Lincoln, Neb. —The rows of no-till plots on the University of Nebraska Rogers Memorial Farm stand as a lasting testament to the practicality of no-till farming — 42 years and counting.
The impact of these plots and the farm’s other research was celebrated on Sept. 22, when the department of Biological Systems Engineering hosted an event to honor 75 years of Rogers Memorial Farm. The anniversary provided a retrospective of the farm and a glimpse at future agricultural research possibilities.
The event included an open house, farm tours, a program and lunch. During the program, emeritus faculty Elbert Dickey and Biological Systems Engineering extension engineer Paul Jasa were recognized for their contributions to no-till farming.
Nearly 90 attended, including Ron Yoder, Senior Associate Vice Chancellor of the UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources; David Jones, Department Head of Biological Systems Engineering; Martha Mamo, Department Head of Agronomy and Horticulture; BSE emeritus faculty DeLynn Hay; Lisa Durso, Research Microbiologist of Agricultural Research Service at United States Department of Agriculture; and Neil Dominy, Assistant State Conservationist for Partnerships and Initiatives at Natural Resources Conservation Service Nebraska.
The university’s ‘best-kept secret’
Rogers Memorial Farm is a small operation, with 320 acres of land, a Quonset, an old white barn, some large storage sheds, an office and various farm equipment. The farm is staffed with one full-time position, Stuart Hoff, research farm manager. Those involved with the farm jokingly refer to it as the best-kept secret of the university.
On the crisp and overcast morning of the event, visitors mingled while wandering the property, checking out antique equipment as well as Flex-Ro, a 60-hp autonomous planter — displays to illustrate the past and future of the farm. Some piled onto a tram pulled by a John Deere tractor for a brief tour.
As the tractor rolled uphill, attendees observed fields of corn, milo, soybeans and cover crops, the latter blanketing fields of harvested wheat. Despite being a drought year, the crops were green and vibrant, Jasa explained to the group.
The Rogers Memorial Farm is run by the BSE department in cooperation with other supporting research and training initiatives across several university departments and United States Department of Agriculture agencies.
There are currently 30 ongoing research projects and 15 university classes that use the farm as an outdoor laboratory. Various groups also host extension trainings, tours and field days on the property.
The farm is best known for its no-till production. No-till is a farming practice that minimizes soil disturbance by creating a furrow just large enough to plant seeds, according to the USDA. This allows crop residue to remain on the surface, which protects the soil from crusting, erosion, high summer temperatures and moisture loss. The USDA reported in 2021 that no-till practices are only used in 21% of all cultivated cropland acres in the nation.
As an engineer, Jasa came to find the benefits of no-till almost incidentally. He was studying tillage systems for energy and labor issues in the early 80s with Dickey, the farm’s manager at the time.
“It was only after we started practicing no-till, we noticed the benefits,” Jasa said. “As engineers who studied equipment, soil was different.”
Dickey and Jasa were getting eye-opening results of their in-depth work. They convinced Mark Schroder, the Rogers Farm manager in 1992, when the farm converted all farm acres to no-till. Their next challenge was to convince farmers.
Rooted in soil management practices
As the farm manager when the no-till plots were first planted, Dickey was used to facing resistance to benefits of no-till.
“When we put in those plots in 1981, there was a lot of myths with no-till: ‘You’ll have to plow it up sometime,’” Dickey said. “We set out to prove some myths wrong, and also give Paul and I some credibility.”
Dickey remembers facing other challenges in the first few years under his leadership, too. The few pieces of equipment the farm had needed fixing. He secured grants for replacements, and by the next planting season they had three planters to work with — “the foundation and part of Paul’s research,” he said.
As the plots matured, the benefits of no-till only grew more pronounced. To demonstrate the differences, the no-till plots are planted next to plots that use traditional tillage. Compared to the tilled plots, the crops grown using no-till practices are greener with higher yield. The soil structure is richer and more resilient.
Compared to the tilled plots, the crops grown using no-till practices are greener with higher yield. The soil structure is richer and more resilient. For example, in 2009, the no-till yield was 237 bushels an acre, while the yield for tilled plots was 210 bushels an acre. The 2015 no-till yield was 223.4 bushels an acre, compared with 186.5 bushels an acre tilled yield.
These yields are important because they have to be profitable for the farm to continue doing its research, Jasa said. When Cora Rogers and family bequeathed the farm in 1947, one of the requests in her will was for it “to be operated as an experimental farm for the promotion of agriculture and the benefit of College of Agriculture students.”
Hoff’s farm manager salary is paid from crop harvests, and the fields are run as a self-supported farm operation farm instead of demonstration plots. They use five acres of plot area and with the same machinery as a typical farm. It doesn’t receive state or university funding like other research farms.
“I always stress that because they always say, ‘You can do what you want because you don’t make money.’ We do,” Jasa said. “… Our plots are field length, they’re not 10-by-10 foot, done by hand labor.”
Jasa gives over 40 presentations a year to share the results of the farm’s no-till research, including a training for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service with a nationwide audience of 2,000 attendees.
His presentation style is simple: be hands-on and try to share information that can be widely replicable. He has been to dozens of states and nine different countries to present his findings on no-till farming.
“I’m not developing anything new the farmer doesn’t have access to,” he said. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything like that.”
Current and future collaborations
The farm also serves as a site for others to conduct their own research. This has included outside organizations such as the USDA ARS and NRCS.
Sabrina Ruis, Agronomy and Horticulture research assistant professor, started working on a research project on the farm as a post-doctorate researcher for Humberto Blanco. Ten years later, she’s still studying residue removal on the farm.
“With cover crops, the effects are not observed until the long-term. With weather being variable, that affects biomass and yields,” she said. “With multi-year data… that really gives you a good picture of what they’re doing.”
Her research on Rogers Memorial Farm experiments with removing corn crop residue and supplanting it with cover crops to maintain soil health. The farm provides plenty of space and time for experimentation and long-term data collection.
“So many studies are short-term,” Ruis said. “It takes time for soil to rebuild and come to a new equilibrium. Some properties like water retention are slow to change.”
Over the years, her team has had up to four research assistants at a time. They’ve been able to add more soil health indicators to their measurements to provide an increasingly detailed picture of their research.
When it comes to the future of the farm, Ruis said she could see people start to build in different soil conservation practices in addition to no-till.
“I think… working (those practices) into the corn aspect of the rotation would be interesting and useful to look at,” she said. “Trying to look at what that next-generation practice or suite of practices would be.”
Santosh Pitla, BSE associate professor of advanced machinery systems, plans to continue his work with agricultural technology on the farm. He has tested small robot platforms and a 60 hp autonomous planter Flex-Ro on its plots.
“Rogers Memorial Farm is a perfect location to test new robotic technologies for autonomous operation in real field conditions,” he said. “Our goal is to ramp up robotic agricultural operations in next five years at the farm beginning with robotic planting in Spring 2023.”
He sees the farm as a future “robotics proving ground” for agricultural technologies — a real-world application for equipment and automation. It could be an integral piece in developing climate-smart agricultural practices at scale.
Pitla will also take on a role as co-chair of the Rogers Memorial Farm committee to further support future research efforts.
“We have such a huge legacy here. I don’t know if there are many fields like this in conservation agriculture no-till,” Pitla said. “I think the future is bringing more technological tools to enhance the impact of this field and use this as an experiential learning center for the next-generation workforce.”
The university also plans to invest in modest facilities on the farm, a base for soil health and robotics research, Yoder said in remarks during the event’s program.
“Seventy-five years has placed this farm to be at the cutting-edge of things people consider important, like conservation and healthy soil systems,” he said.
Tom Franti, Rogers Memorial Farm committee chair, said the operation is also looking forward to fruitful collaborations with other groups in the future.
As a 320-acre operation, Jasa sees Rogers Memorial Farm as a realistic setting for the future of agriculture, which is globally trending towards smaller operations. Concerning his own research, he plans continue maintaining his plots for the foreseeable future.
“I’m on year 42; I’m still learning things,” he said on the tram tour, the no-till plots extending behind him. “I still have fun doing it.”