TAPS Turns Five

By: Tessa Burford, TAPS Team Member

TAPS is celebrating its fifth consecutive year of farm management competitions. Originally the brainchild of UNL-Extension specialists, including educator Chuck Burr, and Drs. Daran Rudnick and Matt Stockton, TAPS knows humble beginnings, as it began its development in 2016. Primarily conceived as a potential solution for improving collaboration between the University of Nebraska and area agricultural producers, there was certainly a lot to be quickly accomplished, in order to design and establish such an interactive and involved program. Then, in 2017, TAPS marked its first year of existence with the running of its original season-long sprinkler corn contest. Each year since, TAPS continues to see developmental growth, noticeably through the addition of more competitions, contestants, specialists, researchers, programmatic leadership, partners, sponsors, and more.

5 Year Graphicl

“The TAPS program was started with the idea that UNL, producers, and private industry could work together to address issues of farm profitability, water quantity, and water quality,” said Chuck Burr, Crops and Water Extension Educator and TAPS team member.

The careful attention and effort of those originally involved remains a core component of TAPS’ overall success but, in many ways, the program has largely taken on a life of its own over the past five years. With an increasing amount of individuals following along and interested in the program, the outcomes of the annual contests are having a far wider impact than could have originally been imagined by the TAPS team. Across the greater service area, conversations continue in all communities – the participants of TAPS are keen on benchmarking their own skill with peers, which remains a major programmatic appeal, and are similarly inspiring everyone who is paying attention to do the same. In other words, a lot of peer-to-peer comparisons and conversations are occurring throughout the TAPS production areas. Benchmarking, a commonplace tool for agricultural producers, allows for making quick comparison and contrast between one operation and another. While each operation is obviously unique, just as is each operator, benchmarking functions as a confirmation for many that they are or are not on the correct route to their goal(s). TAPS has championed the value and validity of benchmarking for half a decade, now, and this is having important impact for all involved and engaged with the program.

“The TAPS program allows participants to assess their management strategies, in comparison to other participants, to help identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in the management decisions they make,” added Burr.

Furthermore, by 2019, the program evolved quickly enough to need a full-time program manager, which is when Krystle Rhoades joined the TAPS Executive team. Clearly, now more than a straightforward University research and extension initiative, TAPS boldly defined itself as something more. Managing to keep the various contests running smoothly, getting necessary information where it is needed and on time, and assisting with communications in every capacity, as connected to a successful program, Rhoades has proved invaluable to the success of TAPS. By Rhoades’ first year aboard, the program had already grown from the one, original sprinkler corn contest to include sorghum, as well, and coincided with the first annual Subsurface Drip Irrigated (SDI) corn contest. Now, headed into what is Rhoades’ third season of TAPS, there are six total contests, including sprinkler and SDI corn, both dryland and irrigated sorghum, winter wheat, and secondary sprinkler corn and cotton contests, as executed by Oklahoma State University (OSU).

“The idea that Chuck, Daran, and Matt had for this program quickly became a model for extension and goes far beyond the classroom paradigm. By partnering with OSU, we have proven that it can be replicated in other locations, crops, and with differing issues, yet still provides stakeholders similar opportunities to learn from each other. I believe the model will be replicated in more locations, as the program continues,” said Krystle Rhoades, TAPS Program Manager.

Rhoades also works closely with the field team or the “boots on the ground,” as they are responsible for implementing all operational decisions made by the various contestants. Usually comprised of around six people each season, the project field team is led by Turner Dorr, Irrigation Research Manager, as well as Abia Katimbo and Hope Nakabuye, Ph.D. graduate students. As this team is directly involved with all contest field management, they work diligently every season to ensure the plain sailing of each competition and the application of intricately detailed decision-making that is individually involved with each plot.

Additionally, TAPS enjoys the partnership and/or sponsorship of several businesses. The support from industry leaders, partners, and sponsors has been tremendous and deeply impactful to both the program’s foundation and its growth. Each year, TAPS offers new technology and many companies have reached out to work with the program directly, which is not only appreciated by TAPS and its participants but has also allowed for progression and development at a much higher rate than otherwise. Five years ago, the TAPS team had to work to find interested participants, but now, the program has been able to expand into more contests with relative ease, as each season sees newly interested patrons, in addition to returners. The programmatic team anticipates seeing this upward momentum continue with the awarding of a three-year USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant, which began in 2020 and will remain pivotal in expanding the breadth of TAPS, as it is a multi-state grant, also involving Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

“TAPS has done more than anyone has expected it would do and brings the future to here and now. Because of TAPS, the University of Nebraska has improved partnership with the farm industry, in both education and discovery. What better way to learn than by experience with your peers in a friendly, competitive environment?” said Matt Stockton, Agricultural Economist and TAPS team member.