COLLEGE STATION – With crops in the ground 365 days a year in more than 150 counties in Texas, Dr. Travis Miller has worn through a lot of shoe leather during his 38 years with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Now he’s giving those shoes a break.
Miller may have carried the title of interim associate director for state operations with the AgriLife Extension most recently, but he is much better known for the 20-plus years spent as the state small grains and oilseeds specialist for the agency.
Miller joined AgriLife Extension in 1979 as an area agronomist based in Weslaco. His responsibilities included field trials and educational programming, primarily in cotton, corn, sorghum and soybeans.
“The Rio Grande Valley was a really great place to learn,” he said. “There are crops in the ground all year long. It’s like being in a candy store if you are an agronomist; you pick up on a lot of issues in multiple crops.”
But not all crops.
In 1982, when Miller moved to College Station to take the position as AgriLife Extension state specialist for small grains and oilseeds, he had never been in a wheat field.
Raised in the Corpus Christi area, he earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural mechanization from Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and master’s and doctoral degrees in soil science from Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
“But I had the basic fundamentals of agronomy, and we had some good folks around to learn from,” Miller said. “There’s nothing like shoe leather too, getting out there and being amongst it.”
And that’s what he did, attending as many as 20 field days and another 30-40 producer meetings across the state every year.
“When I took over the job, my predecessor had largely worked in rice, and I saw there was a huge void in wheat and other winter cereals,” he said. “We had a lot of researchers and faculty working in small grains, but a much lesser AgriLife Extension effort, so I decided I needed to do something about that.”
Miller said he took the National Agricultural Statistics Service map and everywhere there was a little dot indicating wheat and soybeans, “I decided that’s where I needed to be. I just used that to determine where I needed to contact county agents and develop programs, because that’s where there was a high density of wheat and/or soybeans.”
Small grains might have been the first part of his title, but Miller said he worked heavily with oilseeds, primarily soybeans in five or six counties along the upper Red River and in the Central Texas Blacklands.
“When I was recognized by the Texas County Agricultural Agents Association, they cited the introduction of soybeans into Central Texas,” he said.
Previously soybeans just hadn’t worked, but “we figured out how to use the early maturing, early planted soybeans effectively. And while it is still not like Iowa, people know how to grow soybeans and do it well now.”
As for wheat, one of the biggest successes was getting uniform variety trials put out at various locations across the state, Miller said. Before his organized effort, the trials were limited to county agents getting bags of seed and planting them.
“We worked on getting data we could use to help producers make decisions based on these uniform trials,” he said.
Other highlights from Miller in the field of wheat programming included introduction of the use of deep-banded phosphorus on wheat, particularly in dryland wheat, but even in irrigated stands.
“The top 2 inches of soil is where fertilizer was typically incorporated, and it’s dry about 90 percent of the growing season,” he said. “The plants don’t have active root systems to pick it up. We found by taking a chisel and banding phosphorus down about 6 inches deep, we were able to average 57 percent more forage on wheat and in excess of 20 percent higher grain yields in our field trials.”
Miller said the deep-banded phosphorus allowed the wheat plant to establish a root system early and take advantage of deeper moisture because it had good fertility.
“I also worked with Montana State and Kansas State (universities) and others on the introduction of chloride fertility in wheat to combat leaf rust and other fungal diseases of wheat,” he said. “We found responses to wheat just to chloride as an element, but it was quite striking when there was plant disease out there. We’d have 40 and 50 percent less leaf rust in the Blacklands and some Rolling Plains sites where high humidity made rust issues a problem for wheat growers.”
Another crisis faced during the late 1990s and early 2000s was a lot of drought. Serving with the Texas Drought Preparedness Council, Miller said he spent a lot of time trying to inform people, particularly the public – the farmers already knew it was dry, what the issues were related to drought and the water supply and how it affected them.
Miller said his goal all those years was to get out among producers to know what was important to them and to create programs that made a difference to them – anything from variety trials to fungicide and weed control to soil fertility.
While he was named associate head and program leader of AgriLife Extension in the Texas A&M soil and crop science department in 2001, Miller continued for two or three years as the state small grains specialist until he was able to hire Dr. Gaylon Morgan, who later became the state cotton specialist, after which Dr. Clark Neely filled his old position.
Miller said recruiting and hiring some very bright, capable young scientists was a significant achievement during his time as an associate head, which he left in June 2014 to serve in his current position the last three years.
Looking forward, he said no doubt these scientists and others will have to deal with the greatest issue in agriculture – water.
“We have a finite supply of water under these Great Plains, which is the breadbasket of the U.S.,” Miller said. “So much of our food and fiber in the form of beef and other commodities are grown in the Plains, and we are seeing the water supply continue to decline.
“You can’t help but believe we are going to see a transition toward dryland and much more efficient cropping systems that use less water and are more tolerant to stress,” he said. “I can’t think of any more critical issue than our water supply and the careful stewardship of the supply we do have.”
And that issue isn’t just important to the High Plains, Miller said.
“It’s really all over the state of Texas. We get lots of rain on the east side of the state, but we also have 20 million people on the east side of the state, so there’s a continually increasing demand for water, and we aren’t getting anymore supply.”
Miller said there’s lots of talk about meeting the world needs for food, “but first we have to keep our farmers in business. Right now you can see the effects of the depressed commodity prices on agriculture. So how do we maintain the critical agricultural infrastructure in times of low prices and meet the projected need? That will be another big challenge for our agency.”
As for Miller, he won’t get completely away from helping address those challenges. He said with he and his wife in reasonably good health, they are ready to do some traveling and spend some time with grandkids. But he will hold an emeritus title and still have an office on campus in the soil and crop sciences department, so he will stay connected.