The University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s (UNL) Testing Ag Performance Solutions (TAPS) program is an alternative to traditional, classroom-based extension programs. It is based around a series of farm-management competitions in which teams get to make a number of management decisions on test plots and then see how they play out in yield, input-use efficiency, and profitability. Aside from the cash prizes they stand to win, participants are able to experiment with different management tactics in a low-risk environment, use new equipment, and test marketing strategies.
In this interview, TAPS Program Manager Krystle Rhoades speaks with Irrigation Leader about the history and quick growth of the TAPS competition and its usefulness as a forum for experimentation and communication.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Krystle Rhoades: I grew up in Colorado and now live in North Platte, Nebraska. I have a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Wyoming. After working for a farm management company for almost 10 years, Chuck Burr contacted me about a position with TAPS. With the program growing exponentially, they were looking for somebody to help coordinate and manage everything from the competition events to the website to the promotion of the program.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about TAPS.
Krystle Rhoades: TAPS was created in 2017 by a team of researchers at UNL’s West Central Research, Extension, and Education Center as a sprinkler corn farm-management competition. They wanted a way to connect producers with the extension team and to give them a way to learn in a hands-on manner, outside of the classroom setting. There were 15 teams in the first year. In 2018, they added a sprinkler sorghum competition. The program has received great support from the Nebraska Corn Board, the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board, and the U.S. Sorghum Checkoff, as well as many other industry companies and organizations. Last year, Eco-Drip of Hastings, Nebraska, contributed a subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) system, which allowed an SDI competition to be added last year.
Among the three competitions last year, we had 50 teams with a total of around 150 participants. A team can be one producer or a group of people. The team that won the SDI competition last year included a couple of producers and their seed salesmen. Several other teams have an extension educator or a natural resources district employee. We have had a couple of college groups that use our competitions as a hands-on educational experience for their students. We have also had some government groups compete, including the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality in 2018 and the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources in 2018 and 2019.
The TAPS program has not only expanded in Nebraska, adding a dryland competition in Sidney, Nebraska, but it has also expanded into Oklahoma. In 2019, TAPS launched a sprinkler-irrigated corn competition in partnership with Oklahoma State University near Eva, Oklahoma.
Irrigation Leader: How do the contests work? Are they straightforward yield contests?
Krystle Rhoades: The competitions are structured as research experiments in which each competition team is provided a series of randomized plots within a single field. The contestants are allowed to alter specific management decisions. For example, contestants in the sprinkler corn, sprinkler sorghum, and SDI corn competitions in North Platte, Nebraska, have control over six management decisions: hybrid selection, seeding rate, irrigation scheduling and amount, nitrogen management, marketing, and crop insurance. The management decisions are submitted through a password-protected portal on the TAPS website. The production decisions are implemented in the field by university faculty and staff. The production results are scaled up to reflect a typical farm size (e.g., 3,000 acres for sprinkler corn) to allow for proper budgeting and marketing. At the end of the contest, awards are given for highest profitability, highest input-use efficiency, and greatest yield in each division. Its focus on profit and input-use efficiency is what sets it apart from traditional yield contests.
Irrigation Leader: What are the prizes for the winners of the competition?
Krystle Rhoades: Historically, the profitability award has been a cash prize of $2,000; the input-use efficiency award has been a cash prize of $1,000; and the highest-yield award has been a cash prize of up to $500, based upon how profitable the team was. The winners of the competitions are recognized with an engraved plaque at our annual awards banquet.
Irrigation Leader: Are all the competitors from Nebraska?
Krystle Rhoades: No. Last year our competitors were from Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
Irrigation Leader: What observations and results have come out of the competition?
Krystle Rhoades: For participants, results have included a greater awareness of management decisions and a better understanding of how to evaluate what good management is. We have been fortunate to have a balance of new participants and returning competitors. The new participants bring in fresh ideas and strategies, while the prior participants provide continuity and vetting of their strategies. We have found that several of the participants who have competed multiple times have made steady improvements in one or more areas of their performance. For example, the Perkins Group, made up of producers from southwestern Nebraska, has competed for the past 3 years. In 2017, it was in the middle of the pack in terms of profitability; in 2018, it placed second, losing by just under $2 an acre; and in 2019, it won the profitability award. Its strategy this year was to benchmark its marketing. In other words, whenever corn prices hit a set price, the team would sell a certain amount of its grain. This easy practice was one of several reasons the team performed well. Another example is a young producer who had one of the lowest input-use efficiency rates in 2017 because of excessive irrigation but was in the top 20 percent for input-use efficiency and top 25 percent for yield in 2018.
We have seen that many of our competitors are not familiar or comfortable with marketing and are interested in trying out new and different irrigation management technologies. The TAPS program provides participants with an opportunity to try out new practices and technologies or to vet their current practices. For example, one participant in our sorghum contest said she had never marketed on her own operation and that this contest provided her an opportunity to test out different marketing tactics without putting her farm at risk.
Irrigation Leader: How does this competition work as a communication tool?
Krystle Rhoades: It has been exciting to see how engaged our participants, partners, and sponsors are. The TAPS program provides several opportunities to network and interact with peers, industry actors, researchers, and regulators. The program hosts a kick-off meeting, two summer field days, and a banquet. Last year, the kick-off meeting was held at the Bayer Water Utilization Center in Gothenburg, Nebraska, where the participants had a chance to learn about what is new in the seed industry. The in-season field days provide participants and spectators a chance to tour the competition plots and to interact with university researchers and staff. In addition, one of the in-season field days hosts a TAPS growers’ panel, where prior winners and current participants can reflect on their strategies and share their experiences with attendees. Finally, we always finish the competitions with an awards banquet. It is another opportunity for our growers to interact with their peers, partners, and supporters. The competition has enabled communication between the university and the producers, but more than that, it has created a network of growers, sponsors, ag service and technology providers, researchers, and partners. These TAPS events have created a solid network where individuals can interact and share their thoughts, strategies, and challenges. We have found that many individuals have developed strong networks and relationships with other competitors, and that now they interact on a regular basis.
Irrigation Leader: How is this competition similar to or different from other similar programs in different states?
Krystle Rhoades: The TAPS program is distinctive in the sense that it connects growers, industry professionals, and researchers through a competition platform to identify what management solutions are working and what areas need attention. The TAPS competitions last for nearly 10 months, which provides ample time for peer-to-peer interaction, reflection on management techniques, and the opportunity to experiment with various technologies. The participants have described the program as one of their best extension experiences. Also, the program provides strength to other popular extension platforms, such as on-farm research, as ideas, technologies, and strategies vetted through TAPS can then be transferred and piloted on their operations prior to wide-scale adoption.
Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future of the competition?
Krystle Rhoades: We just received a Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant to strengthen and expand the TAPS program. Specifically, the TAPS program will expand to include additional participants from around the High Plains area to compete in either the Nebraska or Oklahoma competitions; include additional crops in the competition portfolio; and expand the types of data and technology available to the contestants. The program has grown exponentially in the last 3 years, and we’re excited to see where it could go in the future.