KSU scientist discusses importance of ag research in western Kansas
by Mary Lou Peter
Some Americans may think of Kansas as one big expanse that looks the same from border to border, but there are significant differences between the eastern and western parts of the state. The differences have a huge impact on how farmers and ranchers manage their operations and are the reason Kansas State University conducts agricultural research in various parts of the state, said Bob Gillen, director of K-State’s Western Kansas Agricultural Research Centers.
Gillen, a professor, researcher and rangeland management specialist himself, is based in Hays. He answered questions recently about K-State’s agricultural research in western Kansas.
Q: What are some of the ways that western Kansas is different from the eastern part of the state? How do the differences affect agricultural producers?
Gillen: Obviously the climate changes rather dramatically across Kansas. Rainfall is much higher in the east and then it diminishes as you travel west. As a rule, for every 15 to 20 miles that you go west, you lose about an inch of annual rainfall, so our production environment is quite different and our soils are quite different in the west. We need to have agricultural research out in different areas of the state to make results more relevant to growers in those areas. In the western part of the state, K-State has research centers at Hays, Colby, Garden City and Tribune. We have quite a legacy – three of those stations have celebrated their centennial and in just a couple of years, Colby also will celebrate 100 years of agricultural research.
Q: Are all four of those research centers working on the same projects?
Gillen: At the Hays station we’ve headquartered our plant breeding program, which includes a wheat breeding and a sorghum breeding program. They have counterpart programs in Manhattan, but as an example, the diseases wheat often has to face are quite different in the central part of the state than in the western part of the state, plus drought stress is much more severe in the western part of the state. So even for our own K-State wheats, the ones that Allan Fritz breeds for the central part of the state often don’t do as well in the west as the ones Joe Martin breeds here and vice versa. We also have a range management and beef program here at Hays because we have a substantial amount of rangeland – about 5,000 acres – plus a cow-calf herd of 380 head and a 1,000-head feedlot.
The other stations are more oriented toward crop agriculture. Irrigation is a major focus at our stations in Colby, Tribune and Garden City. We also have weed science programs at a couple of the stations, as well as soil scientists, crop physiologists and entomologists. When you take all of our western locations together, it’s a mini-College of Agriculture. We’re obviously not as large as our campus units, but we have almost as many disciplines as when you look across the entire college.
Q: What are some of the bigger research projects K-State is working on in western Kansas?
Gillen: One of the topics we’re highlighting is the development of herbicide resistance in kochia, a common weed in crops. Phil Stahlman and Randy Currie, weed scientists at Hays and Garden City, have developed an intensive program looking at how kochia has become resistant to glyphosate, which is one of the most common and cheapest crop herbicides we have. We’re looking at how we can combat that resistance. It’s really just exploded in the last two or three years, and it’s a problem with some wide-reaching implications because it could seriously affect how we conduct no-till crop production in Kansas which is vital for moisture conservation. This problem is so important that we are cooperating with scientists at Manhattan and Colorado State University to develop solutions as quickly as possible.
Another topic we’re always working on is irrigation management because of the Ogallala Aquifer and its declining water levels. We have two irrigation engineers who spend almost all of their time on improving the efficiency of irrigation management. One thing about western Kansas is that we’re always short of water and it seems like drought is always just around the corner. So water management is kind of an overriding topic across almost all the work we do. We look at things like developing different crop rotations or different tillage management, the use of no-till in different crop rotations, how many years of fallow should we have, what crops should follow which – all those things come back to the idea that we’re in a water-deficit region. The question is how do we conserve every single drop of water we can so we can make it go toward production of that crop?
Water conservation really fits whether we’re talking about dryland agriculture or irrigated agriculture. Obviously, in an irrigated situation we can put more water on, but because we have a limited underground water resource, we want to make sure that every inch of water that we pump and apply is going to be used as efficiently as possible. When you look at overarching themes for western Kansas, it’s really about water management, water conservation and soil protection.
K-State also has agricultural research and experiment stations in eastern and central Kansas.
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