POWELL — A University of Wyoming technician here discussed his research Thursday, detailing how he uses a radioactive alloy to emit high-energy neutrons that collide with hydrogen atoms.

But Axel Garcia y Garcia is not a nuclear engineer or an advanced weapons designer. He’s an irrigation specialist at the UW Research and Extension Center.

The neutron probe he uses is the most accurate way to measure soil moisture, a key factor in many of the research projects that local farmers and ranchers saw during a tour of the center.

“This is kind of where ag is going,” said Corey Forman, a Powell farmer who grows beans, barley, oats and grass seed.

“We’re getting the same prices for some crops that we got 30 years ago, so we have to find new ways of becoming more efficient and growing higher quality products,” Forman said.

Trials and tests performed by UW researchers in a multitude of experimental plots just north of Powell are aimed at helping farmers get more for less in everything they grow.

“Our goal is to do research that is responsive to your needs,” Francis Galey told the dozens of farmers, ranchers, gardeners and others who spent the morning previewing new techniques for weed management, fertilizing, tilling and more.

Galey, dean of the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said that field research has remained a major function of the college, despite recent budget cuts and staff reductions in the wake of drops in state government revenues.

The college focuses on sustainable agriculture, natural resource management and rural families and communities, he said.

One area of research that drew a lot of interest was a series of experimental high tunnels — or unheated solar greenhouses — made with low-cost materials like PVC pipe, wooden strips and plastic sheeting.

Early tests show an unventilated model gets too hot for most fruits and vegetables. But ventilated models work well, and the simple, affordable structures are holding up well so far to Wyoming’s winds and harsh elements, researchers said.

For between $1,000 and $1,500, gardeners and farmers can build a high tunnel about the size of a semi-trailer that will help extend their growing season, said Jeff Edwards, a UW extension educator.

Galey said he is happy to see people taking a greater interest in practices like using solar greenhouses to grow their own vegetables, and that the local food movement is good for farmers everywhere.

“The more people we get interested in where their food comes from, the better,” he said.

Milton Geiger, UW energy extension coordinator, demonstrated how solar panels and a small wind turbine can save money for ranchers who want to pump water for livestock watering.

Geiger’s demonstration unit included four 170-watt solar panels and a 400-watt wind turbine mounted on a flatbed trailer.

The system can pump 8,000 gallons a day from a depth of 100 feet.

Prices range from $2,500 to $8,500, depending on the system’s size, and tax credits and federal grants can cut those costs in half.

Geiger said that wind-powered systems are more cost-efficient than solar-powered ones, and they operate at night.

The solar panels can withstand hail the size of baseballs.

The systems are generally cheaper than using generators or hauling water, and cost less than running a power line if the distance is greater than about a quarter-mile, he said.

Abdel Mesbah, director of the Powell center, discussed his research in determining optimum methods for using fertilizers on sugar beets when strip-tilling.

A method of planting that tills in strips, rather than plowing all of the ground, strip-tilling saves fuel and reduces erosion compared with conventional tilling, Mesbah said.

“So, a lot of people are leaning toward this kind of practice,” he said.

Forman said he might consider strip-tilling for some crops, but he is waiting to learn more about Mesbah’s research into finding the best way to apply fertilizers.

“It’s a constant struggle to gauge the timing of irrigation and fertilizer and what’s the most economic and efficient way to find that happy spot,” Forman said, adding that he is glad UW researchers are helping local farmers determine that balance.

Forman, who grows barley for Anheuser-Busch, said the brewer has exacting standards for germination levels to ensure a consistent malting process, and that bumper yields mean little if the crop quality is poor.

“There’s more demand now for high quality, so farmers are getting more creative and paying more attention” to new techniques pioneered by researchers, he said.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or 307-527-7250.

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