On-Farm Research and Student Engagement to Assess and Promote Manure and Mulch as Land Treatment Practices in Nebraska

In regions of intensive livestock production, like many areas in Nebraska, significant amounts of livestock manure are produced and, at times, underutilized. Manure positively impacts soil health, has been shown to reduce runoff and erosion, and is no more of a pollutant risk than commercial fertilizers when applied responsibly and at appropriate rates.

Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana), a native tree in Nebraska and many parts of the Great Plains, can proliferate readily when not properly managed. In Nebraska, where they are often planted to create windbreaks for livestock and homesteads, red cedar trees have multiplied substantially and are now considered an invasive species in many areas. Negative ecological and economic impacts of this phenomenon include reduced forage production on rangeland, fragmented habitat for wildlife, reduced water availability due to its high water consumption and increased risk and severity of wild fires. Prescribed burning of smaller trees and mechanical removal of larger ones can effectively limit dissemination of red cedar, but the expense of mechanical removal limits the management of these trees by many landowners. Identifying value-added markets for cedar wood chips has become a priority of the Nebraska Forest Service and many Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) in the state to offset expenses for tree management. The project presented here describes on-going efforts to quantify agronomic, economic and ecological impacts of utilizing cedar wood chips alone or co-mingled with livestock manure as soil amendments in crop production systems.

In addition to investigating the impacts of this novel use for cedar wood chips, this project is contributing to a larger effort to demonstrate the value and promote the utilization of manure as a nutrient source and soil amendment in cropping systems. The overall goal of this effort is to document and demonstrate the effects of land applied manure and cedar mulch on agronomic, economic and soil health variables in cropland under different agro-climatic conditions using a novel partnership model.


A producer-driven research study was initiated in 2015 to assess the impacts of cedar woodchips alone and co-mingled with livestock manure or urea ammonium nitrate fertilizer on soil, water use efficiency and agronomic productivity. This three-year study, conducted in the Nebraska Sandhills where sandy, excessively drained soils dominate, was completed in 2018 and is now being expanded to document and demonstrate the impacts of these practices throughout Nebraska under varying soil types and climatic conditions.

An ambitious partnership model, designed to accomplish the research and outreach goals through broad collaborative efforts, encompasses an on-farm research initiative replicated in six NRDs throughout Nebraska utilizing local implementation teams. Study sites include Overton, Brule, Saint Paul, Julian, Ainsworth, and Pierce, Nebraska (Figure 1). The local implementation team for each site is composed of a crop farmer and members of the local NRD, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Nebraska Extension, the Nebraska On-farm Research Network, the Nebraska Forest Service and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Additionally, each local implementation team is engaged with at least one local high school agricultural program. Delivery of a curriculum to students in these programs, developed according to the research and extension objectives, and student participation in on-farm research are intended to improve their knowledge about on-farm research methods, soil health, and benefits of responsible recycling of manure and cedar mulch as soil amendments. Using their research experiences, students will develop novel outreach products intended to positively impact knowledge and behaviors related to soil health, manure and red cedar tree management among crop producers and their advisors.

Map of Nebraska: locations of on-farm research and high school agriculture program partners.
Figure 1. Statewide locations of on-farm research and high school agriculture program partners.


The current project was initiated in summer 2018 and early efforts generated broad interest among crop producers and school teachers to participate in. On-farm research sites are being established using a Complete Randomized Block Design. Plots measure 170 m (350 ft) in length and up to 12 m (40 ft) in width, depending on equipment utilized by each partnering farmer. Up to four treatments are assigned to plots within each of four blocks. Treatments include: livestock manure, manure mixed with cedar woodchips, cedar woodchips* and commercial fertilizer. (*Note: Not all sites include a woodchip-only treatment; likewise, some sites include a treatment selected by the farmer, such as biochar.) Samples collected prior to treatment applications and regularly throughout the growing season will provide agronomic, environmental and soil health data at each study site.

Curriculum implementation has begun at five high schools, each associated with a research site. Approximately 60 students will participate in the project during spring 2019. The curriculum (Figure 3) encompasses 4 modules: On-farm research (Module 1), Soil Health (Module 2), Crop Productivity (Module 3) and Outreach (Module 4). Each module is comprised of field and classroom activities. Partnering teachers and their students will use this curriculum document to complete lessons in one or more modules during each semester of engagement with the project team.

A 52-page Soil Biology Inspection Guide (Figure 4) has been developed for use by students to identify and understand the roles of soil organisms they find during hands-on soil inspections with a smart phone microscope. Along with the printed materials, each partnering teacher will receive a supply of smart phone microscopes (Figure 5) for students to use to inspect soil within the study site with which they are associated and in other soil samples.

Figure 3. Sample pages from the High School Curriculum.
Figure 3. Sample pages from the High School Curriculum.


Figure 4. Sample pages from the Soil Biology Inspection Guide.
Figure 4. Sample pages from the Soil Biology Inspection Guide.
Figure 5. Smart phone compatible microscopes to be provided to classrooms.
Figure 5. Smart phone compatible microscopes to be provided to classrooms.


On-farm research will be conducted during the 2019 and 2020 growing seasons to document short-term effects of the applied treatments. Each on-farm research site will host a field day during year three of the project to share study results and host farmer experiences with local agricultural producers and their advisors. Participating high school students will maintain an active role in research and outreach throughout the project. Assessments of knowledge gained and intended or actual behavior changes among students, their teachers, participating producers and outreach audiences will be completed to document impacts of this effort. Furthermore, an online photo sharing site is being explored to facilitate exchange of project photos among classes in all partnering high schools. Engaging students in the study near their school will be complimented by engaging classrooms from other schools participating in the project to share study statuses, data, and other information. These activities will be conducted via Zoom (online meeting platform) and facilitated by project team members to encourage students to share successes, frustrations, discoveries and outcomes from their study site with students in other schools participating in this project.


Olivo, Agustin (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) – agustinolivo@outlook.com

Schmidt, Amy (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) – aschmidt@unl.edu

Koelsch, Richard (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Schott, Linda (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Howard, Larry (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Ingram, Troy (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Lesoing, Gary (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Nygren, Aaron (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Saner, Randy (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Timmerman, Amy (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Whitney, Todd (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)





The Nebraska Environmental Trust provided funding for this project, Project 18-203: Transforming Manure and Cedar Mulch from ‘Waste’ to ‘Worth’.

The authors are solely responsible for the content of these proceedings. The technical information does not necessarily reflect the official position of the sponsoring agencies or institutions represented by planning committee members, and inclusion and distribution herein does not constitute an endorsement of views expressed by the same. Printed materials included herein are not refereed publications. Citations should appear as follows. EXAMPLE: Authors. 2019. Title of presentation. Waste to Worth. Minneapolis, MN. April 22-26, 2019. URL of this page. Accessed on: today’s date.