NASHUA | Iowa State University’s Northeast Research and Demonstration Farm now is in its 40th year of operation on 260 acres near Nashua, and every year, it brings new ideas, as well as crops, organizers say.
“It’s busier these days,” said Ken Pecinovsky, the facility’s superintendent for the last 20 years. “We’ve got more issue snow than we had 20 years ago -- we didn’t have aphids 20 years ago, we didn’t have foliar diseases 20 years ago.
Pecinovsky oversees as many as 60 to 70 research plots each year, as he and colleagues look at new ways to produce better corn and soybean crops, study soil fertility and management and monitor water quality.
“We’ve got long-term plots that show what happens if we don’t use any fertilizer,” Pecinovsky said. “We’ve got 39 years of data to show us what rotation will do, what no-till will do. We change ideas and what we do about certain issues as they come up.”
It’s a process, as the center itself has been over the years.
Getting it started
Kay Connelly, a Cedar Falls resident, played a role in planning the center, which replaced a rough equivalent facility near Independence that had served primarily Black Hawk County.
Connelly, years ago, worked for ISU Extension and served as the Butler County director in Alison before becoming a crop specialist for a seven-county area around Waterloo.
“It was decided we needed a center to serve this corner of the state, so a committee got together, and we looked at a list of 40 farms and narrowed it down to two or three,” said Connelly, now, 81. “I just happened to be lucky enough to be in this area when all of this started and happened."
Planners settled on 260 acres near Nashua.
There was some trepidation about the location at the beginning, Connelly said.
“We were afraid that it was too far from Ames and might not get good researchers to come out, but we soon found they liked it here,” he said.
Indeed, the research farm evolved and, in 2009, the 6,000-square-foot Borlaug Learning Center opened, with meeting rooms, offices and a small-business incubator.
The cost was about $900,000, and the Borlaug Center, which was equipped with geothermal heating and cooling, quickly rewarded planners, said Connelly, who retired from ISU Extension in 1992 and served on a board that raised money to build the Borlaug Center.
“I think when we first built this, the heating cost that first January was something like $26 for the month,” he said.
Other facilities include a heated shop, grain storage and a hoop barn for machinery storage.
The farm has tiled plots that are fitted with individual computerized groundwater sampling equipment for surface and subsurface water quality monitoring. Irrigation simulates rainfall intensity and timing for research studies looking at runoff and leaching of pesticides and fertilizer.
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Perfecting growing systems
Crop experiments focus primarily on corn and soybean production, such as planting dates, row spacing, plant populations and long-term tillage. Agronomists and plant breeders conduct breeding programs and variety evaluations on small grains, corn, soybeans and forages. Weed, insect and disease control strategies are studied and evaluated annually.
Horticulturists conduct garden produce evaluations for yield potential and pest control. They use a demonstration garden to display new horticultural varieties and cultural practices that can be adopted by home gardeners.
Researchers also conduct studies on soil fertility and soil management systems and look at nutrient requirements of area crops and crop rotations and evaluate fertilizer and lime rates and placement to observe crop yield response.
Researchers from ISU and the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment carry out extensive water-quality testing based on timing, rate and placement of fertilizer, pesticide and animal manure applications. Field drainage tile lines and groundwater wells from 40 one-acre plots are monitored and sampled to determine the extent of chemical, nutrient and pesticide leaching. The farm is a regional site for USDA groundwater research.
“I think what you’re seeing at this research facility, along with our other research farms, is this is the one place where farmers are involved in our research,” said Chad Hart, ISU Extension and Outreach grain economist. “They’re part of the process. They help support it. They help do it. They help fund it. They own it. They can see what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and how it applies to their farm. That’s very crucial, if you look at our research farm structure here in Iowa.”
Indeed, farmers gather at numerous field days scheduled at the research farm each year to talk about challenges, successes and to offer their own advice, Hart said.
“We’re out here trying to do our research with research plots and all that, but it still has to pass the smell test,” Hart said. “It’s a way of fact-checking what we do to make sure it’s applicable at their farms.”
Farmers as partners
Terry Basol, a field agronomist with the center for the last five years, agreed.
“Farmers look to it to help them answer questions on crop production, on challenges, on things they’re thinking of doing, does it meet up with other biased opinions,” he said. “Ken does an awesome job of making sure those numbers are as valid as possible. No integrity has been compromised.”
Tyler Mitchell, a 2015 ag education graduate of ISU, now serves as the first-ever ag specialist at the research farm. He’s in charge of running the Borlaug Center and works with farmers and conducts on-farm trials, along with local agronomists.
“We track trials daily, just do different research with researchers at Iowa State, what they want to learn,” Mitchell said.
The job is just a natural transition from the classroom, Mitchell said.
The learning continues, he said.
“Pretty much the daily care of everything, the diseases, insects, that kind of stuff, the stuff you can’t really learn in the textbooks,” he said.