Panhandle Perspectives: UNL High Plains Agricultural Lab Near Sidney is 50 Years Old

High Plains Ag Lab outdoor sign
Cody Creech and Amanda Easterly at the HPAL office and research building.

Panhandle Perspectives: UNL High Plains Agricultural Lab Near Sidney is 50 Years Old

As the new year begins, the research plots are quiet at the High Plains Ag Laboratory six miles northwest of Sidney. Winter wheat fields are dormant and summer crop fields are awaiting the spring planting season. 

But inside, scientists and support staff are analyzing data, planning for 2021, and doing the other tasks of carrying out research that is aimed at helping crop and livestock producers in this semi-arid region be more efficient, sustainable and profitable. 

The High Plains Ag Lab (HPAL) is operated by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR), under the supervision of IANR’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff, 75 miles to the northwest.  

It was 50 years ago last August that the U.S. Department of Defense deeded more than 2,000 acres of land, previously part of a military munitions depot, to the University of Nebraska to use for research. Since then, HPAL has helped bring about some notable advances in crop and livestock production. It enters its sixth decade with improved and expanded facilities, equipment and capacity, and a new role as the base camp for the Nebraska Variety Testing Program. 

tractor in field
On April 17, 1967, RAD President Ray Cruise and Col. C. Williams drew a symbolic furrow on what had now been named the High Plains Agricultural Laboratory.

HPAL’s 2,410 acres consist of working laboratories for both crops and livestock research: 710 acres for crops, divided into 17 fields, and the remaining approximately 1,700 acres for grazing land, divided into 12 pastures. Two of the crop fields are equipped with lateral-move sprinkler systems to simulate rain.  

A new office-research building was constructed in 2015. Other buildings include a large shop, and several other buildings that remained from HPAL’s previous life as a military ordnance depot. 

The 50th anniversary normally would have been observed during a summer annual field day. But the COVID pandemic intervened to change things in 2020. Instead of hosting group tours of the plots, HPAL created video tours of the research going on at the plots, and posted a virtual field day on the Panhandle Research and Extension Center’s Virtual Field Tours page.  

Research at HPAL is supervised by Cody Creech, dryland cropping systems specialist, who is based at the Panhandle Center in Scottsbluff. The Sidney staff includes Farm Manager Jake Hansen, Research Assistant Professor Amanda Easterly, and research technicians Vern Florke, Bill Struckmeyer, Stephan Geu, and David Blanke, along with several graduate students. 

Other UNL faculty based at the Panhandle Center also conduct research at HPAL in disciplines including soil science, nutrient management, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, weed science, economics, forage and range management, and yearling stocker grazing systems. 

The locally based faculty and staff conduct research in collaboration with Lincoln-based IANR faculty, researchers from other universities, and researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS). Strategic direction is provided the HPAL Advisory Committee of local stakeholders, chaired by Keith Rexroth, a Sidney farmer. 

The office and laboratory building dedicated in 2015 is named for Charles R. Fenster of Gering, in recognition of Fenster's lifetime work as a pioneering UNL cropping systems specialist. Fenster, who retired in 1982 and passed away in 2016, was the first faculty supervisor at HPAL and was instrumental in its establishment. 

2015 article showcases Fenster’s many contributions to agriculture while at HPAL.   

The 2,800-square-foot building provides offices for permanent staff; work stations for students or visiting scientists; a conference room; and space for processing and analyzing seed and plant material. 

In 2019, HPAL became the new home of the Nebraska State Variety Testing Program, led by Creech and Easterly, whose goals are to develop the program into a leader regionally and to leverage new research opportunities. The program includes not only winter wheat, but also spring wheat, corn and grain sorghum. Additional crops will follow in 2021. 

New equipment and technology acquired in recent years will help carry out the variety trials program. A new plot combine makes harvesting quicker, improves data collection, and provides in-cab sampling. HPAL also has new equipment and technology to allow the use of barcodes to streamline data capture, and equipment to test the protein content of grain in-house. The staff constructed a new research drill for planting wheat in 2020. The new implement allows for precision application of seed and fertilizer and is fitted with Global Positioning System.  

Although the university formally acquired HPAL in 1970, the groundwork had been laid nearly a decade earlier by a group of area ag and business leaders who saw the need for a research facility that could address the problems specific to the High Plains. Sidney is not only 350 miles west of UNL’s main campus in Lincoln, it is also about 3,500 feet higher in elevation and receives about half the annual average precipitation. 

The locally based effort that recognized the need and lobbied the University of Nebraska, Nebraska State Legislature, and Department of Defense for support, funding, and the needed land is described in “College of Agriculture of the University of Nebraska Lincoln: The First Century,” a book by Elvin Frolik and Ralston J. Graham published in 1987.   

As Frolik and Graham tell it, the work of the Cheyenne County Rural Area Development (RAD) Committee, largely through its crops committee, was instrumental in getting the Laboratory established. The need for the field laboratory was underscored in 1964, when there was a severe outbreak of black stem rust, wheat streak mosaic, and crown and root rot of wheat in the Panhandle. That year it was announced that the Department of Defense was phasing out the Sioux Army Ordnance Depot. The RAD Committee immediately explored the possibility of utilizing some of the land and facilities for an experiment station.  

The ordnance depot was established during World War II, in 1942, according to a nearby highway marker erected by the Nebraska State Historical Society. The depot’s mission was the receipt, storage, and issue of all types of ammunition from small arms to 10,000-pound bombs, all types of general supplies from small automobile parts to jeeps, and various strategic and critical materials. The depot was a vast facility, occupying 19,771 acres with 801 ammunition storage igloos, 22 general supply warehouses, 392 support buildings, 225 family living quarters, 51 miles of railroad tracks, and 203 miles of roads. It was deactivated in 1967. 

Beginning in 1962, representatives of the RAD committee, along with Extension staff and State Sen. George Fleming, made trips to Lincoln to seek support in establishing a field research laboratory from UNL administration (including Frolik, then University of Nebraska Dean of Agriculture).  

Over the next several years, the Sidney delegation conducted shuttle diplomacy, meeting with UNL administrators, state officials and U.S. Department of Defense brass to provide evidence of the need for an ag lab, arrange to transfer ownership of part of the ordnance depot and convert it to the new use, and provide the funding and other support needed to establish and operate the lab. 

In 1965, the Legislature approved a bill to establish the experiment station and appropriated $100,000 in funding. In 1966, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents applied to the U.S. government for a transfer of land, improvements and equipment. After lengthy negotiations, the government issued an interim use permit for the University to initiate operations. On April 7, 1967, the U.S. government made available to the University of Nebraska 2,410 acres of land, along with 14 round igloos, two warehouse buildings, and one headquarters building, as well as farm equipment, industrial equipment, and tools. 

In 1970, the federal government deeded the land to the university. 

Under Fenster's guidance, a research program was initiated immediately upon the university's obtaining possession of the property. In addition to Fenster, subsequent faculty supervisors have included David Baltensperger, Drew Lyon, and Cody Creech. When the RAD Committee was terminated in 1971, Director John L. Weihing of the Panhandle Station prevailed upon the members to become the advisory group for the HPAL.  

UNL provides the facilities, faculty, staff and equipment to conduct research at HPAL along with support from commodity groups, industry, and others.  

During a given year, crop research at HPAL consists of 25 or more trials, with the primary focus on key regional production issues: integrated management of weeds, diseases and pests in winter wheat and sunflower. The fields allow for eight different crop rotations ranging from two to six years, representing the rotations commonly used in region. Long-term tillage plots established in 1969 compare moldboard plow, sub-tillage, and no-tillage fallow systems. 

HPAL also is a key location for grazing supplementation research. A main focus is integrated crops and livestock systems (especially ways of improving cattle performance with supplements to cool-season grasses, which have less nutrition value late in the summer). Potential strategies include feeding cattle on field peas, planting annual forages in various points in a rotation (replacing dryland crop or fallow, or following a dryland crop). Another livestock research focus is strategic supplementation and marketing strategies for yearlings on grass. 

Over the years, HPAL has played a major role in developing dryland tillage systems such as eco-fallow, stubble mulch, and flexible fallow. Other notable research to come out of the Sidney facility over the past 50 years includes: 

  • Breeding nurseries for winter wheat, millet, sorghum
  • Control of Russian wheat aphid, sunflower insect pests, wheat stem sawfly, wheat curl mite
  • Crop rotations for control of jointed goatgrass, rye, and downy brome
  • Optimum rotations for dryland crops including wheat, proso millet, corn, forages
  • Nutritional supplements for cattle on summer range
  • Cattle production systems from weaning to slaughter and use of locally grown feedstuffs for supplementation.