Panhandle Weed Scientist Bob Wilson Retires

Panhandle Weed Scientist Bob Wilson Retires

He has seen it all from major advances in herbicides to more integrated weed management strategies

Balance is one of the guiding principles for Robert Wilson, who is retiring at the end of December after almost 40 years as weed specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff.

UNL Weed Scientist Robert WIlson
UNL Weed Specialist Robert Wilson speaks during a recent field day in one of his weed-control plots at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff.


Wilson believes in a balanced program on weed control, one that takes into account

  • how weeds develop and grow;
  • cropping practices and how they affect weeds; and
  • control methods (mechanical, chemical, and biological).

These are integrated into an economic package that is useful to agricultural producers.

Wilson is a scientist, but he said it's the human element that has made his career fulfilling.

"What's kept me going has been working with the people in the area. There's a great group of people: fun people to work with here at the center, commodity boards, and growers."

Wilson has seen a few changes in 40 years. For most of that time, he said, the ag chemical industry was changing and expanding. When Wilson started out, there were five herbicides labeled for use on corn. Now there are about 30.

"Every year, something is changing. Producers have relied on UNL to provide unbiased information about the changes and chemical performance."

But in recent years, Wilson has seen another shift in the industry, away from new herbicides. No new herbicides with new modes of action have been introduced to the market in the past few years.

Over the next 10 years Wilson expects herbicides will still be important to weed control, but he expects the emphasis to shift away from chemicals and toward cultural practices.

Wilson's career choice was influenced by his father, a county extension agent for many years in Nemaha County in southeast Nebraska.

"When I graduated from high school, I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. Dad took me to Lincoln to visit UNL, and by the time I left I was enrolled in agronomy," he said. "That was probably one of the nicest things he could have done — a gentle nudge into an area he thought I'd enjoy. I appreciate what he did."

His college advisor was weed scientist Orvin Burnside, who pointed him toward Monsanto's Junior Executive internship program, which placed agronomy students in crop production positions. Wilson participated in the program for two summers. At that time, in the late 1960s, Wilson said a lot of discoveries were being made in chemical weed control, with new chemicals being developed all the time.

Wilson earned a master's degree at UNL and went to Washington State University for his Ph.D, where he worked on a project to examine how herbicides break down in the soil.

It was his father's influence, again, that steered him toward the Nebraska Panhandle for a job after he received his doctorate. His father had a good relationship with then Panhandle Station Director John Weihing, who had been the state plant pathologist. His father also knew Charles Fenster, who had a lengthy and distinguished career as dryland cropping systems specialist in the Panhandle.

Wilson was hired in 1975, at about the same time as four other specialists at the Panhandle Station, including Dean Yonts, who served almost four decades as irrigation specialist before his death in 2012.

Wilson said the group hire really fostered a team approach, and he sees a similar scenario right now as the Panhandle Center is in the process of hiring three new faculty members with the possibility of a couple more within the next year or so: "There are new people, and it's an exciting period for developing friendships and creating teams."

"It's good for the station," he said. "Agriculture is changing, and it requires new ideas."

In his four decades of research and extension work, Wilson recalled a number of his projects that have had an impact:

  • Understanding weed seeds, including how they move in water and their viability in the soil.
  • Studying the effect of cropping practices on weed seed germination.
  • Battling Canada Thistle. Wilson said we now understand how it grows and winters, and how to use those biological factors and chemicals to control the noxious weed.
  • Improving weed control in sugarbeets and dry edible beans. When Wilsons started, there was one herbicide labeled for use in each crop, and farmers mold-board plowed and incorporated herbicides before planting. Now there are more chemical options, less tillage, and a more integrated approach to weed control.
  • Learning about weed control in riparian areas, including the effects of invasive species on water movement and the productivity of riparian areas.
  • Discovering that planting competitive grasses will suppress some weed problems.

Society seems to prefer a shift away from chemical weed control, according to Wilson.

"I expect more pressure from the public to move away from chemicals," he said. More biological products are likely to become available, such as a biological pathogen that kills weed seeds, but not the crop.

Another change observed by Wilson is the way agricultural research is funded. The main funding source has shifted to chemical companies, as federal and state funding has declined.

Wilson stressed that funding directs research. "You hope the researcher has the integrity not let funding warp the research results."

He said a new way of funding research is needed. The current federal government plan is designed to support basic research, which doesn't address the practical problems facing farmers, communities and the public.

One of the best funding sources is agricultural commodity boards that direct the spending of commodity checkoff revenues for research and marketing programs, Wilson said. They provide an industry connection, input, and direction for research. Commodity board research programs provide a research foundation that can be built on as industry needs change.

After retiring, Wilson plans to stay active in some way. As long as his mind stays active, he said he might contribute through consulting work with dry beans, sugarbeets or alfalfa. Special projects might arise, or he might work on literature or theories for the future. He might conduct research.

Wilson also is interested in carrying on work he has begun in developing food plots for wildlife. And of course, relaxing with his wife and grandchildren while enjoying the Panhandle and nearby areas will be a priority.

David Ostdiek, Communications Associate
Panhandle Research and Extension Center

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