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Extension Plant Sciences Featured in Farm & Ranch Guide

On the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Extension Service, an article written by Dale Hildebrant and published June 13, 2014, in Farm and Ranch Guide, reviews the history of NDSU Department of Plant Sciences Extension work. The article is printed with permission of Farm and Ranch Guide and Hildebrant.
Extension Plant Sciences Featured in Farm & Ranch Guide

NDSU Plant Sciences Extension specialist Joel Ransom speaks to a group during Field Days. (photo courtesy Joel Ransom)

Extension plant sciences has increased ND’s ag production

Farm & Ranch Guide

In the 1920s, North Dakota farmers weren’t too concerned about planting pure seed samples, and as a result the mixed grain and smutty wheat they were shipping was costing them millions of dollars each year.

This was one of the first problems tackled by E.G. Booth, when he became North Dakota’s first Extension agronomist on Aug. 1, 1927.

Booth was a firm believer in diversification and strongly promoted alfalfa and sweet clover production, but the lack of pure seed supplies in the state pushed Booth to correct that situation with the cooperation of the North Dakota Agricultural College (now North Dakota State University) Experiment Stations and county agents. The next step was to teach farmers the value of using pure seed and to help pure seed growers market their seed to other growers.

Commercial interests were also interested in improving grain quality and because of that the Northwest Crop Improvement Association, with headquarters in Minneapolis, was formed.

Meanwhile, North Dakota leaders formed the Greater North Dakota Association and Booth worked with both organizations to promote diversification and the use of pure seed. In his 1930 annual report, Booth reported 88 pure seed meetings were held that year involving 1,200 farmers who purchased 45,000 bushels of pure seed.

Booth took a leave of absence in 1933 and did not return to North Dakota. The Extension agronomist position was vacant until Wm. Leary was appointed as the second Extension agronomist on Nov. 20, 1936 Ð a time when agriculture was deeply depressed. Three years of drought, rust and grasshoppers had wiped out most grain stocks and what was available was shriveled by drought.

Leary resumed the grain quality program and started emphasizing for standardization of grain varieties. At the time, more than 20 varieties of spring wheat were being grown by the state’s farmers and milling and baking qualities varied greatly.

During those years in the 30s, the crops were growing well, but noxious weeds gained a strong foothold in the state. Leafy spurge came into the state with hay supplies that were desperately needed by farmers. Leary made strong efforts to acquaint farmers with that weed and to exterminate it from its start; however, limited resources prevented many farmers from doing much to control it.

The next Extension agronomist, L.A. Jensen came on the scene in 1945 and his main interest was the use of commercial fertilizer.

In 1948 R.B. Widdifield became Extension agronomist and chemical weed control and the use of commercial fertilizer became major projects for him. He also worked on introducing sunflower production to the state.

Review of annual reports indicated there was enough demand in the agronomy area to keep several people busy and agronomists were unable to undertake many worthy projects.

Today’s Extension Plant Science Department

Over the past few years there has been a subtle change taking place in the Plant Science Department’s Extension specialists, according to Joel Ransom, Extension agronomist. That change has meant that the Extension specialists are now more involved in the actual research projects.

”We felt that there was a need for us to become more involved in the research taking place,” Ransom said. “In the past the Extension specialists were mainly gatherers and purveyors of information. And we felt there were information gaps that we could fill in with our applied research programs."

Since they are now taking a more active role in the ongoing research, both Ransom and Richard Zollinger, NDSU Extension weed control specialist, feel they can do a better job of explaining the research results to the farmers and ranchers when they are out at meetings in the state.

”If we helped with the study and evaluated the results when we go talk we can answer the questions more authoritative and correctly than if we read it out of a journal article,” Zollinger said.

”And another benefit of those questions that are asked is they help me define my next research project. The true researchers never get a chance to get out in front of the ‘congregation’ and to hear the real issues the growers are having. When we are there and hear the different issues they are dealing with, that gives people like me and Joel direction and sets the agenda for our work.”

The growth of chemical weed control

The first widely used chemical herbicide, 2-4-D, was commercially introduced in 1945 and for several years was the only widely available weed control chemical. However, things changed and companies started developing new herbicides.

When Zollinger started his position in 1990 an average of 5 to 10 new herbicides were being introduced each year. However, in 1996 weed control suddenly became simpler.

”That was the year that Roundup Ready soybeans took off,” Zollinger said, “and it took the management out of weed control. What we are now trying to do is put that management element back into weed control.”

The introduction of Roundup meant going from a long list of herbicide products that farmers had at their disposal to depending on just Roundup.

“So now we have a whole generation that only knows one herbicide,” he said. “And now we are telling them they need to start using pre-emergence or soil applied herbicide, but this young generation doesn’t know what those herbicides are or how to incorporate them. So it’s going to be a huge education effort to help this younger generation. All that resident knowledge is not being passed down to the next generation.

“We are now living with the repercussions of that mono-herbicide culture, and now have five resistant weeds in North Dakota,” he added.

The hardest task Zollinger has encountered while with NDSU Extension is to try and change human behavior when it comes to weed control, since they want to follow the easiest and simplest path to weed control.

”You can use logic, you can use fear, you can use reasoning, enticement, really every different change of behavior model there is, and none of them has worked” Zollinger said. “As an example, every four years we do a chemical use survey and in 2008, 3 percent of the soybeans acres got a pre-emergence herbicide. After that we really preached to the soybean growers that they needed to use a pre-emergence herbicide.

“In 2012 we did another herbicide use survey and 3 percent of the soybeans were treated with a pre-emergence herbicide. That’s the impact that I had Ð I feel like I have no impact.”

Instead, Zollinger said herbicide programs that give rewards like free trips or other items for buying a certain amount of particular chemical have much more power on the weed control decisions of farmers.

Cropping changes

Ransom came to North Dakota when the small grain scab issue was facing the region’s farmers. The Extension agronomists helped with the development of resistant varieties that ultimately played a large role in getting the upper hand with that problem.

“Undoubtedly, with the higher rainfall of that period, it was more conducive to growing corn and less small grains,” Ransom said. “I’m sure that was a positive attractant because it became apparent that we had enough rain to grow some of those longer season crops.

“Corn acres have expanded and we have done educational programs that have provided some of the basic information on how to grow corn,” he continued. “We have taken on the role of hybrid testing for the eastern part of the state and the Research Extension Centers are filling that role in the outlying areas of the state. And this third-party testing is valuable to our growers and the smaller seed companies.”

Extension is also encouraging farmers to conduct more test plots on their own land. And they provide information to those that decide to do this on ways that those individual test plots can yield useful data.

The challenges that loom ahead

As seed and chemical companies continue to invest more funds into research, both Zollinger and Ransom expressed concern that growers might pay less attention to the independent third-party research data that Extension now provides.

This increased research by the private companies is also putting a strain on the number of students who continue with the graduate school studies and this reduction in higher degree agronomists will eventually impact those going into research Extension work.

“Even now when we have openings in Extension, we don’t get very many applicants that are truly qualified,” Zollinger said. “So there is a severe shortage of trained people to apply for these positions.”

”And,” Ransom added, “if we can’t find someone qualified to fill the position there is always the risk that they may find some other place to use the money, and then you have agronomy or weed control fall off the charts. And once it’s gone it’s hard to revive a position.”

So, looking to the future, a two-pronged strategy needs to be in place Ð keep educating the growers with the latest in research-based crop production guidelines, and also creating enough interest in their field of work to encourage the younger generation to embark on an agronomy and weed science career.

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