Southeast Student, Football Player Tackles Soil Health Research

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Redhawks senior tight end and scholar athlete Bud Hilburn is taking advantage of all the opportunities – both academic and athletic – Southeast Missouri State University has to offer.

With football season in full swing, his schedule is jam-packed with games, practices, conditioning and other team responsibilities. But off the gridiron, he’s making the most of his experience as a student-athlete, tackling academic agricultural research at the David M. Barton Agriculture Research Center.

He’s part of a student research team working to determine how cover crops can help manage soil health. Keeping and replenishing nutrients in the soil is vital for farmers across the nation. One way to address this challenge is to make good use of cover crops.

The Kennett, Missouri, native majoring in agribusiness, plant and soil science option, is participating in cover crop research as part of a USDA grant-funded four-year project in collaboration with Southeast’s Department of Agriculture, Arkansas State University and the University of Tennessee-Martin.

The student research team helps to establish experimental plots, collect plant and soil samples, and record data.  In order to provide quality control, samples are sent to an approved third-party lab for analysis. Hilburn spent the summer in Cape Girardeau engaged in the research, which he is continuing this fall.

“To me, Bud represents what this initiative is all about. He is a local student that came to Southeast Missouri State University to be a part of the agribusiness and football programs,” said Southeast football Coach Tom Matukewicz. “He loves this institution and will be super successful with this special opportunity. Bud is a great representative of our University and football program, and I’m thankful for the opportunities Southeast affords our student-athletes to be students first and athletes second.”

Hilburn is working under the guidance of Dr. Indi Braden, Southeast professor of agriculture. The samples Hilburn collects are important in determining which species of cover crops are best adapted to the region for use in enhancing sustainability in crop production systems.

“Having cover crops in between your primary, cash crops can help build organic matter and nutrients in the soil,” Hilburn said. “The research looks at different cover crops and how they’re affecting and promoting soil health in this region.”

The overall goal is to help provide producers with recommendations of the cover crop species that are best adapted to this area, Braden said.

“Cover crops can improve soil quality by reducing soil erosion, reducing nutrient losses into water ways, providing natural weed barriers through allelopathy, improving organic matter for soil moisture, and more,” she said. “Many people in the region use winter wheat as a cover crop or a crop rotation to hold soil in place. Wheat is only one option. This research allows for comparisons of single species or multiple species mixes in cover crop applications following corn or soybeans.”

One of the highlights of Hilburn’s work, is getting to help process the plant and soil samples he collects with experts in the lab.

“It was really interesting to see how they test my samples in the lab,” said Hilburn, who got to assist in the testing process a couple of times with Dr. David Dunn of the University of Missouri Soil Testing Laboratory. “It’s a lot more in-depth process than I realized. There’s actually lot of chemistry involved to break down what is going on in each sample. You have to mix different chemicals and use specific equipment for different tests. It was really great to learn about what goes on in the lab.”

This fall, along with continuing to collect plant and soil samples, Hilburn will help plant cover crop plots of cereal rye, wheat, oats, crimson clover, hairy vetch, and various brassicas before the winter season. Testing from this plant season will help continue to find specific results and data for this region.

“The main cover crop in the region is winter wheat, which is readily available and is synonymous with cover crops,” Braden said. “However, there are dozens of cover crop species that can be grown for very specific functions. Yet, the majority of the research on cover crops comes from areas to the north where the climate and soils are quite different.”

Being a part of this research and having an active role on the Barton Farm has been a rewarding experience, said Hilburn.

“I’m definitely a hands-on learner, and working in the field has been a good experience,” he said. “It’s been really great to be a part of something outside the classroom.”

Having undergraduate students involved in research opportunities allows them to learn how to apply course material to research and to real-world applications, and take that knowledge with them after they graduate, said Braden.

“Often, students get an idea of what should happen in agriculture from the classroom or from personal farm experiences, and this sometimes leaves out the science of why we do what we do,” she said. “The undergraduate research applications help to support the science of on-farm methods. My long-term goal is that all of my students see the importance of protecting the soil for our future generations.”

The results of this research will be a great asset to area conservationists, consultants and producers as they work as a team to enhance the sustainability of the agricultural enterprise in the local area.

“The return farmers can get from good soil health and using the right cover crops can pay dividends in the long term,” Hilburn said.

Balancing the demands of the classroom, this project and football have been a challenge, but Hilburn says his hard work and dedication are paying dividends for him.

“You just got to do it,” he said. “Dr. Braden has been willing to work with my schedule and give me this opportunity. My classes come first, and then it’s just about managing my life and doing whatever it takes to get things done.”

Being a part of the research team has also positively affected his academic goals, Hilburn said.

“It’s brought a lot more structure and discipline to my academic life,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot that I can use beyond the football field and in the real world.”

In this final year of the project, Braden, Hilburn and other students will continue to research plots and compile and evaluate the data for all three states collaborating as part of this project. In October, Braden and several Southeast students will participate in a regional student research conference. Braden also will present their final results at future field days and agronomy meetings.

Hilburn, who expects to graduate from Southeast in December 2019, hopes to take what he’s learned in the research field and on the football field back to share with his hometown and local farmers.