February 28, 2015

Ward Labs in Kearney: 4.4-million soil samples and still going

Soybean field in JulyAn agricultural soil testing firm in Kearney is marking the completion of a major expansion project.

Ward Laboratories has cut the ribbon on a 16,000 square foot addition. Company founder and president Ray Ward says the expanded facility will help the company provide more efficient soil testing results for ag producers.

Ward says, “That’s our goal and as times are changing, we’re trying to keep up with those changes and provide the services that the farmers and ranchers would like to have.”

The company opened its first lab in Kearney more than 30 years ago and has continued to grow, now employing 32 people full-time and 20 part-time. With advances in technology, Ward says the expansion will greatly improve the facility’s productivity.

“We’re going to be able to process samples more efficiently, we can handle more of them and get faster turnaround time in the fall when we’ve been so busy,” Wards says. “With this expansion, we’ll be able to handle more samples then. That’s our goal, to be able to provide the service more quickly and not get so far behind in that fall timeframe.”

Ward Laboratories analyzes soil, water, feed, plant, manure, fertilizer, wastewater and biological testing for soil health. Last year, the lab analyzed 323,000 soil samples. Since the business started, it’s handled more than 4.4-million samples from every state and seven foreign countries.

By Brent Wiethorn, KKPR, Kearney


Ag Dir. Ibach confirmed, after puppy mill complaints aired (AUDIO)

State Agriculture Director Greg Ibach

State Agriculture Director Greg Ibach

State Agriculture Director Greg Ibach has been confirmed by the Unicameral, but only after grievances were aired over how the department has handled so-called puppy mills.

Ibach, first appointed to the position by Gov. Dave Heineman, has served since 2005. Gov. Pete Ricketts re-appointed him.

Problems surfaced during the confirmation hearings before the legislature’s Agriculture Committee. Though solidly supported by the agricultural community, Ibach was harshly criticized by animal welfare organizations. They complained Ibach hasn’t done enough to address the poor conditions under which some commercial dog and cat breeders operate in Nebraska.

Criticism zeroed in on one case in particular.

Lancaster County Judge Timothy Phillips forced the shutdown of a dog breeding operation run by Julia Hudson in Malcolm. Hudson continued to operate her kennel even after failing four state inspections in a row. Finally, the Lancaster County Attorney’s Office brought charges against her.

Judge Phillips described conditions at the operation as “an animal Auschwitz.”

It was a theme picked up by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who lashed out at Ibach during legislative floor debate on his nomination.

“I put him in the category with Adolf Eichmann, who was the Nazi whose job it was to carry out the Final Solution,” Chambers stated.

Others used less stark terms, but joined in the criticism of the Agriculture Department, questioning why it hasn’t responded more forcefully to complaints about commercial pet breeders.

Agriculture Committee Chairman, Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo, told colleagues his committee will make sure the department addresses the problem.

“It was important to me when the Nebraska Humane Society came in, recognized where the department has been, but recognizing the fact that there has been a change in attitude,” Johnson told fellow senators in his closing remarks recommending Ibach be confirmed.

The Unicameral voted 29-to-2 in favor of confirmation.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]

Lawmakers consider higher cap on fee for cattle branding

Cattle InspectionA measure to raise the cap on fees Nebraska ranchers pay to brand their cattle is being considered in the Unicameral.

Brand Board member Joe Pongratz says the measure is being carried by Senator Al Davis and if approved, would -not- result in a fee increase for those using the program.

“This won’t change anybody’s cost, we’re still charging 75-cents,” Pongratz says. “Have a cash reserve and when it gets to 45%, we lower the fees per head. We’ve done that in the past. When it gets below 20%, we always increase it. Well, it’s at 18% and the reserve is dwindling still and we can’t do anything to save it.”

Under the plan, the cap would be raised from 75-cents per head to $1.25.

Pongratz says there are two main reasons they want the cap raised, for staff raises and for much-needed technology updates to keep the brand program running efficiently and effectively.

“Our payroll for our employees is below par and it’s tough to keep good quality people,” Pongratz says. “We have a high turnover rate. And our computer program that has all the brands on it is, like, 30 years old.”

Cattle brands are used in roughly the western two-thirds of Nebraska.

Most Nebraska agricultural groups back the measure including the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association, the Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, the Farm Bureau and Farmers Union.

By Jerry Oster, WNAX, Yankton


More Nebraska farmers are becoming remote-control pilots with UAVs

Photo by Jay Joiner

During the off-season this winter, some Nebraska farmers and ranchers will be kicking the figurative tires on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to help with their operations in the spring.

Tom Junge, director of the Iowa-Nebraska Equipment Dealers Association, says the small remote-control vehicles essentially come in two types, those that fly like airplanes or those that can hover like helicopters, and both could be a big help to growers.

“They can scan the fields and they can actually check for weed pressure or maybe if there’s some planting problems,” Junge says. “We’re also going to start seeing much more with different images that can be done, even scanning and checking the nitrogen in the plants.”

UAVs offer a new form of crop scouting. Equipped with a camera and the correct software on the ground, they can give growers the ability to quickly check on crop health. Software can be used to stitch aerial shots into a high-resolution mosaic map that can be used to make better crop management decisions.

A simple UAV may look like a kid’s toy, but they have a long range and are extremely versatile. Junge says a farmer may be able to purchase a basic quad-copter with a videocamera for a few hundred dollars.

“Those aren’t going to be real high-priced but if you want to get more sophisticated, it might be $1,000 or $2,000,” Junge says. “It’s going to rely more on what you’ll equip it with and the software that comes with it and then when you collect this data, what you’re going to do with it.”

UAVs can provide farmers a bird’s eye view of everything from irrigation and fertilizer problems to soil variations and even pest and fungal infestations. They can also take multi-spectral images — infrared and visual spectrum — which can be combined to create a view of the crop that highlights the difference between healthy and distressed plants.

While there’s a lot of interest in the use of UAVs, the legality of flying them is still an issue, for farmers and everyone else.

Junge says, “From my understanding, if he’s just doing his own area, he’s okay, but if it goes outside that, then he becomes commercial and everyone’s waiting to see how the Federal Aviation people are going to rule on that.”

The Federal Aviation Administration bans the use of all unmanned aircraft for commercial use without the agency’s s approval. The FAA has said it plans to allow commercial UAVs once it has drawn up regulations for the aircraft. Rulings may come as soon as early this year.

Agriculture officials carefully watching land values

Statistics from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln shows that as of February 1, 2014, farmland value rose by about 9% from 12 months prior to more than $3,300 an acre. Since that time commodity prices tumbled. Acting U-S Department of Agriculture Chief Economist Rob Johansson says land value changes usually lag behind what is happening with crop prices so they are watching the situation carefully. 

Johansson says, “The rapid increase of land values over the past five years has been slowing considerably. It is still positive. Once it would go negative that would imply that land value prices are lower than they were the previous year.” He says for now that is not the case. 

Johansson says trends show farmland values increase year-over-year but there have been a few exceptions. Land values dropped in 2009 during the recession and during the farm crisis in the 1980’s.