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aeriel view of Nebraska Tyler Harris
HELPING REBUILD: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green says UNL is committed to helping the people of the state rebuild after extreme weather events this year.

University of Nebraska plays role in overcoming ag hurdles

Q&A: In Part 3 of an interview, chancellor discusses steps UNL has taken to help those affected by extreme weather.

This year marks the 150th year since the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was chartered and charged with its land-grant mission of public education and service to Nebraska in 1869. Nebraska Farmer recently held a Q&A with UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green to discuss UNL’s role in aiding producers affected by recent natural disasters, and in preparing them for ongoing challenges in agriculture.

With the monumental flooding and blizzard this year affecting Nebraska and other parts of the Plains and Midwest, what role have UNL and Nebraska Extension played in assisting farmers and ranchers affected by disaster? Especially with the university system’s widespread reach across the state, how is Extension equipped to help those affected by flooding? From day one, Nebraska Extension has been diligently working in affected counties to provide expertise, assistance and resources to help Nebraskans recover. We are in this for the long haul and are committed to bringing our expertise, hard work and resources to help the people of this state rebuild. 

Extension has been developing resources and networks on flooding for years and, with local connections across the state, is perfectly suited to serve as a hub of information. Nebraska families, homeowners, producers and businesses recovering from flood damage can find information and resources on Nebraska Extension’s website: flood.unl.edu

We also responded by connecting students with opportunities to serve across Nebraska. In June, University of Nebraska students began working in communities across the state through a new summer serviceship program created in the wake of this year’s devastating flooding. 

Twenty-four NU students, representing UNL, UNK and UNO, are serving in 14 communities, with more students being placed on an ongoing basis as the university matches students’ skills with local needs. The flood serviceship program is a perfect opportunity for students to gain real-world experience in meeting the needs of our communities.

In recent years, we’ve seen Nebraska Extension step up its efforts to prepare farmers and ranchers to meet production challenges related to climate change. How will this continue to play a role in the university and Extension’s efforts in the future? What kinds of cutting-edge technology or management practices are being researched by those in the NU system to this end? Adoption of cover crops, extended crop rotations, grazing crop residues, etc.? What challenges lie ahead in terms of adopting these different practices or technologies? We’re committed to helping Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers meet production challenges, and based on what the scientific research on climate change is telling us, our efforts to address these related challenges will continue to play an important part of the ways we serve farmers and ranchers in the future.

Our work in soil health is one important aspect of this effort. Andrea Basche, assistant professor in our Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, is currently co-leading a project mapping the “where” and “why” of conservation practices that are generally known to promote soil health. 

The project is bringing together a diverse team of scientists, policymakers and practitioners with the goal of reducing barriers to the adoption of soil health improving practices. 

In another soil health project, Basche, along with associate professor Daren Redfearn and research assistant professor Katja Koehler-Cole, recently earned a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant to develop a decision-support tool for the successful incorporation of cover crops into Nebraska cropping systems.

We engaged with a number of farmers and ranchers on soil health at the Nebraska Cover Crop & Soil Health Conference in February. If you were not able to attend, I encourage you to find videos and handouts from the conference online on Nebraska Extension’s website — cropresidueexchange.unl.edu.

Conducting the research and sharing the findings is part of the challenge, and another critical part is understanding what our university can do to facilitate the adoption of solutions. 

Nebraska Extension learned that 17% of farmers who don’t graze residue list a lack of access to cattle as the top reason. So, Nebraska Extension is connecting farmers who have cropland available for grazing with cattle producers through its Crop Residue Exchange.

As producers deal with the additional challenge of tight profit margins, how has the role of the university and Extension changed? Do you expect more research and outreach to emphasize additional crop or livestock production systems moving forward? Or greater emphasis on different marketing strategies for the commodities already being produced? The university is working to serve farmers and ranchers both in optimizing production and marketing strategies. 

Increasing production to meet future demands for food, fuel, feed and fiber will call for more efficient use of marginal lands and new methods to deal with extreme weather, soil degradation and biological invasions. IANR has formed the Center for Resilience in Working Agricultural Landscapes and Nebraska One Health to increase the resilience of our current production systems.

An example of how we’re helping with the creation and implementation of marketing strategies is the free Grain Marketing Plan app, which can help farmers develop customizable grain marketing plans pre- or postharvest. The mobile phone app is helping producers make their decisions on their terms even while they’re in the field.

We also recognize the increasing importance of trade to the farm economy and our rural communities. Our new Clayton Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance brings expertise from across campus in our colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Business and Law to serve as a resource to the ag industry and form a clearer picture of trade for everyone, while preparing students for leadership roles in international trade and finance. This is particularly timely as major trade policy changes are being pursued at the federal level. 

To wrap up, moving forward, what are you most excited about with regard to the university’s research, especially in agriculture and food science? We have so much momentum as a university right now, particularly across our research enterprise, so I am excited to see that phenomenal growth and the work we’re doing to build on it. 

Our portfolio of agricultural and food science research — including our global leadership in research on water and food security — is broad and deep, which reflects the interests of producers working every day on the varied landscapes of our state. 

As an agricultural genetics scholar myself, it’s particularly exciting to see the work James Schnable has recently done in leading the sequencing of nearly the entire genetic catalog of proso millet, which could help raise yields in western Nebraska and compound the value of that crop to the region’s economy. 

Another program all Nebraskans can all take pride in — that empowers Nebraska farmers to work directly with the university on research tailored to their needs — is the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network. 

Through that program, we work with Nebraska farmers on about 70 research studies each year, and the results help address critical production, profitability and natural resources questions that producers across our state and region are facing. Since 1990, we have worked with producers across the state to conduct over 600 studies and the findings are available to view at cropwatch.unl.edu/farmresearch

I could talk for days about exciting research in this area — from the Nebraska Food for Health Center to tissue engineering of developmental biology work by recent Presidential Early Career Award-winner Angie Pannier. We’re leading a new national institute for Antimicrobial Resistance Research, and our plant phenotyping systems at Nebraska Innovation Campus and the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead is on the forefront of the future of precision agriculture. 

The short answer is that as one of the leading public research universities in world in this arena, we are engaged every day in a wide array of major research to help grow a healthy future for agriculture, food, fuel, water and people.

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