Ron Smith 1, Senior Content Director

October 19, 2009

7 Min Read

After 100 years of contributions to agriculture, no one at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock is contemplating resting on any laurels.

WENWEI XU shows one of the hybrid corn varieties he’s working on at the Lubbock Research and Extension Center. Xu hopes to develop drought and heat tolerant corn.

The work goes on.

Participants in the center’s Centennial Celebration got a snapshot tour of some of the work that could revolutionize High Plains agriculture for the next few decades.

Randy Boman, Extension cotton agronomist, says success at the center is the result of “a lot of disciplines helping producers do their jobs.”

Boman, speaking at the tour’s cotton stop, showed a 1928 Texas A&M mechanical harvesting publication. “Some things have not changed much,” he said. “Back then, researchers were looking at harvest devices, sleds and even some spindle pickers. Producers are still concerned about some of these same things, especially harvest methods.”

Center cotton breeder Jane Dever showed test plots with some cotton varieties that were developed “well before 1910.” She said one early variety, Mebane, produced about 32 percent lint, compared to 39 percent in today’s improved varieties. “It had great big seed and was prone to string out, even in picker areas." Yield potential with modern varieties average from 30 percent to 50 percent better than the old ones. Dever said some of the foreign varieties on display are typically handpicked and feature different boll types than varieties grown in West Texas.

Gary Peterson, grain sorghum breeder, said pioneers who came to West Texas to farm more than 100 years ago “had no idea what would grow here. They brought corn, but the climate was too dry. Milo would grow, but they had to make improvements.”

Identifying better grain sorghum varieties research was one of the first research efforts at the station. Later efforts developed varieties that were easier to harvest. “Lines from here were some of the first public varieties,” he said. “We built on those, added insect resistance, drought tolerance and other traits.”

He said scientists have made significant gains with grain sorghum production in the 100 years the station has been in existence.

Even with the best varieties, and the best technology, farmers continue to face the prospect of crop losses. Texas AgriLife agronomist Wayne Keeling said weed control has been a part of the research effort for many years.

“In the early days, they were looking at plows and hoes, evaluating sweeps and knives. In the 1950s and 1960s, they started working with herbicides.”

Keeling said when Treflan and Atrazine came along in the early 1960s, producers thought they had the solution to all their weed problems. “But other weeds came in.”

Roundup became available in the 1970s and scientists began looking for ways to use a non-specific herbicide in susceptible crops. “They worked with rope-wick applicators, re-circulating sprayers and other methods,” Keeling said.

He said herbicide development slowed in the 1960s and 1970s because of higher development costs.

“In the 1990s transgenics came on with Roundup Ready, Liberty Link and more recently Roundup Ready Flex. We still look at materials available and use the best methods to control weeds, effectively and economically."

Megha Parajulee is a research entomologist and said the first entomologist started working at the center in 1949. “That was the start of cotton entomology work and the beginning of integrated pest management strategies. Thrips, fleahoppers, bollworms and some tobacco budworms were the most serious pests.

“Now, plant bugs and lygus are the biggest concerns.” He said success of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program has been a significant achievement. “This station has been a major center for boll weevil research for the entire Cotton Belt. Eradication and Bollgard cotton have allowed us to use a more ecological approach to pest control. We can use varieties and natural predators.”

He said cooperation among disciplines also contributes to the success of pest management. “Our focus is integrating an ecological control strategy."

Terry Wheeler, research pathologist, is the first pathologist at the experiment station. She works with disease and nematode control and works closely with cotton breeders to screen varieties for tolerance or resistance.

She said bacterial blight was one of the first problems identified and variety screening became a key element in her efforts to battle the disease. Verticillium wilt came along in the 1950s. Variety resistance is a key to wilt control, too. She said those diseases and Rootknot nematode are “handled to some extent through a breeding program.”

She said fields at the Helms Farm near Halfway provide good locations to screen for Verticillium wilt. The AG-CARES facility in Lamesa is good for Rootknot nematode work. “I do almost all of my work off-station,” Wheeler said.

She said success for West Texas cotton producers can be only as good as the weakest link in their management chain. “When the boll weevil came in, we saw what a weak link could do to lint yield,” she said.

Jim Bordovsky, who does irrigation research at the station in Halfway and the Helms Farm, said his goal is to help farmers “stretch groundwater as far as they can and maintain economic viability.”

He’s testing potential to use a limited amount of water to produce a crop. He’s also evaluating subsurface drip irrigation systems on fewer acres versus spreading water over more land with center pivots.

“We also are trying to figure out how to overcome problems with subsurface drip,” he said. “Issues include plugged holes and germination in dry soils and high winds. It’s hard to get water up to the seed in those conditions. We’re also evaluating different irrigation systems at different water levels to look at fiber quality.”

Bordovsky said future research will include work with soil sensors, communications transfers to monitor soil moisture and to help make decisions on a real-time basis. “We want to work with managing irrigation in-season to determine when to apply water. We want to study the effects of pulling irrigation off cotton to water corn, for instance. We need to know what effect that has on yield.”

Kevin Bronson, fertility specialist, is working with subsurface drip irrigation systems and fertigation, applying nitrogen through the irrigation lines. “We acidify lines continuously to prevent calcification and work mostly with nitrogen fertilizers at different rates, from zero to 90 pounds per acre.”

He said West Texas farmers should begin to take soil samples from as deep as 24 inches in the spring to determine amounts of available nitrogen. “Nitrogen in the top 2 feet can be credited to the season’s nitrogen recommendations."

Bronson said keeping soil wet in the fall may be one way to minimize gopher damage to drip irrigation lines. “They do not like wet soil."

Winwei Xu, is one of only two corn breeders in Texas. Another works out of College Station. He’s been developing corn hybrids adaptable to High Plains growing conditions since 1998. “We don’t have a long history of corn breeding work,” he said “We work in two stages to develop a new corn hybrid. The first stage is to identify parent lines and then we cross them for hybrid vigor. It takes a big investment to develop hybrid seed.”

“Most corn today is developed in temperate regions and do not do well in West Texas,” Xu said. “Tropical corn comes on too late here.” He said two new releases, T204 and T205, “show good drought tolerance. We are looking at hybrids for high yield, low aflatoxin, drought and heat tolerance, and some for silage production.”

Wine grapes have been grown in the High Plains for 100 years or more, but researchers are trying to identify better rootstocks and better varieties for the region, said Keith Jones.

“The High Plains will grow grapes, but we want to know how well they will grow. We already grow more grapes here than anywhere else in Texas. It is a good environment for grapes, but we also can get a late frost or a hail storm. But we don’t have as much disease pressure as in Central Texas.”

He said another question is whether the region can grow quality grapes. The effort, Jones said, is part of a statewide push to increase wine production. “We have 187 wineries in Texas and we want to build up production.”

He said collaboration with scientists at Texas Tech will help evaluate the fruit. “We may look at producing a small quantity of wine.”

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About the Author(s)

Ron Smith 1

Senior Content Director, Farm Press/Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 40 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. More recently, he was awarded the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award by the Texas Plant Protection Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Johnson City, Tenn. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and three grandsons, Aaron, Hunter and Walker.

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