Research & Demos

Demonstration Projects

The Central Platte NRD uses demonstration projects to provide producers, landowners, and the public with research on new practices and irrigation technologies to improve water quality and soil health. Over 400 projects have been implemented on cooperators' fields since 1984.

Demonstration projects are used to evaluate results, teach new methods, and implement new and innovative practices.  The research conducted in demonstration projects shows the application of new technologies and practices by adapting them to local conditions.        


Nitrogen and Irrigation Management Demonstration Project

The Nitrogen and Irrigation Management Demonstration Project, implemented in 1984, is one of the longest-existing demonstration projects in Nebraska and possibly the nation. Other state and national projects have been modeled from this educational project. The Project was initiated following the Hall County Water Quality Special Project to show that new practices that impede nitrogen fertilizer from leaching into the aquifer are successful. Farmers with varying soils and conditions are recruited to work with UNL and CPNRD to use best management practices to demonstrate that nitrates can be managed efficiently and effectively while maintaining crop yields. The Platte Valley Project included areas where nitrate-N concentrations were in excess of 40 ppm; due to a combination of coarse textured soil, shallow groundwater, intense irrigation and over-application of fertilizer.

Over 400 demonstration sites have been located on producers' cornfields where randomized levels of Nitrogen were applied in increments of 50 pounds above and 50 pounds below the calculated recommendation based on the UNL algorithm. These plots provided over 290 field days/meetings. Research on field length, producer applied/producer harvested plots, were instrumental in the adoption of practices by producers. A producer survey conducted in 1997 showed that 54% tested irrigation water for nitrates, 34% used a nitrification inhibitor, and 70% attended a tour or meeting on best management practices to protect water quality.

The project emphasis changed over the years as new technology become available to the ag sector. CPNRD’s cost-share programs are modified to accommodate new techniques and equipment to help with better management practices. Initially, emphasis was given to reducing fertilizer input by counting contribution from residual sources; however, the leaching problem has two components: fertilizer and water. Reducing water applied produces less leaching than just reduction of fertilizer inputs. Monitoring water usage is mandatory in Phases II/III, since research indicated that most farmers didn’t know the amount of water used during irrigation. Newest technologies used include ET gages, watermark sensors to schedule irrigation, soil moisture capacitance probes, polymer material, slow and controlled release Nitrogen products, and cover crops in seed corn. Extension and demonstration efforts in areas of irrigation management have also been a part of the project. Field days and articles educate producers on results of the demonstrations and on best management practices

Crop Irrigation & Demand Network

Started in 2013, this program receives data collected by telemetry to provide a vast amount of real-time data by monitoring different types of irrigation systems. CPNRD is able to view water usage and soil moisture from fields where producers installed telemetry equipment. Participants may check their GPM used, inches applied per day and throughout the season, and soil moisture readings. The amount of water pumped and precipitation are measured to provide data to develop irrigation efficiencies by equipment type, soil water holding capacities and crop type. The program was initiated by CPNRD in 2013 with $60,000 budgeted for the project and expanded by a $750,000 NeDNR grant in 2014. There are 77 sites across the District-11 sites in 2013, 30 sites in 2014; and 36 sites in 2015. The project’s goal was There are currently 52 pivots, 18 gravity and 7 sites. Water pumped, system pressure, and rainfall are monitored at all locations, with soil moisture monitored at 30 locations. Partners include CPNRD, NeDNR, Nebraska Extension, Seim Ag Technology, and McCrometer.

Cover Crops

Producers are working with UNL Extension/CPNRD to research effects of cover crops on soil health. Field days are held annually to show crop mixes planted on different dates and to compare aboveground biomass with below ground; as well as best mixes for grazing. Research includes whether compaction and infiltration are impacted, how biological activity and organic matter are affected, which mixes provide the highest quality forage for grazing, and how much crop usable nitrogen can be expected. Partners include UNL, NRCS, CPNRD, Arrow Seed, Green Cover
Seed & O’Hanlon Seed Inc.

Understanding Cover Crops

Weed Suppression: the best way to suppress weeds is with a highly competitive crop that can form a canopy quickly and shade weeds out. Summer annual crops that can form tight, dense canopies and will often outgrow many weeds include sorghum-sudan, forage sorghums, pearl millet, okra, sunflowers, buckwheat, and cowpeas. A mixture of cover crops tends to be more competitive than a monoculture. For example, sunn hemp, although it grows rapidly and gets tall, does not form a dense canopy by itself. Cowpeas can form a dense canopy but do not get tall by themselves. But a combination of sunn hemp and cowpeas allows the viny cowpeas to use the sunn hemp as a trellis, and the cowpeas fill in the gaps between the sunn hemp plants to form a very effective weed suppressing canopy. It may also be helpful to have a mix that can tolerate a herbicide if it comes to that; in that case, you need tolerance to a herbicide that is effective against your target weed. For example, if your target weed is Palmer amaranth, you may want to plant a crop that is tolerant to atrazine or metolachlor used pre-emergence, or 2,4-D postemergence, assuming your weed population is not already resistant to those herbicides.  If your target weed is Johnsongrass, grassy sandbur or some other grass, you may want a mix of legumes and broadleaves that allow the spraying of clethodim over the top. If you are waiting to plant until late July or early August, then a combination of both summer annual plants and cool-season plants can be used. Brassicas like turnips, radishes, mustard, and collards are effective at suppressing weeds, and cereal grains like oats and spring barley can suppress winter annual weeds like henbit and marestail from establishing this fall.

If your goal is to reduce weed issues in next year’s crop, then that changes things as well. Cereal rye planted in the late summer or early fall as part of a mix is one of the best weed-suppressing crops if the next crop will be a legume crop like soybeans, as it aggressively ties up nitrogen which leaves none for weeds to use. Soybeans don’t mind, they just fix their own nitrogen. If the next crop is a nitrogen demanding crop like corn, a winter legume like hairy vetch can be used to both produce nitrogen and suppress weeds. Although vetch makes nitrogen when it is terminated the nitrogen is in the form of protein and must be decayed before it is available to either crop or weeds. You can place a little nitrogen in the furrow where the crop can reach it and the weeds can’t to keep the crop well-nourished until the vetch begins to decay. Both rye and vetch can form a thick mulch that can help suppress small-seeded weeds like Palmer amaranth from being able to get to sunlight after germination before they run out of energy. Both rye and vetch contain chemical compounds that stunt weed growth.

Nitrogen Fixation: is best accomplished with a cover crop mix dominated by legumes. The best summer annual nitrogen fixer is sunn hemp, followed by cowpeas, forage soybeans, mung beans, and guar. Again, mixtures are capable of fixing more nitrogen than monocultures in many cases, we recommend mixes containing sunn hemp and cowpea combination for summer nitrogen production as it will produce more nitrogen than a monoculture of either species alone.  If you are planting later, as in August, then both cool-season and warm-season legumes are viable. Cool-season legumes include ones that will winterkill in most areas (spring peas, chickling vetch, spring lentils, faba beans, woollypod vetch, common vetch) and ones that will potentially overwinter in the north (balansa clover, hairy vetch, winter lentils) and in the south (crimson clover, arrowleaf clover, woolypod vetch, winter peas). An additional possibility for added nitrogen fixation, particularly if you are using a mixture with non-legume components such as sorghum-sudangrass, is to inoculate with our Bi-Azo inoculant, which is capable of fixing a small amount of nitrogen in the rhizosphere of non-leguminous crops.

Building Soil Organic Matter: as we learn more about how soil organic matter is formed, we are realizing the most important contributor to soil organic matter is the root exudates a plant produces, not the aboveground plant growth. Therefore, the best bet is to produce more days of more exudates, of a diversity of species and plant families, along with as much aboveground biomass as possible. Diversity of plant families makes a more nutritious diet for the microbes that build organic matter, as some species have root exudates high in sugar, others high in protein, others high in lipids, others high in minerals; when combined, it makes a more balanced diet than a monoculture. In general, since the production of root exudates depend on the level of photosynthesis, the more biomass a plant produces, the higher the root exudates. Probably the best single plant for producing organic matter is sorghum-sudangrass, as it produces copious amounts of both root exudates and aboveground biomass.  Sunn hemp is probably the best legume. Sunflowers are one of the better non-leguminous forbs. Mixtures with these plants are better than a monoculture of the best single one. Rye, triticale, black oats, and annual ryegrass are some of the better cool-season plants. Another key to building soil organic matter is to have as many days of photosynthesis as possible; thus, even though sorghum-sudangrass is great, it will be done at first frostIf you really want to build organic matter, plant a sorghum-sudan dominated mixture as early as possible, then mow or roll it down in late August and drill a cool-season blend with a high percentage of rye or triticale with annual ryegrass in it, without terminating the summer annuals. This will provide a relay of high root exudate production clear through next spring.  Another consideration; if you really, really, really want to build organic matter, then inoculate your first planting with mycorrhizal fungi. The glomalin produced by the mycorrhizal hyphae is the most persistent form of organic matter known and does wonders for the soil.

Provide Grazing after Nov 1: since the prevent plant program allows grazing after November 1, you may want to plant a mixture that has high grazing value at that time. As far as summer annuals go, the best plant for stockpiled winter grazing is probably a sorghum that does not head out. Grain production can be a liability, in that if grazing is not regulated with daily moves of portable fencing, the animals can be subject to acidosis from excess grain consumption. If rationed out with portable fencing on a daily move schedule, a little grain can be desirable.  Non-heading sorghums can be one of three types: 1) a photoperiod sensitive that will not initiate a head until after daylength drops below 12 hours and 20 minutes in September, such as our Sweet Forever, or 2) a male sterile product, such as our 400 BMR, with no other pollen producing sorghums in the mix or 3) a long maturity product, especially if planting after July 1 north of I-40 or so, such as our Super Sugar DM (conventional) or Silo-pro (BMR).  Another summer annual grass that retains good grazing quality into fall is browntop millet. Summer annual legumes that tend to hold their seeds in the pod after frost to act as a protein supplement include mung beans and guar; sunflower also tends to hold onto its high protein, high oil seeds well into the fall. Stockpiled forage sorghum, especially a BMR, has fair grazing quality in winter but is best suited for a maintenance diet for brood cows rather than growing animals with high expectations of gain.  One other option might be to swath the crop (check to see if this is allowed) and leaves the swath in the field for post frost grazing; in this case, just about any sorghum variety will work well. Swathing also allows the drilling of cool-season species after swathing. A final option: spraying a sorghum crop with 2,4-D close to seedhead emergence can sterilize the flowers so no grain is produced. This might be an option is nonheading sorghum varieties are in short supply, and swathing is not allowed. If planting in August, then very few sorghum varieties will produce grain, but can still provide considerable dry matter before frost, but should be blended with cool-season plants for better grazing quality. Most cool-season, August-planted cover crops provide excellent November grazing. The highest yields of fall grazing will come from cool-season spring cereals (spring oats, black oats, spring barley, and spring triticale) and spring pulses (chickling vetch, spring forage peas, spring lentils) along with brassicas such as collards, turnips, rapeseed, and radishes.  Cereals and legumes that overwinter provide less fall grazing but can provide spring grazing and/or spring cover and weed suppression, examples include rye, triticale, winter barley, annual ryegrass for grasses, and crimson clover, hairy vetch, and balansa clover for legumes.

Preventing Erosion, then let us know, and we can design a mix for that purpose as well. We have some items that are very inexpensive on a per acre basis, such as sunflowers, rapeseed, a blend of conventional forage sorghums, and our remix biological primer. We also have an occasional “fire sale” on items that may be in danger of losing their germ and we want to get them in the ground before they do so. If your goal is “cheap”, just let us know. These items can also provide grazing as well as many of these other goals we have listed, but likely not as well as a mix designed expressly for that purpose.

YOUR CPNRD CONTACT:  Dean Krull (402) 469-0155 or dkrull1@unl.edu

CPNRD/Lower Loup NRD Groundwater Impact Study

In 2017, LLNRD/CPNRD hired EA Engineering to conduct a four-year study to determine impacts on groundwater due to cover crop management.  The NRDs will split the cost of the project and are seeking assistance to identify and develop grant applications to aid in funding the study. The Lower Loup Basin and Central Platte River Basin have diverse soil types and cropping practices that can affect both water quantity and water quality. The study will determine the general influence of cover crops on soil moisture, groundwater recharge, and nitrogen movement in the soil in the area between South Loup River and Wood River with groundwater declines. It will include both irrigated and dryland cropped fields and span multiple years.  Landowner ID, mobilization, and installation of field equipment were completed in 2017, with the final report available in 2021.  In May 2019, an MOU was approved with LLNRD for a three-year cover crop study in Sub-Area 9 of the Program to determine the amount of water required to grow cover crops.

Project SENSE

UNL’s Project SENSE (Sensors for Efficient Nitrogen Use & Stewardship of the Environment) pilot program promotes in-season nitrogen fertilization for corn to improve efficiency of N fertilizer applications with canopy sensors. Other participants: Upper Big Blue, Lower Platte South, Lower Platte North, Lower Loup NRDs, NRCS, and Nebraska Corn Board. Results show the use of crop canopy sensors for in-season Nitrogen applications from 2015-2017 resulted in an average profit increase of $13.21/acre. Nitrogen rates were 20% less than comparable grower practices with an average yield reduction of 2.6 bu/ac (1% less than grower yield.)

Testing Agriculture Performance Solutions (TAPS)

CPNRD began funding the TAPS program in the amount of $1,000 annually since 2018. TAP’s teams work together to find solutions through innovation, entrepreneurialism, technology, improved techniques and cutting-edge methodologies for farms to maintain profitability, sustainability, and productivity.  To learn more about TAPS visit https://taps.unl.edu/.

On-Farm Fertigation Research

In 2018, the On-Farm Fertigation (OFF) Research project was initiated on one field to assist producers with the timing of nitrogen and insecticide applications with nitrogen application being the focus. The Project expanded to two fields in 2019 and has taken steps towards fertigation research utilizing the use of sensors and drone imagery to improve nitrogen fertilization timing to improve applications for efficiency.

Research Results

YOUR CPNRD CONTACT:  Dean Krull (402) 469-0155 or dkrull1@unl.edu