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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Aug. 14, 2008

Dennis Shannon

A well-oiled farm network

by Barbara McBreen, Agriculture and Life Sciences Communications

As thunder rumbles outside Curtiss Hall, Dennis Shannon talks about how this spring's heavy rain changed planting plans for Iowa State's research farms.

Shannon, who has managed the farms since 1986, keeps close contact with staff stationed on research farms around Ames and the state.

"If it's a sunny spring day, no one calls, but when it's raining, they all call," Shannon said. "Rainy days and Mondays are the busiest."

Finding solutions to everyday needs and extraordinary problems, like this year's rain, is what he does.

"He's very good at what he does," said Mark Honeyman, coordinator of ISU Research and Demonstration Farms and professor of animal science. "He likes to stay behind the scenes and make things work."

Honeyman said the research farms are similar to any research lab on campus, except they are larger and located on farmland. The research farms are used by more than 130 faculty and staff in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and other colleges to study water quality; beef cattle; swine; biorenewable crops; grape vineyards; forestry; new varieties of fruits, vegetables and crops; and methods to fight pests and diseases that harm plants and animals.

Variety is the name

Iowa State staff throughout the state manage 11 research farms, seven of them owned by local nonprofit farmer/community associations. The university owns the other four farms. Shannon is the "Radar O'Reilly" for the farm superintendents, anticipating needs and ensuring that adequate seed, fertilizer, equipment and supplies are available for the research farms.

"For the college to fulfill its mission, these farms are critical resources -- they are like a large laboratory," Honeyman said. "And Shannon keeps these labs running seamlessly, which allows researchers to get their work done."

The farms are located on 10 of the 20 major soil types throughout the state. The farm locations also represent Iowa's varying weather patterns. For example, the average rainfall in northwest Iowa is 12 inches less than the average in the southeast. The average temperature in northern Iowa is 6 degrees cooler than southern Iowa, and southeast Iowa has 40 more growing days than northeast Iowa. These variables make a difference in the types of crops farmers and gardeners plant.

"Also, if you only had research farms around Ames, you wouldn't have any connection to folks out in the state," Shannon said.

Coordinator extraordinaire

Connecting with folks around the state means working with ISU farm superintendents to coordinate 17 crop and livestock field days and eight garden field days. The field days give researchers a chance to share practical results Iowans can use, Shannon said.

Anyone who talks to Shannon knows he's constantly looking for solutions -- from purchasing equipment to helping the farms efficiently share resources. During July, as one research farm staff harvested oats and baled straw, Shannon coordinated with the other farm superintendents to find out if they could use the straw.

Shannon also handles crop reporting for the university. To be eligible for crop insurance, farmers must report planting acreages and yields to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA). An average farmer reports around one or two crops for every 100 to 1,000 acres. Shannon has to report a variety of crops planted in research plots as small as 20 square feet on thousands of acres throughout the state.

"I think they (FSA staff) dread seeing me," Shannon said. "We spend hours getting every plot reported."

But it's that variety Shannon enjoys.

"One day I'll be in the field working all day," Shannon said. "The next, I'll be taking calls all day."

A little recognition

In January, Dean Wendy Wintersteen presented Shannon with the Dean's Citation for extraordinary contributions to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He was honored for coordinating the auction of surplus machinery and equipment from the old Ankeny dairy farm, which generated more than $200,000. The new dairy farm opened in March and is located just south of Ames.

Shannon has a bachelor's degree in agronomy from Iowa State. After earning his master's degree in soil chemistry from South Dakota State University, he managed his own farm for 12 years near Manilla in western Iowa.


"If you only had research farms around Ames, you wouldn't have any connection to folks out in the state."

Dennis Shannon