“If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.”
— Charles Stichler, Texas Cooperative Extension specialist.

Change comes sometimes grudgingly to agriculture and rarely without stress. Institutional change moves at an even slower pace and with heightened potential for stressful transitions.

The Texas Cooperative Extension Service is undergoing such a change.

“It's not that the model we've followed for years hasn't been working,” says Rebecca Parker, Extension director for the East Region. “But we see an opportunity to take something good and make it better.”

Parker, who works out of the Dallas Research and Extension Center, says the current symbiotic relationship between Land Grant universities' Research and Extension branches, which use the county agent system to transfer data from experiment stations to farmers, will continue as it has for more than 100 years. Recent funding cuts from federal, state and county governments, however, limit the amount of research experiment stations can accomplish and restrict the amount of information the county agent can deliver. “Cutbacks in personnel and loss of resources at experiment stations add to the problem,” Parker says.

“Agriculture faces a time of changing needs and new challenges. Research centers do a super job and the county agents do a super job of disseminating information. But we need a fresh approach to anticipate production needs and speed the process of getting information to producers. Farmers need more applied research.”

Pilot program

Parker is helping institute a pilot program throughout a 66-county region that will put the County Extension agent on the frontline of applied research. “This is not that big a change,” she says. “County agents already do a lot of research but if we are going to take the next step in improvement, applied research demands more structure in project design and a more thorough process for collecting and analyzing data than do variety and product trials. Parker says a research project includes replication so that results are more scientifically valid and reproducible across counties and the state.

“We hope to develop research projects that provide useful information not only to local farmers but also to farmers in other parts of the state and perhaps across the nation,” Parker says. “We're dedicated to making a good system great.”

Some agents in the East Region will work with the Texas A&M University-Commerce College of Agriculture, located about an hour's drive from the Dallas Research and Extension Center. “We also can call on resources here and from College Station,” Parker says.

She says having a team of experienced agricultural scientists and resources as close as Commerce will help county agents in the region develop and implement applied research projects.

“We have a team in place to help with project design and to provide equipment, technicians and industry contacts. I believe this initiative makes our system more effective and more efficient.”

The new initiative provides a challenge for Extension Service statewide, Parker says. “The East Region is the first to develop the team model approach and is likely to be the first successfully integrated into the system.”

“This initiative proposal is part of our statewide organizational excellence restructuring mission,” Says Ed Smith, associate director of the Texas A&M Agriculture and Natural Resources Department at College Station.

“We will continue to work with our own specialists, but when we have agricultural assets at universities such as Texas A&M-Commerce, we can expand projects to meet the needs of local farmers,” Smith says. “This initiative allows Extension to identify needs in an area and capitalize on available resources.”

Agents in lead

“The county agents are leading the charge,” Parker says.

Lynn Golden, Red River County Agent, says his farmers need more information on soybean variety selection. “We need to evaluate maturity ratings between 4.6 and 4.9,” he says. “We also need to look at plant populations and we want to identify a good Roundup Ready variety for our area.”

Soybeans provide a reliable crop option for Red River County farmers, Golden says, and he hopes to develop research projects that enhance profit potential. Red River farmers also plant corn, wheat and cotton.

“I love this program,” says Harry Moore, a Red River County soybean, corn and wheat farmer. Harry and his son Jeff are making one of their fields available to Golden this spring for a soybean variety research plot.

“We want to see what a number of varieties will do under our conditions,” Jeff says.

“We've grown some of these varieties before,” says Harry, “but some are new and we want to see how they do.”

“We've done variety trials before,” Golden says, “but these plots will be replicated so we can collect more detailed data.”

Harry says he's particularly interested to see how some of the newer roundup Ready varieties perform in this Northeast Texas county. “When Roundup Ready varieties first came along, seven or eight years ago, most were old varieties and not necessarily the best suited to our conditions. Now, we have better choices and we want to see which ones to discard.”

“With soybean prices up, if we can get just a one or two bushel per acre increase, we've increased profit potential significantly,” Jeff says. “Over 1,000 acres, that little increase means a lot.”

“We'll probably see a bigger range of yields than one or two bushel,” Golden says.

Compost, silage value

Wayne Becker, agent in Cook County, says his farmers need information on compost and increasing silage nutritional value.

“We could use more data on milo, too. That's the biggest field crop in the county.”

He says farmers produce silage for dairies and beef cattle. “We grow a lot of forages for cattle and horses. Wheat is also big.”

Don Reid, professor and agronomist at Texas A&M-Commerce, says milo research poses some tough challenges because yields do not change much. “The key is always rainfall,” he says. “Possible research options include nutritional value of milo silage and effect of drought on pollination. Phosphate demand also could be an issue.”

Galen Logan, Camp County, says chicken litter management, especially for phosphate dispersal, tops the research priority list for his growers and ranchers. He says the area's poultry industry faces a significant challenge to manage chicken litter. “We've thought about pelletizing it and shipping it out as an added-value product,” he says. “We've also been studying phosphate leaching.”

“We have a lot of corn and also a lot of wheat in Fannin County,” says agent Rick Maxwell (Maxwell is now Collin County agent.) “I check with my grower advisory council to see what they need.”

Stake in projects

That grower committee holds the key to applied research projects. Farmers and ranchers maintain a stake in the projects. Farmer/cooperators will be critical because county agents need field sites for research plots. Many growers have participated in demonstration trials before but applied research requires more attention to detail to make certain results are meaningful.

Reid suggests each agent procure access to a digital camera to document research progress from start to finish.

Pat Bagley, head, Department of Agricultural Sciences, Texas A&M-Commerce, says the initiative provides an interesting and unique concept for agricultural research.

“The program will be producer driven,” he says. “They provide the priorities and their input goes to the county agent and up the line from there. And the Extension agent will be encouraged and empowered to do applied research that his farmers need.”

Bagley says A&M-Commerce will use its resources to design projects and provide some personnel and equipment.

“This is an opportunity to put Extension on an even higher level of credibility,” Bagley says. “We'd also like to be another central clearing house to provide information and contacts. This will offer industry an ideal venue to test products.”

Bagley says farmers will have faster access to information through applied research. “They get almost immediate feedback from these projects,” he says. “That can be a crucial factor. In many cases, they'll use the information the next growing season.”

At one location

Texas Extension integrated pest management specialist Jim Swart, who works from the Texas A&M-Commerce campus, says the industry contacts he and other research and Extension scientists have developed will be important resources to county agents as they set up projects. He says staff at Commerce can help design the projects and then work with seed, equipment, and crop protection companies to gather materials in bulk at one location instead of having industry ship to 66 counties.

“That makes it easier for industry,” Swart says. “And we can put seeds into proper planting lots and get them out to the agents along with the required planting equipment.”

Bagley says the initiative provides a good opportunity for Texas A&M-Commerce agriculture students. “They will gain valuable experience by working with county agents on applied research projects,” he says.

County agents also get an added benefit. For some, tuition costs for graduate work will be reduced. And the projects they select may fulfill part of their research requirements for a thesis and an advanced degree.