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It takes a community

By Staff | Apr 17, 2015

-Farm News file photo CHAD HUFFMAN, left, and Josh Sievers remove the lid from one of the tile collection sumps in this 2013 photo. They monitor the amount of tile water coming from a 40-acre area, as well as the content nutrient load. In 2015, they’ll be working on more than 40 crop research projects.


SUTHERLAND – How many people does it take to conduct more than 40 cropping experiments, including drone technology in 2015?

Three people, plus a community and Iowa State University.

The Northwest Research and Demonstration Farm employs two full-time staffers to plant, care for, track and record the growth, health, diseases, nutrient uptakes and other measures of crops planted on the farm’s 32 plots, each sized at 160-by-225 feet, or 0.28 acres each, on the 280-acre research facility.

Farm Superintendent Josh Sievers and Chad Huffman, an agricultural specialist, will get help from a third staffer this year for the first time.

-Farm News photos by Michele Linck JOSH SIEVERS, left, superintendent of the Northwest Research and Demonstration Farm in Sutherland, and agricultural specialist Chad Huffman assemble a drone that they will use to look for problems with crops on the 252-acres of test plots they oversee and on area farms. Sievers said that sometimes disease or nutrient problems can be detected earlier from an overhead view of a plot and reversed before the plants are beyond saving.

They’ll need the extra hand, Sievers and Huffman said, with more than 40 research projects planned, on and off the test farm.

In fact, Sievers does much of his research on large, cooperating farms in order to help farmers identify problems.

This work compares the research farm’s results with those seen on a typical, large-scale operation.

The farm’s mission is to provide local research regarding the soil, seed and best practices for the local conditions.

The facility was founded in 1954 by the Northwest Iowa Experimental Association, area farmers who thought the data coming out of test plots at Iowa State University, in Ames, did not necessarily apply to their soil and weather conditions in Northwest Iowa.

CHAD HUFFMAN, agricultural specialist with the Northwest Iowa Experimental Association Farm, near Sutherland, shows a newly acquired eBee drone by SenseFly that will be used to take aerial photos for the farm’s research.

They founded the association to initiate local research.

ISU pays the staff wages and offers various consulting supports. But the farm is still owned and managed by the private board established 61 years ago, Sievers said.

The board continues to look to the future and how it can improve yields for its members.

30-inch rows?

While corn rows today are typically 20-inches wide, another experiment this year will study how 30-inch rows would fare in the rich Northwest Iowa soil and weather conditions.

“The question is, should we move to a bigger row?” Sievers said.

It’s a big project to pull off, he said, requiring a wider planter with differently spaced tires and, perhaps a different combine or trailer wagon.

The NIEA board is supporting the research and local businesses are pitching in to help with the costly machinery needed to do the research, Sievers said.

Although it gets support from the board and ISU, the farm is well-supported by local businesses, Sievers said.

The community will supply chemicals, use of special equipment, farm supplies and other goods and services when an unforeseen need arises, but will also with a planned study during the growing season, Sievers said.

“We rely on our partners’ donations,” he said.

Drone data

To that end, the NIEA board recently invested $27,000 in an eBee SenseFly drone and its compatible camera and software.

The eyes-in-the-sky will be used to observe and research crop growth from the air.

Made mostly of Styrofoam, the eBee weighs next to nothing – but is expected to return from flight with a rich batch of data.

“The adrenaline rush is when you land it,” said Sievers, who is not yet an experienced drone pilot.

“What we hope to do is to have plots with no fungicide, no insecticide, no tillage,” he said. “Are there different wavelengths that come back?

“If a shot (picture) shows yellow, does it send signals? And, can it see that before our eyes see it?

“Those are some of the questions the drone may answer.”

Is this something every farmer should have?

“Like yield monitors,” Sievers said, “guys would say, ‘I know where my good acres are.'”

So, in a word, no.

“Our goal is to learn more about what we’re seeing: a deficiency of nutrients? “A concentration of disease? An insect infestation?” he said.

The drone is expected to provide data coming from a two-year water quality study that uses 31,000 feet of tile to test water from all 32 experimental plots, which should show the results of different nitrogen management practices.

“It’s meant to keep nitrogen from converting from ammonium to ammonia,” Sievers said.

The team will also study the impact on anhydrous ammonia that is applied in the spring below 50 degrees.

A third study will see what happens to nitrogen applied in-furrow to supplement late-season plant nutrition.

A fourth study will be the control plot, which will receive no nitrogen at any time.


In addition to the 40 or more research projects, they’ll host dozens of school field trips, field days and educational open houses.

Sievers said he likes to have sixth-graders shucking ears of corn by hand, a thumb-blistering job. After they try to clean a cob, he tells them that a combine can shuck six ears each second.

Every sixth-grader in O’Brien County – about 400 students – takes a field trip to the research farm each year. Other students get classroom visits from Sievers.

“We have popcorn we take into the classroom, and popcorn we buy at the store,” Sievers said.

He pops 100 kernels of each kind and has the students measure the volume of each and compare the two.

“It makes the connection between the farm and the store-bought,” he said. “Not all the kids are farm kids.”

The farm hosts an annual field day, open to the public. This year it’s on July 8.

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