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Though tractor technology has changed rapidly, the testing techniques used on the machines have not changed in several decades, said Santosh Pitla, project lead and assistant professor in biological systems engineering.

“Research in precision agriculture often focuses on agronomy, but there has not been as much focus on the power houses, or tractors,” Pitla said. “Tractors are a primary power source for operations, and they rely heavily on fuel and energy efficiency.”

Tractors play an important role in precision agriculture, which is seen as one of the primary ways to provide food, fiber and fuel for a growing population. This project will assess three different types of power — power takeoff, hydraulic and drawbar — used by tractors to pull implements such as planters, field cultivators or ammonia applicators.

Older implements would use only one type of power at a time, but today’s modern implements use a combination of PTO, hydraulic and drawbar power simultaneously. Because current tractor testing looks only at the drawbar, the research project will focus on implementing mixed mode testing so all three powers can be evaluated at the same time.

“The biggest opportunity for improved tractor-testing techniques in this area is in fuel efficiency,” Pitla said. “It’s about matching the right tractor to the right implement. Right now, tractors are oversized for some of the implements they are pulling, so they are wasting a lot of energy.”

The research will occur at the university’s Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center near Mead and at the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory. The tractor test lab is the officially designated testing station for the United States and gauges tractors according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development codes. The long, oval track on East Campus has completed more than 2,000 tractor tests since 1920.

“The university is uniquely positioned to conduct this research because of our Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory,” Pitla said. “We’re the only facility of our kind capable of testing the largest tractors, and the only facility in the Western Hemisphere.”

For this project, instrumentation such as sensors and data-logging devices will be placed on the tractors pulling an implement. The instrumentation will help the researchers gather fuel-rate, engine-load and hydraulic-power data. Using this data, the researchers will assess what kind of power is needed for different implements.

The data collected from the mixed-mode testing could support manufacturers in their efforts to design more efficient engines. According to Pitla, the research will not be specific to one company and could easily be adopted across the tractor industry.

This project is funded by a four-year, $472,887 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

Others researchers involved include: Roger Hoy, director of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory; Joe Luck, associate professor in biological systems engineering; and Rodney Rohrer, research engineer at the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory.

One-quarter to one-third of confection sunflower yields are due to pollination from bees, and sometimes the benefit might be greater.

This is one of the conclusions of a just-concluded two-year research project involving Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota.

The study also concluded that there are two ways to ensure or improve bee pollination of sunflowers. One is selecting plant traits that will bring more bees to visit, such as the physical characteristics of florets (floret depth, for example). “This is an area we are currently pursuing,” the authors write. “We hope to provide genetic markers for bee-related plant traits and information on potential trade-offs.”

The other way is to change the pollinators – which could include creating nesting habitat, rearing pollinators, or breeding domesticated bees to prefer sunflowers. Some of the pollinator changes could be costly and complex, the paper acknowledges.

“This type of research could be pursued in the future, but would likely depend on finding a person with very specific experience and expertise, as the time and effort required would be substantial,” according to the authors.

Jeff Bradshaw, Extension Entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Research and Extension Center, was one of the article authors and co-principal investigators in the study. The other authors are Jarrad Prasifka of U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, Fargo, N.D.; Rachel Mallinger of the University of Florida; and Adam Varenhorst of South Dakota State University.

Bradshaw said new data from the study shows hope that sunflower breeders can breed new lines with improved seed set due to pollinator action. This is because traits such as floret depth, which affects desirability to pollinators, is probably inheritable – it can be controlled by genetics.

The knowledge that pollinators can improve sunflower yields also adds a management consideration for sunflower growers, he pointed out. For example, what are the trade-offs between using certain pesticides to control pests such as seed weevils or sunflower head months, and losing seed set attributable to bees that would be affected by the pesticide?

He noted that more research is needed to answer many of the new questions such as this that have been raised, including pollinator-safe pest management.

Nebraska typically ranks fifth or sixth among sunflower-producing states in acres planted. North Dakota and South Dakota have the most acres by far, followed by Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota and Texas.

Sunflower acreage and state ranking can vary widely from one year to the next, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. For example, in 2016, Nebraska had 41,500 acres of sunflowers planted, including both confection and oil classes. In 2017, the total planted acreage was 61,000.

The study was funded by National Sunflower Association (NSA) and State Board of Agricultural Research of North Dakota (SBARE) and results were presented at the 2018 NSA Research Forum.

Scottsbluff was among the sites of the sunflower test plots. In 2016 and 2017, test plots were set up in each of the three states with 10 confection sunflower hybrids, five identified as pollinator-dependent and five as not pollinator-dependent. In each plot, sunflower heads were randomly picked for two treatments: open to insect pollinators or bagged with mesh to exclude insects during bloom.

The study had three objectives:

First, to evaluate the benefit of insect pollination for yields, and determine whether yield increases due to pollination vary from one region to another and one year to another.

Second, to determine whether insect pollination has a relatively greater effect on seed set in the center of the head compared to the periphery (in North Dakota only).

Third, to measure the efficacy of different types of insect pollinators, including honey bees, wild bees, and syrphid flies, in order to develop alternative managed pollinators.

In analyzing yield data, researchers found that 2016 results differed from 2017. In 2016, the relative benefit from open pollination differed greatly, as did the number and identity of hybrids that were pollinator-dependent. In Scottsbluff especially, yield increases of 120 percent were seen from pollinator visits. It’s possible that the big disparity in Scottsbluff is due to temperatures and UV exposure conditions at Scottsbluff, the authors speculate.

In 2017, yield still increased significantly under open pollination, but the increase ranged from 31 percent to 35 percent.

Pollinators have more effect when they visit a plant more frequently and pollinate more florets per visit. The study tracked the types of bees that visited the sunflowers and the frequency of their visits, by group: bumble bee, honey bee, large-bodied solitary bee, small-bodied sweat bee, and green sweat bee. The most common by a large margin were the large-bodied solitary bees, followed by bumble bees, small sweat bees, and honey bees.

Per-visit observations showed that female large solitary bees pollinated the most florets, followed by small-bodied bees and male solitary bees.

Because most of the solitary bees are ground-nesting, the researchers said opportunities might be limited to develop these species as pollinators. However, certain soil or habitat conservation practices could potentially play a role in improving nesting habitat for such species.

Selling corn under $4 per bushel is not fun for anyone, but it will be a reality for Nebraska producers this year. Despite low prices, there will be opportunities for savvy marketers.

The 2018 marketing year is shaping up to be a similar situation in corn to that experienced in 2017. Here we will review some of the challenges producers faced in 2017 and how to avoid them in 2018.

In 2017, corn accumulated a record amount of global ending stock, placing downward pressure on corn prices. Without a major market jolt, we can expect 2018 corn prices to be shaped by this large quantity of corn.


Challenge: Because of the high volume of corn available, basis has been weak across the state. Grain buyers (elevators, ethanol facilities, feed yards) have access to plenty of grain and do not need to improve basis to attract farmers to sell. Remember basis values, especially for new crop, seldom change throughout the year. Furthermore, changes that take place are likely to be minimal (a few cents). Do not let a weak, unwavering basis keep you from selling grain when futures prices spike.

Solution: There is little to nothing that individual farmers can do to improve the basis. However, this is a good time to consider which delivery locations are the most profitable. Each grain buyer sets their own basis. Thus shopping around your area for the best basis may help you gain a couple of cents. If you have the ability to haul grain to another area, you will want to calculate if the cost of hauling grain to receive the better cash price is worth the expense of hauling. Check out the University of Kentucky’s Grain Haul Decision Spreadsheet. www.uky.edu/Ag/AgEcon/pubs/extGrainHaul36.xlsx

Early futures price peak

Challenge: Another symptom of high ending stocks, are that prices reach their peak much earlier in the year, February-April rather than April-June. Figure 1 compares a 20-year average percent price change from Jan. 1 to the average of years with “Very High” ending stocks. In 2017 many producers did not price corn early enough to capture seasonal highs.

Solution: Be prepared to sell grain early in 2018. Accept that you may be pricing a crop that you have yet to plant. Remember, in pre-harvest marketing plans it is not recommended that you forward contract or hedge 100% of expected production. The rule of thumb is to not pre-price more than insured production (Actual Production History (APH) times your percent of coverage). However, most producers price 25%-50% of insured production.

Unrealistic price targets

Challenge:  One of the barriers many farmers ran into in 2017, was that their pre-harvest price targets were too high. Producers had set target prices at and above $4.00/bu. cash in 2017. For most Nebraska farmers they had a small window, if any, to pre-price at this level.

Solution: The market does not care if prices are below your cost of production, until prices are so low that you decide not to produce anymore. Realistic target prices should be set based on grounded market expectations. The USDA releases the World Agriculture Supply and Demand Estimate monthly. In this report, they predict farm prices for corn, soybeans and wheat, giving us a good gauge to set price targets.  The December 12 USDA WASDE report estimates that national average cash price will be between $2.85 and $3.55/bu.

This year will be a challenge for many grain producers. Having a written marketing plan that addresses the pitfalls outlined above will help keep you on track. For more grain marketing information checkout cropwatch.unl.edu.