North Dakota,” Johnson says. “Our producers work so hard here in North Dakota to produce the best food and feed in the world, and now I have a better understanding of what it takes to get it from the field to the grocery store.

“Farming is not easy, and it is changing at a rapid pace,” she adds. “I need to be at the top of my game for the producers of Steele County in order to fulfill Extension’s mission of providing education to make a positive impact on our communities and their livelihoods.”

NDSU Agriculture Communication - June 4, 2018

Source:Tom Peters, 701-231-8131, thomas.j.peters@ndsu.edu
Source:Charlie Stoltenow, 701-231-7171, charles.stoltenow@ndsu.edu
Editor:Ellen Crawford, 701-231-5391, ellen.crawford@ndsu.edu
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