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Plant and Soil Science

Research from the Ground Up

Cynthia Jordan Profile

Like many 21-year-olds Cynthia Jordan is nearing a major milestone in her life with the completion of an undergraduate degree, but few have as many hours in research as Jordan.

“[Cynthia] is one of the most impressive underclassmen I’ve ever seen based on some of the research projects she has participated in,” Dr. Glen Ritchie, chair and associate professor of the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University, said.

Despite only being a underclassman, Jordan said she has participated in and published research in soil topics such as rapid quantification of lignite sulfate, and has worked with consulting firms to help apply the technology she’s researched in a commercial practice.

Her work in soil sampling research and classification methods has made it easier for professionals to get information about specific soil, Jordan said. But its application is not limited to agriculture or crop production- Jordan was able to help a firm in Houston, Texas, take soil samples and learn why houses in their subdivision were flooding.

“I started research with Dr. Weindorf in March of 2018,” Jordan said, “and from there, I’ve had the opportunities to continue researching and do some consulting work.”

With graduation on the horizon for Jordan, she is already looking forward to graduate school. She is even already working on her Master’s project.

“I am working towards my master’s, and from there I will be going to do my Ph.D. work,” Jordan said. “After that, I would like to do more work in soil, as well as incorporating that into agricultural production of crops.”

Being able to publish research as an undergraduate student has given her a feel of  graduate school research and the tools to succeed as a life-long researcher, Jordan says, but there is more important things than the lab work.

“Most importantly, is the collaboration with other people. Within our lab, we definitely have a good team. We have some people from Romania, some from India, and some from Brazil, as well as people from the United States — so we’re able to use them to share all of this information and contribute to a project.”

Plant Talk

Photo of Vikram Baliga standing in the greenhouse.
Vikram Baliga is the creator of Planthropology.

There are more than 500,000 podcasts active on Apple Podcast. Researchers are using this new trendy type of communication. Vikram Baliga, a plant and soil science doctoral student at Texas Tech University, created his own podcast called “Planthropology.”

“The goal of this podcast is to get better at the public outreach of our science,” Baliga said. 

Baliga is a podcast listener himself and said he always wanted to start one. 

“I was having a conversation with a friend in the greenhouse and was like, ‘This was so nerdy, I think people would enjoy listening,’” Baliga said. 

The idea of a podcast came up again in a later conversation for Baliga. The new Plant and Soil Science department chair, Glen Ritchie, Ph. D., mentioned in his interview for the position that there needs to be a new way to get the scientific research out of the public. 

“He said, ‘podcast’ and it just stuck in my head,” Baliga said. “I feel like I had loose permission, so I did it.” 

With support from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Texas Tech, Baliga started his podcast “Planthropology” in the fall of 2019. 

“I interview researchers, educators, and people involved in natural science,” Baliga said. 

He said that he goes into the interview with a few basic questions but does not want to restrict the guests’ story. He focuses on the people instead of the research. 

Photo of Vikram Baliga recording an episode of his podcast.
Vikram Baliga uses the Adobe platform, Audition, to do minimal edits to his podcast “Planthropology”.

“People are complicated,” Baliga said. “Even if they take the same classes and everything, they all come at a problem from a different angle.”

Baliga said the wide variety of researchers and educators keeps the podcast interesting. 

“No two people have the same story.”

“No two people have the same story,” Baliga said. 

On average, each of Baliga’s podcast episodes gets about 2,500 listens. He said he tries to generally target outdoorsy people with interest in natural resources and sciences, but sometimes reaches others. 

Baliga said his podcast is based on scientific research. 

Photo of red and yellow flowers
These flowers can be found in the annual boxes that are located in the Horticultural Gardens.

“The science information is true and accurate, but sometimes people are not going to agree with it or even understand it,” Baliga said. 

When negative comments surface on his reviews, Baliga said he looks at them as exposure to natural science research.

“I know the material I am putting out there is factual and true information,” Baliga said. “I may change a mind or two, but even if I do not, they still hear the information, which is a teaching moment.” 

These negative comments can be a deterrent for individuals who want to start negative comments. 

“The biggest hurdle is getting used to having your own thoughts out in the world,” Baliga said. 

With 26 years of media experience, however, Baliga said it was easy for him to give his thoughts and to keep the conversations going with his guests. 

Photo of a cactus with headphones
In order to record a podcast a microphone and a pair of headphones are needed to get started.

For others, this may not be the case, but Baliga believes that people who let fear keep them from starting a podcast like “Planthropology” should try it out and do it. 

“It’s fun to do,” Baliga said. “It’s weird, and I am fortunate that I get to do stuff like this in a job like this.”

Agriculture is an Art

Starting his floral career at the age of three, Russell Plowman had a clear-cut plan for what he wanted to do with his life. As an instructor of horticulture in Texas Tech University’s College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, Plowman has been able to follow his passions and share them with his students.

“I knew early on what I was going to do. I didn’t have a choice,” Plowman said. “One of my first memories is planting Marigolds.”

Plowman’s interest in plants and flowers led him to Texas Tech to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ornamental horticulture. After college, Plowman opened his own floral shop and worked as a designer for many years. This led him to become a Certified Floral Designer and join the American Institute of Floral Design. Eventually, he returned to Texas Tech to work on his Ph.D. and serve as an instructor in the plant and soil science department.

“I knew early on what I was going to do. I didn’t have a choice.”

Russell Plowman

With all that comes with being a student, teacher and researcher, he let go of his certification and membership with AIFD to focus on teaching and earning his degree. Plowman still exercises his creative side by doing landscapes for clients around Lubbock, as well as teaching his popular floral design class.

“Word of mouth,” Plowman said when asked how he finds clients. “Each client helps me bring something new to teaching.”

Plowman has been instrumental in developing the curriculum for the floral design program. What once was only a lab for horticulture students is now an always full, creative arts credit open to anyone in the university. Plowman fought hard to get the class to where it is, writing and rewriting proposals, and finding what would work to make the class a well-rounded experience for students at Texas Tech.

“It took two semesters of working to rewrite it and getting it submitted,” Plowman said. “One of the comments was ‘nothing creative could ever come out of agriculture.’”

Despite what people have said about agriculture and art, agriculture can be creative and it often offers better experiences while learning.

“I took art as a creative arts credit and all I had to do was identify some paintings,” Kinnidy Markum, a former student said. “With floral design I felt like I was actually putting the concepts I learned about to use.”

Kolbie Tyler, Russell Plowman, and Alicia Thomas
Russell Plowman (middle) with Texas Tech graduate student, Kolbie Tyler (left) and instructor of horticulture, Alicia Thomas (right). Picture provided by Kolbie Tyler.

Each semester Plowman fills classrooms with students eager to learn about floral design. Thanks to its popularity, classes have increased over the years.

“When I took the class there were 20 students a year and now there are 80 or more a semester,” teaching assistant Kolbie Tyler said.

The lectures address the artistic concepts and history of floral design, while the lab teaches care and design techniques as students work with live flowers. Thanks to Plowman, those who take the class are eligible to become a certified floral designer in Texas.

“I want to teach an upper-level class soon as a service-learning class,” Plowman said. “That way, once they know techniques and designs, they can turn around and do a presentation to local florist.”

After each semester, Plowman modifies and improves the classroom experience for students. Plowman wants to give students the best learning experience that he can provide.

“I have proposed that I will teach every other class, and in between me, have other designers,” Plowman said. “I think that would just be wonderful.”

Russell Plowman giving feedback to a student during the floral design class’s design showcase. Picture provided by Kolbie Tyler.

Plowman recently became a second time Certified Floral Designer and member of the American Institute of Floral Design, which has never been done before.

“I reapplied and did it all over again,” Plowman said.

To become a CFD, you must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of floral design and be able to pass that onto students. Becoming a member of AIFD is no easy feat either, as it is one of the highest honors to have in the floral design industry. Each member must go in front of a jury of peers who judge their floral designs.

“You’re competing with all different kinds of people from all over the world,” Plowman said. “You go into a room; you don’t know what kind of flowers you’re going to get or design you’re going to have to make.”

While creativity and thorough knowledge of concepts is important, AIFD is committed to education as well.

“AIFD is all about education and treating floral design as an art,” Plowman said.

Being committed to continue getting accreditations to better serve students is just one of the many reasons Texas Tech is lucky to have an instructor like Russell Plowman.

“I’ve planted something my whole life,” Plowman said.

While Plowman could take the easy road and focus on one task at a time, he is committed to his aspirations as well as being the best instructor he can be.

Reducing the Water Footprint

Photo of Dr. West holding last years alfalfa
Dr. West grabs the previous year’s alfalfa, while the new forage grows in beneath it. Alfalfa is a perennial, high-quality and resilient grass that is full of nutrients.

A West Texas farmer sits on the bed of his Ford truck, watching his cattle graze the land. His feeder steers are in the distance pulling the last of the forage out of the barren ground. The farmer shakes his head at how thin his stock looks because the Ogallala Aquifer is too low to sustain the forage. He is worried about breaking even on the steers, let alone being profitable enough to make his yearly return. 

Luckily researchers at Texas Tech University have been studying and testing different ways to reduce the water footprint to save the Ogallala Aquifer. The water footprint refers to how much water it takes to produce a pound of beef. Charles West, Ph.D., professor and Thornton Distinguished Chair in Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech, has been researching forage crops and pastures for many years. Also, West is director of the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources Water Center and provides administrative leadership to the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation. 

“This is what we do research for,” West said. “We see something that looks interesting and could be very important.” 

West has been researching forage crops and pastures for 43 years, including 28 years at the University of Arkansas. West said Texas Tech has excellent facilities to do field research on forage grazing systems. The overarching goal of their research is to reduce the water footprint used on cattle grazing grass without negatively affecting the rate of gain of the cattle.

Photo of WW-B Dahl Seeds
WW-B Dahl Bluestem is a high-quality, resilient grass and has a good drought tolerance. It is a high-yielding grass that has low fertility requirements.

Focused on Forage

West is currently focusing his research efforts on cattle grazing on Old-World Bluestem called WW-B Dahl Bluestem and a legume Alfalfa. Both are perennial plants that are resilient and tolerate to weather, which makes them a prime choice for the dry West Texas climate. These forages are high-quality to ensure cattle ingest their proper nutrients. 

West said the research is designed to have a few pastures with only WW-B Dahl and a few pastures with WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa at high and low densities. These pastures are irrigated with a drip irrigation system and center pivot irrigation. 

Kathryn Radicke, a Texas Tech plant and soil science research graduate student, works closely with West on this project. Radicke said these grasses can do extremely well without irrigation for farmers who cannot irrigate their pastures.  

“Rather than moving cattle through pastures with a bunch of different types of forage, it is something more applicable to the farmers in this area,” Radicke said. 

For their research, the cattle breeds used for the research are typically Purebred Angus or a Simmental Angus cross and graze the pastures from June to the beginning of October. West said the cattle are in the stocker stage meaning weaned calves to before they are sent to a feedlot.

West said the reason for using Angus or Angus-cross cattle is because they handle the low humid climate better, and the meat quality is typically the best. He said they want the cattle to be as uniform as possible. The cattle should look, act, and digest the grass the same way. This ensures the cattle are a constant. 

“The differences in their productivity can be related to the differences that we impose on the pasture rather than differences from animal variation,” West said. “In our research, our enemy is biological variation.”  

Keeping the cattle as uniform as possible and letting them graze the two different types of pastures will show any differences in the cattle’s rate of gain as a result of the grass rather than genetics, West said. Beyond the grass and the cattle, water is the next important component of West’s research. 

A Conclusion Worth Ruminating

The water footprint calculated is how much water it takes to keep the WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa healthy and keep cattle gains high. West said that Alfalfa is easy to digest so it helps increase weight gain and reduce the amount of water it takes to produce a pound of meat.

 “Keep doing what we are doing. We are lowering the footprint and things will change.” 

Charles West

West and Radicke found WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa are a good mix and could be beneficial to South Plains cattle producers. Radicke said this is an inexpensive process for producers to increase their gains and help preserve the Ogallala Aquifer.  

Photo of Dr. West checking the alfalfa
Dr. West checks the pasture to see the quality of the new forages growing back in. The alfalfa turns green typically when the potential for a spring frost has passed.

A few producers have recently transitioned into this way of grazing and others have been forced into it. West said producers who adapt to this process are concerned about water consumption on their farms or have trouble with growing grasses to increase cattle gains.

“You can grow this resilient grass called WW-B Dahl and grow Alfalfa with it and it bumps up your gains,” West said. 

West said reducing the water used and increasing gains translates into money. 

After many successful years researching forage, West will retire in August of 2020. His advice to other researchers and farmers is to continue advancing and finding advancements for agriculture. 

 “Keep doing what we are doing,” West said. “We are lowering the footprint and things will change.” 

Viewing the Future Through a Microscope


A nervous and excited Carlie Witte hears a loud thud behind her as her dormitory door slams shut. She makes her way to the walking path, beginning the journey to her first college class. The sun feels warm on her face as she approaches the plant and soil sciences building. At that moment, Witte did not know that she was beginning her future in crop development.

“Hopefully, what I develop will have a bigger purpose”

Witte, the daughter of a farmer, is currently a senior plant and soil science major at Texas Tech University. Witte has always had a passion for agriculture, especially crop genetics improvement. Her time at Texas Tech has only strengthened that passion. 

 “When I started my plant and soil sciences classes, it clicked,” Witte said. 

Witte is a huge advocate for genetically modified organisms. Witte said without GMOs, the family farms will diminish and be replaced by factory farms. Witte wants to change the public outlook on GMOs because the consumers drive the market. 

“If people do not accept GMOs, then all products will end up being factory farm produced,” Witte said. “This is super sad because it is an American thing to have families produce consumer products.”

Along with her passion for science, Witte has a warm and bubbly personality that makes people feel welcome. She plans to use her character and her science background to be the bridge from the science laboratories to the consumers. Right now, Witte says, there is considerable miscommunication between the scientists and the consumers.

Carlie Witte grows and studdies plant tissue for her internship with Venugopal Mendu, Ph.D.

Payton Harrell is a senior at Texas Tech University and is a close friend to Witte.

“The fact that Carlie is so intelligent and is able to use her great personality to communicate her knowledge and skills is so neat to see,” said Harrell.

 Witte is currently furthering her education in cellular biosynthesis by interning with Venugopal Mendu, Ph.D. at Texas Tech. At her internship, Witte extracts DNA and conducts polymerase chain reaction analysis to compare the make-up of plants. After graduation, Witte plans to apply for a master’s degree in biotechnology for crop improvement at Texas Tech University.

“Hopefully, what I develop will have a bigger purpose,” Witte said.

Cultivating a Future

Sam Middleton is not just any farm kid. He has a goal to expand the family farming operation back home in Happy, Texas.
It’s going to be useful down the road with all of the technology and crops changing.


ighty-five miles north of Lubbock, the cool wind carries the sound of fresh weaned stocker calves bawling for their mommas. Sam Middleton pulls the feed buggy down the fence line using the glow of the horizon to guide his way as the sun peaks over the 17,000-acre farm outside of Happy, Texas.

 Middleton grew up with a love for Texas Tech University, with family as both alumni and staff.  He is a junior plant and soil science major at Texas Tech.

Middleton always knew he wanted to go back home to farm and so decided plant and soil science was the best fit for him. “It’s going to be useful down the road with all of the technology and crops changing,” Middleton said.

As a fourth-generation farmer and cattleman, farming is a way of life for Middleton. Plant and soil science is helping him with the family farming and stocker operation. Middleton says he is learning things in class that he will apply to the farm especially information about weeds and pesticide use.

“It’s given me a lot of useful stuff that I can take back home,” Middleton said.

Associate Professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, Dr. Glen Ritchie, says Middleton is an excellent student. “He is an outside of the box thinker,” Richie said.

Middleton has learned many valuable lessons and teachings from Ritchie and others like him in the department.

Middleton enjoys going to school every day because of the new things he is getting to see and do. He says he has enjoyed plant and soil science not only because of the knowledge he is learning, but also because of the people.

“All of the people in there are just small-town farmers, so I’ve made some good friends through it and get along with everybody in plant and soil science,” Middleton said. 

Middleton says he is already involved in big decisions for the family farm and will start working with his dad, instead of for his dad, when he graduates.

When Middleton talks about farming, it is clear that he is going to be doing something that he enjoys for the rest of his life. “We just have to be thankful that we’ve got work to do and blessed with the animals and the ground to provide a means of life.”

Sam Middleton is not just any farm kid. He has a goal to expand the family farming operation back home in Happy, Texas.
Sam Middleton has a love for Texas Tech and the people he attends class with.

Where the Grass Grows Greener

The researchers will utilize a drone, equip with various sensors, in hopes of identifying the optimum sensor to detect drought stress on turfgrass. Golf courses in the Lubbock area provide economic benefit to the region according to the projects lead researcher, Joey Young Ph. D.

A situation is playing out in the Texas Panhandle and local golf courses are feeling the heat. During the end of 2017 and into early 2018, the region has gone through an extreme drought, and the main source of groundwater has been in rapid decline for over a decade. Two Texas Tech University faculty members are gearing up to tackle the water issue.

Although an afternoon on the golf course sounds like a fun way to spend the day, for Joey Young, Ph.D. and Wenxuan Guo, Ph.D., two assistant professors in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, it is an opportunity to solve overwatering of recreational turfgrass.

With the region in an extreme drought and the Ogallala Aquifer at risk of total depletion, golf courses like the Rawls Course at Texas Tech are under pressure, said course superintendent, Rodnie Bermea.

“Golf courses use a lot of water,” Bermea said. “In times of drought, it’s especially hard to water all areas of the properly and efficiently. We can end up using more water than we need to, which costs us money and hurts our water supply.”

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, turf requires an average of 25 to 60 inches of water annually, depending on climate, to maintain a healthy appearance. This is one reason some argue golf courses are wasteful. However, Young, an assistant professor of turfgrass science, sees it differently.

It’s more than a tee time

“There’s definitely a perception that golf courses and turfgrass are something that’s basically a waste of a lot of water, and therefore unnecessary,” Young said. “But that’s just not the case. Courses provide a big economic benefit for cities like Lubbock.”

[Left to Right] Joey Young Ph. D., and Wenxuan Guo Ph. D., discuss plans for their turfgrass research at the Rawls Golf Course as the drone waits, ready for takeoff.
Young argues tournaments and other events hosted at courses like the Rawls impact the local economy by bringing people into the city who utilize local businesses. A sentiment echoed by Bermea.

“Tournaments aren’t only beneficial to the Rawls course, ” Bermea said. “They help everyone. There are the obvious businesses that benefit directly from visitors to the golf course, like hotels, restaurants and all that. But there’s a trickle-down effect on the economy that just can’t be understated.”

While it is apparent golf courses use a lot of water, Young and Guo have devised a plan that could help not only the drought-stricken Lubbock area, but could impact courses around the country and the world.

“Water is our No. 1 limiting resource,” said Guo, an assistant professor of crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture. “Everyone knows the Ogallala Aquifer is depleting at a rapid rate. So, we need to figure out how to save the water or use the water more wisely, more efficiently. This is important from both an economic and social perspective.”

Driving with the drone

Guo said it is not only important to save water for the next generation, but also to conserve water for conventional agriculture production. With a grant provided by the United States Golf Association, the two researchers have developed an experiment with the potential to allow more accurate water allocation on golf courses.

Courses provide a big economic benefit for cities like Lubbock.

“Our goal is to utilize drones and different sensors that will be attached to the drones to collect imagery that could basically determine areas of drought stress on a golf course,” Young said. “The overall purpose would be to utilize various sensors that may give us different information.”

Once these optimal sensors are identified, they could be utilized by golf courses to identify drought stress, potentially before it is even visible to the human eye, Young said. This technology would be used by course managers to adjust irrigation from areas that stay wetter to areas that tend to dry out more. This will ultimately help lower water usage on the golf course and achieve more balanced playing conditions.

“If this technology could allow us to see an area that’s dryer or an area that’s wetter we would be able to water those areas more efficiently,” Bermea said. “We could create a more sustainable irrigation program that would be environmentally beneficial and save us money.”

Simply lowering the golf courses irrigation by 10 to 15 percent would be a huge financial saving for the Rawls, Bermea said.

The research is being conducted at the Rawls Golf Course as well as the Amarillo Country Club, which use different kinds of turfgrass. The varying sensors will give a broader picture of how cool season and warm season turfgrasses handle drought stress.

Young says ultimately he hopes to identify sensors to address specific issues on golf courses and would then like to share that information with course managers around the country. But, it is not just golf courses that may be reaping the benefit of his research.

A put for all mankind

In tandem with the research being conducted on Lubbock and Amarillo golf courses, Guo will also be utilizing the drone and sensor technology to look at lowering water usage in conventional agriculture.

“My area of research is in crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture,” Guo said. “I will be using drones to identify the crop growth variability in fields, within the same season. So, before the final yield at the end of the season, we can look at how the plants are growing and adjust irrigation and other imputes to minimize resource use.”

He said even though different plants sometimes require different methods to study, all plants show drought stress in the same way.

Just like the work being done on the courses, Guo hopes to utilize drone imagery to identify areas of drought stress in crops like corn, cotton and sorghum.

“It has become increasingly important to conserve our water,” Guo said. “The water in our area has been diminishing much faster than originally expected, and we don’t know what our water supply will look like in 20 years. Our whole economy is driven by an adequate water supply, so that makes it urgent.”

This joint research endeavor to ultimately lower water usage in West Texas could have a lasting impact on the region, through improving sustainability and protecting the economic stability of golf courses and conventional agriculture practices. But Young hopes their research will have an even greater impact.

“It’s important to us that we are doing what’s right for our region,” Young said. “But bigger than that I want to communicate our findings to the scientific community in hopes that the information can be shared with course superintendents around the world. For my research to have that kind of reach and impact communities around the world would be the ultimate reward.”

Underground Livestock: Reaching New Depths in Soil Health

RN Hopper showcases his healthy soils as a result of the no-till and other conservation practices he and his father have implemented since 2004.
RN Hopper showcases his healthy soils as a result of the no-till and other conservation practices he and his father have implemented since 2004.

Just north of Petersburg, in the High Plains of West Texas, lies what seems to be dry, unmanaged fields. The surface is cracked from the heat, and corn cobs from the past harvest litter the fields. But what actually lies in RN Hopper’s fields is anything but dry and unkempt. Beneath the surface is a world breaming with life and a future in sustainable agriculture.

Hopper Graduated from Texas Tech University in 2000 with a degree in agronomy. He came home to work with his dad, Ronnie Hopper, and together started Harmony Farms in 2004.

Hopper’s passion for farming and the land led to an understanding of the soil beneath the surface and how it can provide for him and the land in the future. This understanding was garnered from both his college education as well as an informative experience at a No-Till on the Plains conference in Kansas.

The main goal of Harmony Farms was to take what Hopper had learned and put no-till conservation practices into action.

“A lot of times when people start down the no-till road, they don’t seem to have success with it because they don’t have a diverse rotation,” Hopper said. “You have to have a very diverse rotation of crops; as many species as possible. For the most part, it won’t work over an extended period of time if you’re just cotton after cotton after cotton.”

Hopper’s fields cycle cotton one out of every three years. He follows cotton with wheat, wheat with corn, and corn with cotton. He said no-till practices are very much about getting a bacterial-dominant soil back to a fungal-dominant soil, which is done by ceasing tillage.

“We’re trying to return some of the structure to the soil,” Hopper said. “It’s impossible to build organic matter if you’re oxygenating the soil with tillage because it immediately gets consumed by the microflora, once it is gone, their populations crash.”

Hopper said a healthy soil has the equivalent microbial biomass of three to five beef cattle units per acre. That is a tremendous biomass that must be fed, and the currency of nature is carbon.

Burnett, Abbie-1938
RN Hopper holds the end of a 6 ft pole inserted into his no-till field. No-till fields are composed of compact, healthy fields soils that can hold 75 percent of rainwater.

“So, if you’re not cycling that carbon slowly and naturally into your soil, you don’t have anything to steadily feed that underground livestock,” Hopper said. “And if they’re not being fed, they die. And if they die, they’re not helping to make nutrients more available or doing the thousands of other things that they do.”

Hopper said these “underground livestock” are billions of microscopic organisms that live under the soil. They feed off carbon that comes from recycled organic material. In doing so, they help create healthy soil for future crop seasons.

However, cover crops and no-till are not just about returning carbon back into the soil. John Zak, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech, said he has been working with RN for three years conducting research on microbial health and manipulation.

“Really what we’re trying to understand is how soil can do certain things in terms of productivity if you manage it,” Zak said. “They have their own microbiome the same way humans do. So, the question is, how do you manage that microbiome, and what are the consequences of managing practices to the functionality of that microbiome?”

Zak said the microbiome in soil is what directly contributes to crop yield. He attributes healthy soil to a healthy microflora. One determining factor that makes soil healthy is lowering the variability in daily temperature range, or DTR, which is the difference between how hot and cold soil gets in a 24-hour period. Zak took this idea to Big Bend National Park before using it in Hopper’s fields.

“We decreased solar input (on the soils).,” Zak said. “What that does is raise the night time temperature a little bit because the soils don’t dissipate as much heat, but they don’t heat up as much during the day. You decrease DTR by about three to four degrees centigrade.”

Burnett, Abbie-1938-10
RN Hopper pulls back the trash from past season’s corn harvest to show the cover no-till practices provide for the soil. Using practices like no-till and cover crops keeps the daily temperature range (DTR) minimal to develop healthier soils and microflora.

What was showed from the lowering of DTR in the soil, Zak said, is that microbial activity in soils can increase without any change in soil moisture by about 30 percent. He explained that one of the reasons deserts are deserts isn’t because of lack of moisture: it’s because of DTR.

Zak said the results from these experiments meant farmers could create healthier soils and higher yields without irrigating more than they were already.

Hopper said no-till has greatly increased water infiltration and holding capacity in his fields.

“(The fields) probably catch 70-80 percent of the rain,” Hopper said. “But, if you have something that’s conventionally tilled, there’s probably some of the times of the year they’re only catching 30-35 percent to be used by the plants and the rest is going to runoff or evaporate.”

Hopper said he and his father did not start irrigating last season’s cotton crop until the first week of August.

“I think we’re barely tapping the potential of what we already have,” Hopper said. “Most people argue no-till is worth 5 inches of water. I would argue that it’s considerably more than that. We have the ability to get to a point, hopefully, where we can consistently capture 75-85 percent of the rainfall and get it to the root zone. And in the worst conditions, the 35 percent zone. In my opinion, it’s usually a 5- to 8-inch advantage.”

Hopper said that cover crops or residue from the past season act as armor for the soil surface. and trash from past seasons acts as a barrier to the soil. When rain falls, the impact is busted on the cover crop and then drains into the soil.

“If it rains in permanent grass, the water doesn’t run out,” Hopper said. “It all goes into the ground. You’ve got mulch cover and grass to deflect the impact of the raindrops. You only see soil uncovered in two cases, shifting landscapes or a desert. But, you won’t see any other natural landscape that’s not covered in plants. You won’t ever find anything clean tilled in nature. If there’s nothing above ground, there’s nothing to feed what’s below ground. Most, if not all, of the benefits of no-till come from that mulch cover.”

I can see a future in farming without irrigation, but I can’t see a future without a healthy soil. RN Hopper

However, Hopper said this whole process has been a challenge and a good learning curve.

“By 2006, we were committed to continuous no-till. There was a lot of steep learning curves, and there’s not a lot of people out here that do it,” Hopper said. “And so, we made plenty of mistakes and continued to make mistakes, but we’ve never had enough trouble with it to deter us from staying on the path.”

Hopper said he believes that the future of agriculture in the United States and West Texas lies in no-till practices.

“I can see a future in farming with no irrigation, but I can’t see a future without a healthy soil,” Hopper said. “I don’t know everything, and I’m definitely not right about everything, but I know there’s not a best way to do anything, but only better ways, and that’s the very definition of progress.”

At the end of the day, all Hopper does for his fields is because of his love and passion for farming and the land, he said.

“People refer to crop production as yield: it’s what you get at the end of the day, but, really, it’s what nature has yielded to you,” Hopper said. “So, I guess what I love most about being a farmer is trying to be the best steward of what God has given us that I can be. And that’s the challenge and that’s what keeps me excited about each coming year, and that’s what gets me up in the morning — just the hope of what might be yielded to us at the end.”

What’s all the Buzz About?

On a crisp October day, students and faculty from Texas Tech University, along with Bayer Crop Science representatives, gathered for the groundbreaking of the pollinator planting at the Texas Tech Quaker Avenue Research Farm. Hands from different generations and people collected and planted wildflower seed, side-by-side, in an attempt to contribute to the research being done for the conservation of pollinators.

Texas Tech University was named one of the four national native pollinator planting locations in the United States, and has been a part of Bayer’s Feed a Bee campaign since 2014. Texas Tech University’s Plant and Soil Science Department is one of many different partners the Bayer Bee Health program has.

Scott Longing, Ph.D., professor of entomology in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, said, “The wheels were greased before we were even chosen, it didn’t hurt to already be a partner.”

The Bayer Bee Health program gave Longing and the plant and soil science department 100 pounds of seed to plant for the study and conservation of pollinators. Longing said one of the reasons he believes our region was chosen is related to the pollinator mismatches we have and the area is understudied.

“In the High Plains counties, there are significant pollinator mismatches where we have a lot of agriculture production but not the wild lands to support the pollinators for pollination services,” he said.

Texas Tech was the only university out of the four locations chosen as a pollinator planting site. According to Longing, Tech was awarded the site because the department already had the infrastructure that was needed, and Bayer had been sending seed to the department already.

Graduate and undergraduate students helped during the planting at the Quaker farm and are also going to be involved in the research the plant and soil science department will be conducting.

“We will establish plots, and then we are going to do some irrigation experiments and have different zones in the field we can turn on and off, so we can see what plants grow best under wet and reduced water situations,” Longing said. “We are also going to do some assessment with plant growth and pollinator sampling in the plots to look at which specific flowers attract more pollinators.”

Two plant and soil science graduate students were involved with the pollinator planting event Texas Tech hosted on behalf of the Bayer Bee Health program. They are conducting research with the wildflowers that were planted as well as other crops and the pollinators at the Quaker farm. Bianca Rendon is a graduate student in the department of plant and soil science whose research will focus on foraging behaviors.

“We have honey bees out there that I will cover up with nets, and I am going to see how foraging behaviors change with those honey bees being excluded compared to when they are there regularly,” Rendon said.

The pollinators have a huge importance.
Bianca Rendon

Samuel Discua, a doctoral student in the department, is also conducting research at the Quaker farm using the plants from the Feed a Bee program. His research will mainly focus on native plant attractiveness through pollinators.

“I am looking at pollinators such as native bees, flies, butterflies and other insects that might be visiting the plant at that time, Discua said. “I do that every hour, which is how I can quantify how attractive the plants are to pollinators based on how many insects are visiting within the time frames that I will look.”

Conservation of these pollinators is highly important for agriculture. Many of the foods we eat such as fruits, nuts, and vegetables all need pollinators such as bees to grow. According to Discua, one out of three bites of food we eat are directly attributed to insects because a lot of the crops we eat need to be pollinated. Planting these seeds at the Quaker farm is going to develop foraging areas for these bees to pollinate and thrive.

“The pollinators have a huge importance,” Rendon said. “Out of 124 main total food crops, pollinators account for the pollination and success; so a huge percentage of crops is dependent on these pollinators.”

Rendon believes the five acres they are planting the seed on will make a difference in the conservation of these pollinators.

“These planting will be on five acres which doesn’t seem like a lot but it will make a difference and give those pollinators a place to go to get their nectar and to help other crops,” she said.

The honey bee population is dwindling due to loss of habitat and many other factors. Texas Tech students are using their research to see if native bees could be another alternative.

“We know honey bees are in trouble, so why not use native bees, because they already do a lot of free work for us,” Discua said. “It is estimated that about three billion dollars every year in U.S. agriculture is attributed to the native bee pollination.”

Longing and his students also want to educate farmers on the importance of pollinators and how they can actually help increase crop yield. Many farmers are unaware pollinators contribute at all to their crop production. Educating them on conservation practices will not only help the pollinators but the farmers as well.

“The other thing people need to understand is pollinators, native bees, can actually help farmers,” Discua said. “By having native pollinators and natural strips of land around their fields, farmers can actually increase their cotton yield.”

According to Longing, the Bayer Bee Health program partnering with Texas Tech is a huge opportunity for the students and faculty of the Department of Plant and Soil Science to go deeper into their research with pollinators, and to help establish conservation efforts in the South Plains region.

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Righting The Wrongs Of Our Past

Showing Bogdun in the lab test soil samples.

On Monday, Aug 5, 2015 a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency was cleaning the Gold King Mine in southern Colorado, when all of the sudden a leak sprung. The leak slowly started to progress until it was out of control, and a river of heavy metal flowed down stream turning many miles of the Animas River to a mustard color.

Because of the leak, a substantial amount of toxic wastewater, from the mine work, began to flow out of Gold King. The river rapidly filled with 3 million gallons of waste and began changing colors. The thousands of people, who depend on the water were uneasy not knowing how or what they could do to solve this issue. The Denver Post reported the last time there was a spill this extreme it was in the early 1990’s.

Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. As a result of the leak at the Gold King Mine and the heavy metal wastewater that flowed into the Animas River, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declared the incident a natural disaster.

The 3 million gallons of water that was contaminated
by red sludge, which is a thin, crusty layer that sits on the very top of the soil. That sludge was potentially harmful to those who were utilizing the river as a primary water source. The three states including Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as the Animas and San Juan Rivers, were the locations that were contaminated the worst.

“It was quite concerning that this type of situation was going on, and there was no one to clean up the mess,” Carla Millares, a doctoral student at Texas Tech, said.

David Weindorf, PHD associate dean for research in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University, was called upon to take a team to collect soil samples that were affected by the mine spill.

“About two weeks after the spill had happened, the EPA was mobilizing and assessing, while trying to figure out what the damage was going to be like” Weindorf said.
I was just sitting at my desk when my phone started buzzing, it was Washington, D.C. The State Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) from New Mexico made a call to Washington D.C, and Washington, D.C said, ‘call Dr. Weindorf at Texas Tech.’

“I was sitting at my desk when my phone started buzzing. It was Washington, DC.”

Weindorf said.

“I received the call and they said they needed me and my team right away, the very next week we were on sight, and started to scan the soil.”

Weindorf is considered to be a national authority when it comes to using the portable x-ray florescence spectrometer gun.

“On the Texas Tech campus I am the only person who has this piece of equipment,” he explained. “Every research project that has needed this equipment in the last ten years, my team was the one who conducted it.”

Weindorf, along with his research assistants Bogdan Duda from Romania and Carla Millares from La Paz, Bolivia, have since provided the NRCS with all of the data and results, and detailed reports. Which allowed them to receive a new grant from the NRCS and New Mexico State University for monitoring the farmland in the area that was most significantly affected.

For the next three years, the researchers will continue to collect data by scanning the soil a few times per year to monitor what is happening with the medal levels in that specific area. To see if there has been an increase in the medal inhibition or if the counts be staying at a constant number.

“This research project has not only allowed me to see new places and conduct new research, but it has given two schools an opportunity to work together to try to enhance information and see better results on these types of projects.”

“The same issue with the higher levels of metal is going on back in Romania, by working on this project we have also been able to compare the data that was taken from this river and compare it to the one over there,” Weindorf said.

“If more people would adopt these type of technologies and use the cutting edge tools that are available, we would have been able to figure out the issues sooner.”

Multiple researchers across the Texas Tech campus in different departments have started to utilize this technology from collecting data on chemical compounds to testing the different sounds that antique horns make using the x-ray gun.

History tends to repeat itself, and it has been roughly estimated there are almost 500,000 mines similar to the Gold King Mine that need to be cleaned up. This spill was treated like a crisis issue, but now with the research available and technology, researchers will be better prepared, not if it happens but when it happens again. This now begins the waiting game, and researchers are not sure when or how the spill will occur. However, the crisis in Colorado, more research is being done to prepare. Despite the negative effects of the Gold King spill, there were some positive outcomes, more awareness for the abandoned mines.

Weindorf, along with the help of Duda and Millares, are prime examples of the different levels of research that one is able to start and perfect at Texas Tech University. Through the hard work, long tedious days, and many hours of research on and off the river, these three individuals have excelled in the representation that they provide for Texas Tech.
One phone call saved many gallons of water, provided new data and research, and has prepared multiple researchers for the future. Though it was a national crisis these researchers will be prepared for the worst.

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