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What the heck do they do over at PREC, anyway?

August 7, 2011

Two weeks ago, I took a field plot tour at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Expo (formerly the Big Red Fair) at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center. (Whew, what a mouthful! I call it “PREC,” pronounced pee-wreck, but other folks call it the “Panhandle Center,” the “Extension Center,” the “UNL Center,” the “Research Station,”etc.)

Husband’s entomology job there is what brought us to this community. You’d think I would know what goes on up there, but other than a vague idea of the insect-related things, I don’t know a whole lot.

Part of the problem is that there is SO DANGED MUCH going on. There is a world-class research center here in (what some consider to be) “itty-bitty, middle-of-nowhere” Scottsing.

I breezed past most of the table exhibits and skipped the arboretum and greenhouse tours, yet my head is still swimming trying to digest the amount of work researchers do up there, looking for better ways to grow crops, raise animals and generally keep us all healthy.

Let me give you a little taste, starting with the table displays.

I got a literal taste - of bean brownies!

Dr. Carlos Urrea is a bean breeder who is looking for (dry, edible) bean plants that carry unique genes that make them easier to grow with better yields and better nutrition and better insect and disease resistance. Just better!

Carlos' research has global reach.

There is a truly beautiful assortment of dry edible bean varieties at PREC. This is just a small sample.

John Smith is a retired systems machinery engineer, but his influence is still strong at PREC. He had an intern from France at the Expo demonstrating a piece of equipment that I just had to stare at to figure out. It included a moving belt upon which a layer of oil would be laid down into which seeds would be dropped from a planter, to check to make sure the planter was dropping seeds at the appropriate spacing. (The dropped seeds stuck to the oil, so the distance between them could be measured.)

This is the fast-moving moving belt. You can kind of see a few blueish-gray seeds in the oil.

Then there was the entomology lab table set up by husband, otherwise known as Dr. Jeff Bradshaw (or “Bugman” to his Swedish great-grandmother Hilda).

Here are three members of husband's summer lab team manning the table: Kyle, Henda and Johan. Look at those beautiful insect photos in the background! My husband took those! *beams with pride*

Some of the crowd-pleasing features of this exhibit were a couple of Madagascar hissing cockroaches to play with, as well as what are referred to in the business as “ooh, aah drawers”  (insect collection drawers filled with such an amazing diversity of insects that they make people go, “Ooh! Aaah!”) There was research on display as well, including some aphid work.

Bugman husband also had some ‘splainin’ to do on the field tour, along with several other reseachers. (Note: if you take the field tour, avoid sitting in the last couple of rows if you are over the age of 17 or so. It does the same thing as the last couple of seats on a school bus, only there’s no padding on the landing on those metal benches.)

Here is a photo of Bugman (the tall guy in the red shirt) talking to a trailer full of people about his “tower traps.” (About which I always think “Rapunzel!”:

Basically, he and his lab colleagues rigged up a pulley system on a metal tower (typically used for communications) to run screens with sticky traps on them up to 60 feet in the air. Those sticky traps catch insects. The height, timing and type of insects caught can give clues about insect outbreaks.

Here is Bug Man and Riley, another summer worker, describing recent results from the tower:

Here goes a quick rundown of a few other research topics on the field tour:

Dr. Bob Wilson discussing a trial to determine the best herbicide application strategy in Roundup Ready alfalfa (you should have seen the “no herbicide” rows – you couldn’t even see the alfalfa!):

Dr. Dipak Santra waving a bunch of fenugreek as he speaks in front of a camelina field:

Dipak works on developing uncommon (at the moment) crops that can be sustainably grown in dry regions like the High Plains. His table included some things that could possibly be grown around here: mung bean, lentil, moth bean, amaranth, mustard and teff.

Dr. Bob Harveson works on plant diseases, including this field of sugarbeets that’s being used to study the relationship between soil temperature and rhizomania (doesn’t that sounds like a great band name?):

Here’s Bob’s graduate student, Trung Nguyen, talking about a sunflower rust disease project:

Quite a few graduate students from UNL come out to do research in the PREC fields in the summertime. It’s tougher for researchers out here to get student assistance because of the distance from the UNL campus and the difficulty of finding housing. (Ever try to find a decent rental home out here? It’s slim pickins.)

Here are some more photos of research plots (there are many more):

Cages set up in a bean field into which insects will be released to feed on the plants and cause damage so "hail school" students can learn to identify different types of plant damage. There is also a "hail machine" to create another type of damage. Seriously.

Bugman calls this interplanted potato and tomato his "psyllid nursery." If you do a search on this blog for "psyllid," you will know what the darned things did to my tomato plants last year. This year, the wind has yet to blow in any of the insects, even in the nursery.

sunflower virus study

bean white mold trial

strotego corn fungicide trial

Random image:

Potato flowers are pretty.

All this research receives relatively little non-salary funding from UNL. In addition to planning the research and interpreting the results, the scientists have to bust their hineys to find and win research grants from external sources to pay for their research materials and their technicians’ and students’ salaries. The task has been more difficult recently with the declining economy and scarcity of grant funds.

In summary, there’s a whole lot of people at PREC who work really hard to try to figure out the best ways of keeping humanity fed and farms profitable. When the next Expo rolls around in 2012, you should check out their work yourself.

Copyright 2011 by Katie Bradshaw

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2011 1:05 pm

    Wow…so much interesting and amazing work is going on out there. I need to find a way to keep up to date on what’s happening in and around town, especially since I don’t take the paper. I’ve been intrigued by the research going on at the UNL Extension since I moved here, especially moving here from New Hampshire where farming faces different challenges.

  2. August 8, 2011 9:45 am

    Very informative!

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