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Panhandle Research and Extension Center established

A view of crop research plots at the Scottsbluff Experimental Substation circa 1911. The man in the foreground is believed to be James Holden, who would go on to be the substation superintendent in 1917. Buildings in the background (from left) include the mess house, the superintendent’s residence, the bunk house, and dryland assistant’s residence, the office and seed house, the machine shed, and the barn. Photo courtesy UNL Extension

Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist

Panhandle R&E Center, Scottsbluff

In an article in December, I told the story of the beginnings and expansion of Extension plant pathology at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center (PHREC). Many people are not aware of the Panhandle Center’s provenance in Scottsbluff nor its original purpose.

This article will relate how the center itself was initially created and how it has evolved over the 110 years of its existence. In February I will summarize the genesis of plant pathology research at PHREC and the personnel involved in its development and progression up to the present.

The PHREC is born

After a destructive drought struck western Nebraska during the late 1880s and remained into the early 1890s, it was recognized that new methods of farming were now required for optimal success in this arid environment, particularly with irrigation. Interest in irrigation increased with the passage of the Reclamation Act of 1902 that was intended to insure a reliable source of irrigation water, electricity, and flood control. It additionally authorized the construction of dams, canals, and reservoirs on the North Platte River, for use in agriculture in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska.

The PHREC formally began on April 3, 1909, after the Nebraska Legislature passed HR 18, which provided the establishment of a substation to be located west of the 102nd Meridian. The U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management removed 160 acres of unclaimed land from the Public Domain on June 17, 1909, to be used for initiating a substation in western Nebraska.

The site selected was the SE ¼ of Section 21, Township 23, Range 55, located in Scotts Bluff County about 6 miles east of Mitchell and 7 miles northwest of Scottsbluff, and was initially referred to as the Scottsbluff Experimental Substation.

The Bureau of Reclamation granted the land to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which was tasked with managing the Substation. The Bureau additionally donated $5,000 and the University of Nebraska supplied another $2,000 for improvements with the understanding that both the USDA and the University would provide the needed funding for any future renovations.

This Memorandum of Understanding was activated between the three parties (USDA, UNL, and the Bureau of Reclamation) on March 10, 1910, and the Substation was organized in that same year, commissioned with the primary mission of conducting research related to irrigated agriculture and farming problems unique to that area. Sod was broken out in the fall of 1910 and seeded to oats the following spring.

In 1911, an additional 800 acres of land was given to the Substation at no cost by the Bureau of Reclamation. This land was referred to as the University Pasture Area, located in Sioux County, about 6 miles north and 3 miles east of Mitchell. It is now called the Panhandle Experimental Range.

The Early Years (1912-1934)

The first major topic of research at the Substation was crop rotation, and an extensive series of rotation experiments were begun and conducted under both irrigation and dryland conditions. Thirty-one different rotations were started in the spring of 1912. Three more were added in 1920 and the length of the rotations varied from continuous cropping to seven years. Livestock was included in many of these rotation experiments as well.

These projects targeted the establishment of optimal crop sequences and identifying those crops best suited for that environment. Two of the more interesting crops evaluated included sunflowers for silage and sugar cane. As a result of these studies, it was discovered that spring wheat and flax were two crops that would not work well or provide any potential economic return for producers in western Nebraska.

Selected studies conducted at the substation during this period, in addition to the rotation experiments, included: manuring of sugar beets; varietal trials of grain and vegetable crops; irrigation projects that measured water needs for crops at certain growth stages and soil depths at which moisture was obtained; daily climatological records; and livestock investigations such as lamb feeding, hogs on alfalfa pastures, and values of sweet clover on dairy cows.

Over this 20-year period, the Substation was operated as a USDA-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Center with little to no cooperative projects with University of Nebraska staff until after 1934. Up to that time the station superintendents Fritz Knorr (1910-16) and James Holden (1917-34) answered to and sent their annual reports to the USDA. They were indifferent to the University, showing no interest in collaborating with professors and specialists of the College of Agriculture.

Activity in plant pathology began slowly at the Substation after the formation of the Department of Plant Pathology in 1920. In fact, Robert Goss, one of the first two faculty members of the department, became very frustrated in the 1920s with failing to work successfully with Holden at the Substation. He eventually gave up and began working with potato diseases at a newly established experimental farm near Alliance in Box Butte County. He investigated new root and tuber diseases of potatoes as well as some of the first virus studies in the U.S.

–UNL Extension


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