At a ranch in Eureka, researchers are breeding a unique species of sheep well-adapted to the harsh Great Basin environment and that produces some of the finest wool in the nation. At the same time at a field in Fallon, researchers are using lasers and belowground radar to study how well sorghum grows with different levels of flood irrigation. And at a lab in Logandale, researchers just finished a study on how cactus pear can be grown as a commercial crop to fuel vehicles and feed both animals and people. These are just three of many projects happening at University of Nevada, Reno Experiment Station facilities across Nevada. The Experiment Station is the research unit of the University’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources. It maintains a network of field stations throughout the state, providing researchers different environments where they can experiment on a larger scale while supporting the needs of the nearby communities. “I think it’s really an exciting time for the Experiment Station, as our research is expanding throughout the state and our faculty are heavily engaged in projects that will serve to help our stakeholders in all areas of Nevada,” said Chris Pritsos, director of the Experiment Station.
“We’re really expanding our research capacity throughout the state. Our faculty have gone out and successfully competed for grants to support their work, and we are making significant impacts, whether it be in the area of water, agriculture production, environmental science or the cattle industry.” Below are some of the projects occurring at the different field stations, including a few projects done in partnership with the College’s Extension unit and other organizations. Fallon Research Center The Fallon Research Center is located in Churchill County and houses the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Great Basin Plant Materials Center. This 160-acre farm is the third station involved with the sorghum and irrigation project, with researchers testing how flood irrigation impacts sorghum at the different irrigation levels. The station is also home to several other sorghum projects, including a new project investigating herbicide-resistant sorghum hybrids, many of which were commercialized this spring. The team will assess the varieties for how well they tolerate the herbicides when being watered using flood irrigation. Another project is looking at how various sorghum varieties grow in different Nevada soils. Fallon has some sodium-rich soils with high salinity and alkalinity, characteristics that affect how much water is available for the plant. Melinda Yerka, Washington-Allen and Maninder Walia, along with graduate student Erin Smith (animal and rangeland science) and the Plant Materials Center’s Chris Bernau and Mat Humphrey, are using the same remote-sensing technology to look at how sorghum’s roots interact with the soil and how these interactions impact whole-plant growth and development. “Our work is aimed to help farmers make better decisions about what to plant, about which crops grow best on their specific soils, so they can have a more sustainable operation,” Yerka said. In addition, Walia is conducting research on chickpeas, dry beans, soybeans, teff for forage and grain production, and forage soybeans, which are crops that have garnered interest from local producers. Juan Solomon, associate professor of Agriculture, Veterinary & Rangeland Sciences, and Barrios-Masias are beginning work with a local company to test the best growing conditions for several varieties of hemp for both fiber and seed production. Hemp production is rapidly expanding throughout the U.S. and may provide farmers with another alternative low-water crop. Initial results indicate Nevada has a climate well-suited for growing some hemp varieties. Solomon is also studying the use of silage sorghum to provide feed for dairy operations in Nevada. Silage is what’s left after the harvested crop, such as corn, alfalfa or soybeans, is fermented and stored. Dairy operations rely on silage to feed their cattle throughout the year, and if Nevada operations cannot get silage with enough protein and energy locally, then they buy from out of state. For producers growing alfalfa, the crop is harvested three to four times throughout the year, with the third or fourth cut being a valuable option for mixed silage. However, sorghum silage by itself has low levels of protein. Certain sorghum crops are ready to harvest when alfalfa is ready for its third cut, so when the two are mixed together, the alfalfa increases the protein in the resulting silage. “The goal is to find alternative feed crops that use less water and fertilizer than more traditional silage crops, such as corn,” Solomon explained. “By incorporating the third-cut alfalfa into the sorghum, we boost the protein value of the silage to meet the demands of the dairy industry.” Sorghum can be grown together with soybeans and cowpeas as well, and when the plants are ready to harvest for silage, the soybeans and cowpeas enhance the protein value.
Great Basin Research & Extension Center In September of 2020, the Experiment Station opened the Great Basin Research & Extension Center. This 644-acre ranch in Eureka County’s Diamond Valley maintains a herd of sheep for research and funding. In addition, they plan to expand into research for crops, rangeland maintenance and other issues of local interest. The Center is operated in partnership with Extension. One of the existing projects at the Center is investigating ways to help domestic sheep and wild bighorn sheep coexist by reducing the spread of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, which is often fatal to wild bighorns. The Nevada Department of Wildlife currently prevents the spread of the disease by prohibiting domestic grazing in rangeland spaces too close to wild herds, as wild bighorns don’t discriminate between domestic and wild when building their herd and establishing their territory. The project, done in partnership with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, aims to breed Rafter 7 sheep, which are world-renowned for both their wool and their meat, to be resistant to the disease. The Rafter 7 breed itself was originally developed 30 years ago through Experiment Station research under the direction of the College’s Hudson Glimp, professor emeritus of animal biotechnology. “If we can develop a genetically resistant herd,” Center Director Gary McCuin explained, “then we can reduce the harmful interactions between the [domestic and wild herds] and potentially increase the habitat range for both in Nevada and across the West.” McCuin, who is also Extension educator in Eureka County, said there are plans to study using sheep to reduce larkspur on grazing rangeland as well, as the plant is fatal to cattle. The herd will also help fund the Center through annual sheep sales and the sale of wool products.
Currently, Mountain Meadow Wool in Buffalo, Wyoming, is producing value-added wool products to sell to University alumni and through the University’s Nevada Wolf Shop, and McCuin is working with local businesses to sell the products as well. Valley Road Field Lab As part of the same study, the Valley Road Field Lab is the testing ground for precise irrigation management using a drip irrigation system. Additional team members at Valley Road include Assistant Professor Melinda Yerka, also with the Department of Agriculture, Veterinary & Rangeland Sciences, Assistant Professor and Extension Field Crop Specialist Maninder Walia, and graduate students Russell Godkin (animal and rangeland science), John Baggett (biochemistry), Anil Kunapareddy (molecular biology) and Uriel Cholula-Rivera (environmental science). The team is using a variety of technologies for the sorghum irrigation project, including internet-connected soil moisture-sensing stations, ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and terrestrial laser scanners to measure the effects of the different irrigation methods on traits of sorghum during normal and drought conditions, including root depth, plant height and biomass. For both Valley Road and the Center, the team is also using drones. “Use of this technology is cutting edge,” Washington-Allen said. “GPR in particular is known for forensic use to find burial grounds and excavation areas. Early on, we pioneered the use of it for mapping out the root systems for wheat and potatoes. GPR is an exciting technology for dryland agriculture, because it allows us to detect and map the root systems of crops and estimate their biomass at different times without digging them up. This is a particularly important technology for rangelands where up to 80% of the plant biomass is below ground, but we tend to focus our monitoring and research on the 20% that is aboveground.” In addition to providing pasture space to experiment with the technology, the 27 acres at Valley Road also house three state-of-the-art research facilities, including a 29,280-square foot Greenhouse Complex, biofuels research facilities and the Valley Road fermentation lab. Additional assets include eight tunnel hoop houses, an 18-acre equestrian facility and a fully equipped maintenance engineering shop Other large projects at Valley Road include investigating the malting and brewing of sorghum, led by Yerka and Baggett, and studying teff for small grain production, led by Walia. Teff has been studied at the Experiment Station at least since 2006, when Extension's Professor Emeritus Jay Davison of Fallon began trials that got farmers interested in the crop. Cushman, with graduate student Mitiku Mengistu (biochemistry), is studying teff’s genetics to identify which traits help the plants increase their yield while being drought resistant. With this knowledge, he is developing varieties in the Valley Road greenhouse that will be better suited for Nevada growing conditions. Both Walia and Solomon are testing these varieties in a number of these field conditions at the larger farm scale. “Teff is more drought tolerant and nearly three times more water-efficient than more traditional crops such as alfalfa,” Cushman said. “Farmers can get hay from teff, and teff grain is in high demand and sells for a premium price because it is high in protein, iron and amino acids and is gluten free, among other benefits.” Desert Farming Initiative The Valley Road Field Lab is also home to the Experiment Station’s Desert Farming Initiative, which conducts research, provides hands-on learning for both undergraduate and graduate students, and donates and sells certified organic produce to the community. One of the larger research projects is a three-year study to identify which cantaloupe and honeydew varieties are most suitable for commercial production in northern Nevada. The project is entering its first season and is being conducted in partnership with Assistant Professor of Sustainable Horticulture Felipe Barrios-Masias, Extension’s Associate Professor and Horticulture Specialist Heidi Kratsch, and Extension Horticulturist and Plant Diagnostician Wendy Hanson Mazet. Additional projects at the Initiative include an examination of summer cover crop rotation focusing on Sudan sorghum grass mix and Sunn hemp. The Initiative also offers a Food Safety Program, which aims to prevent foodborne illnesses on farms in Nevada. The demonstration farm and five-year program provide support to local producers through its website, workshops, trainings and farm visits. In 2020, as a result of COVID, the Initiative helped found a Food Security Coalition to address the growing demand at food pantries. The farm produced over 20 tons of vegetables, which were sold to regional food hubs, restaurants and farmers markets. With grant funding and donations, a portion of that harvest was also directed to food pantries, including the University’s Pack Provisions, while following COVID-19 procedures. The Initiative plans to do the same this year and is running a crowdfunding campaign to expand this Farm-to-Food Pantry Program. “We’re providing over 90 varieties of certified organic fruits and vegetables to the community every year,” said Jill Moe, education program coordinator with the Initiative. “We also sell over 100,000 plant starts to local growers annually to jump-start the growing season.” In addition, the Initiative offers subscription boxes with their Farm Share Program for College students, staff and faculty. Subscribers receive weekly boxes filled with seasonally grown vegetables, herbs and fruits.
Wolf Pack Meats Main Station is also home to the Experiment Station’s Wolf Pack Meats, one of only two meat processing plants in Nevada capable of providing U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected harvesting services to local farmers. The facility maintains its own herd, which it uses to study ways to produce meat in greater quantities with higher quality. Over the past year, Wolf Pack Meats, under the direction of de Mello, has been collecting data from beef brought to the facility from producers in northern Nevada and California to determine the meat’s quality and yield amount. Their goal is to identify the possible gaps producers have in their commercial production operation, then use the data collected from the Wolf Pack Meats herd to fill these gaps with information about how producers can generate more beef of higher quality from one animal. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with meat processing plants around the country shutting down and making it difficult for ranchers to slaughter and process their cattle, thus creating a meat shortage nationwide, Wolf Pack Meats implemented strict regulations and remained open. According to Pritsos, Wolf Pack Meats increased its slaughter and production by more than 20% to help ranchers and increase the local meat supply. In addition, the facility has undergone several years of renovations and upgrades to meet commercial meat and processing standards to ensure food safety, as well as to make the facility safer for employees and better designed for teaching activities for students. “Wolf Pack Meats has undergone a tremendous series of upgrades and renovations over the past few years with the intent to increase the safety of workers, staff and animals, provide our students with state-of-the-art equipment for training, and provide a demonstration center for stakeholders to learn about the latest in meat processing,” Pritsos said. The most recent changes include new compressors and new holding pens using a practical design to reduce the risks posed to employees for moving animals.