Robert (Bob) Wilson joined the staff of the University of Nebraska’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottbluff in 1975. He was a native of Auburn, in the southeastern tip of Nebraska, where his father was the longtime Nemaha County extension agent. Other than a couple sum- mers in St. Louis working for Monsanto while an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and four years at Washington State University while pursuing his Ph.D. in weed science, Wilson has, in fact, lived his entire life within the borders of the Cornhusker State.
That won’t change anytime soon. But what will change, as of March 2014, is his employment status. Wilson plans to retire then, wrapping up almost four decades as university weed science researcher and educator — a person whom producers of sugarbeets and other crops in western Nebraska and the surrounding region have come to rely upon for solid research and sound advice. Growers and sugar company personnel alike affirm he will be missed.
Jerry Darnell, Scottsbluff-based agriculture manager for Western Sugar Cooperative, has known Wilson for the past 22 years. “Bob has con- tributed many things to improve the sugarbeet industry in the Rocky Moun- tain region,” Darnell attests. “He helped establish planting beets to a stand instead of thinning them. He helped develop micro-rate and half- rate herbicide methods for weed control in sugarbeets (the half rate with extra crop oil working better in this region). Bob started working on Roundup Ready® sugarbeets in the early stages of development and helped push to get the new technology approved. He also started working on different ways to control glyphosate- resistant weeds before they were even an issue.” Among Wilson’s other impor- tant contributions, Darnell adds, has been his research proving “that good weed control in a farmer’s corn crop will pay big dividends in weed control the next year in their sugarbeet fields.
“Growers and chemical reps in the western Nebraska/southeastern Wyoming area have always benefited from Bob’s research and advice about weed control in all their crops,” Dar- nell continues. “He is always willing to go out and look at weed control issues and to offer advice or develop a study to help control the problem.”
Longtime Scottsbluff area growers Myron Klein and Chuck Henkel are big Wilson admirers as well. Klein, who currently co-chairs the Western Sugar/Growers Research Committee, notes that for many years Wilson was part of a veteran interdisciplinary crop research/extension group at UN’s Pan- handle station that also included plant pathologist Eric Kerr, ag engineer John Smith, irrigation specialist Dean Yonts, entomologist Gary Hein and soil fertility specialist Gary Hergert. Kerr and Yonts have passed away; Smith re- tired a couple years ago; Hein is now an administrator at UN-Lincoln, and Hergert presently serves as the in- terim director of the UN Panhandle Research and Extension Center. Robert Harveson is now the plant pathologist at Scottsbluff, and Jeff Bradshaw is entomologist.
“As to the money we’ve given them through the years, we growers feel like we’ve gotten way more back. It’s been a great return on investment,” Klein states. “I can’t say enough about our whole group — and Bob in particular. I think he’s always been on the cutting edge, looking toward the future. He’s never been satisfied with just ‘good’ re- sults; he always has looked for ‘better’ results, for ways to improve.”
“Bob is very dedicated to his work,” Henkel concurs. “Every time we asked something of him, he would get to work on that problem. I have worked with him on many projects, and he ed- ucated in so many ways. This is one man I hate to see leave. We will miss him very much.”
Wilson is apt to deflect such praise, but he doesn’t deny for a moment the extent to which he has enjoyed his work on behalf of farmers in western Nebraska and the surrounding area — and the sugarbeet sector specifically. “Very much so,” he agrees. “I’ve enjoyed all as- pects of the industry: the growers, the sugar company peo- ple, the seed and chemical reps. I think we’ve all had a good, close working relationship.”
That connection extends to the national sugarbeet re- search community as well, says Wilson, who has long been active in the American Society of Sugar Beet Technologists. “When we gather for research meetings — whether as a company (i.e., Western Sugar) or the national meetings (ASSBT) — everybody gets involved,” he notes. “So you’re not just talking to other weed scientists; you’re talking to agronomists, plant breeders — the whole industry. That has really been exciting for me.” The sugarbeet sector “has a leg up on a lot of other industries because of this good working relationship and the support the industry has given university research over the years,” he ventures.
That cooperative attitude has been central to the UN- Scottsbluff group’s research and education approach across the past three to four decades. The careers of Wilson, Kerr, Smith, Yonts, Hergert and Hein overlapped extensively — not only chronologically, but also in terms of their project collaboration. “We started early on utilizing a team ap- proach to sugarbeets and dry beans, and that turned out to be very valuable,” Wilson says. “We worked together on a lot of projects, and the growers seemed to appreciate that. And, it was lots of fun.”
Wilson began working with sugarbeets immediately upon joining the Scottsbluff station faculty in 1975. "my job description was to work with irrigated crops that were unique to the Panhandle,” he recounts. “Sugarbeets and dry beans certainly were two prominent ones. It took awhile to get up to speed, to really understand sugarbeets; it’s a much different crop from corn or soybeans.”
Those early years were, of course, a time when various herbicides were being developed and tested on sugarbeets; also a time when considerable research was conducted on other weed control methods such as cultivation, mowing the tops of weeds protruding above the beet canopy, rope wick applicators, and other options — including cover crops. “It became apparent that if you planted a wheat or rye cover crop in the fall and then sprayed it with glyphosate early in the spring before planting, you had few weed problems — along with good wind protection for the young crop,” Wilson notes. “That was a big break- through. A number of growers under center pivots really picked up on that fast.”
As to beet herbicide research, “when I first started, we had Ro-Neet,” Wilson says. “Then we explored prod- ucts like Nortron. Betamix was one of the first postemergent materials we could use effectively for broadleaf weed control in sugarbeets, so we did a lot of research learning how to use it. We had to figure out the time of day for application, temperature, all of the fac- tors that affected crop injury. Then we needed to integrate that with planting time treatment.
“We were always trying to make things a little more effective — mixing Ro-Neet and Nortron at planting, for instance. Then we came up with the idea of mixing Nortron and Betamix.”
The latter ’70s and the ’80s also was an era when the Scottsbluff group was doing a lot of research with plant- ing to stand in beets. Moving in that direction meant minimizing herbicide- induced crop injury on young beet plants. “It probably took 10 years to figure out the best method to plant to stand, to demonstrate [to growers] and convince them it was the way to go,” Wilson recalls. “We got away from using some of the pre-emergence her- bicides that we knew gave us early season injury. By doing that, we got the crop off to a better start, and our stand establishment improved.” Of course, better adaptation of the corn and soybean planters used so com- monly for sugarbeets also was a big factor in the adaptation of the plant- to-stand practice. “John Smith here at Scottsbluff and Joe Giles in the Red River Valley deserve a lot of credit for their planter work,” Wilson observes. In the mid-1990s, North Dakota State University/University of Min- nesota sugarbeet weed specialist Alan Dexter introduced the concept of micro-rate postemergent herbicide ap- plications. The practice quickly gained wide acceptance among Upper Mid- west growers; but it also needed to be researched for its effectiveness under Central Plains conditions. Wilson’s in- vestigations showed that in western Nebraska’s more-arid climate, a half rate was more effective. “One of the things with Betamix and Nortron that seemed important was humidity — and we seldom have high humidity here. So we found that by adapting what Alan had discovered with the micro rate and using basically a half rate, we could get similar weed con- trol,” he explains.
Adoption of the half rate “was a big breakthrough,” Wilson continues. “People started broadcasting herbi- cides rather than banding. You saw big sprayers covering a lot of acres. I think it allowed growers, in some cases, to expand their operations when they could get away from the band sprayers.”
Still, as any grower can readily at- test, putting on micro rates or half rates carried a big challenge: timing. “It was so important to have the tim- ing right,” Wilson points out. “So you had people who, for almost a month, were doing nothing but spraying beets in
the late afternoon. There’s more to life; you couldn’t go fishing! You had to get that treatment on every five or seven days.” Toss in the occurrence of weather unconducive for spraying (rain, winds), and it’s no wonder many growers pondered their options.
And, no wonder too they embraced the arrival of the Roundup Ready era. “The fact that you could get away from that five- or seven-day spraying regi- men was huge,” Wilson affirms, noting that the Nebraska/southeastern Wyoming region quickly transitioned into planting Roundup Ready varieties on 100% of the beet acreage. “At the beginning, some growers got by with just one application” of glyphosate, he says. “More recently, it probably aver- ages two and even three applications.”
In the years immediately following the introduction of Roundup Ready sugarbeets, much of Wilson’s research and extension energies focused on the proper stewardship of this technology. “Also, there’s been a lot of advertising about different formulations of glyphosate, different additives,” he adds. “Just as it was with the micro rates, you can get as much money tied up in the application of the additives as you actually have in the glyphosate.
'One thing we’re really stressing is to do a good job of controlling glyphosate-resistant weeds in the previous crops.’
“So growers want to know: ‘Do I really need this?’ or ‘Does it really im- prove weed control?’ We did several studies that indicated you can get some pretty big differences in weed control just from the type of glyphosate and the additives you’re using.”
Then there’s the evolvement of weed populations resistant to glyphosate — and what that implies for weed management in sugarbeets and other crops. That development was not a brand new phenomenon in the world of beet herbicides, of course. For three or four years following its registration, UpBeet was an excellent product for controlling kochia in beets. “Then kochia developed resistance to the sulfonylureas, and its ability to control kochia began to decline.”
As noted, even before Roundup Ready beets became commercially available, Wilson was investigating the influence of the previous rotational crop on weed control in sugarbeets. He documented that investing a little more time and money to really control weeds in corn or small grains made a big difference in weed pressure in the following year’s sugarbeet field. “And particularly for hard-to-control weeds like kochia.” That reality rings in- creasingly true today. “One thing we’re really stressing now with sugar- beets and glyphosate tolerance,” Wil- son says, “is to do a good job of controlling glyphosate-resistant weeds in the previous crops.”
Other than that recommendation, the Nebraska weed scientist also has been advising growers to take a hard look at again utilizing Nortron, “either at planting or by putting a fairly high dose of Nortron in with your two appli- cations of glyphosate,” i.e., 16 ounces of Nortron twice. “That’s a pretty good chunk of change,” Wilson acknowledges. “But you get some residual con- trol from that, and you also get some postemergence activity.”
Were he not preparing to retire in a few months, Wilson says he’d probably investigate putting some additives in with the Nortron to make it a little hotter. “We know we can add some methylated seed oil or crop oil to it,” he says. “We’ll get some more beet injury; but we may need to [pursue that] in order to get after some of those resist- ant weeds.”
While the rapid acceptance of Roundup Ready beets relegated other sugarbeet herbicides to the rear view mirror for a few years, Wilson believes all options need to be on the table now, given the resistance issue. “I think there’s some new chemistry out there that we’ve never really explored,” he remarks. “I think we’re going to have to screen a lot of different chemistries and herbicide families. There may be some products that we can use effectively for kochia control in sugarbeets.”
But that’s an avenue for the next generation of sugarbeet weed sci- entists to pursue, Bob Wilson quickly adds. For him, the near-term future means wrapping up his 2013 research projects, completing a few publications — and participating in this winter’s grower meetings. He may remain in- volved in weed science on a free-lance basis, should any appealing consulting opportunities arise. But the main priority, come spring and summer 2014, is to start enjoying retirement — including “getting my boat out and doing a little more fishing!” — Don Lilleboe
Editor & General Manager of The Sugarbeet Grower