March Madness with an Agronomic Twist

photo of Matt Nelson and the completed bracketMatt Nelson was missing March Madness.  And he knew others were, too.

Following the cancellation of the 2020 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball tournament amid the nation’s response to COVID-19, a friendly conversation with colleagues led Nelson (’15 agronomy, environmental studies) to develop Weed Science Madness. He created a bracket to share via social media highlighting weeds that plague producers across the United States.

Nelson’s goal was to provide levity and friendly competition for agriculture industry professionals missing sports tournaments. As a technical agronomist for Bayer CropScience, and editor and contributor for the popular sports blog, Wide Right & Natty Lite, he was uniquely suited for the challenge.

Similar to the traditional NCAA basketball tournament, Nelson developed the bracket to feature weeds from different regions of the United States. Friends and colleagues from across the country provided plant expertise and suggestions to set up the match-ups or seeds.

“I was really surprised by how many people wanted to help with the project,” says Nelson. “Bracket development included weed-science experts from Washington to Delaware.”

Tweet about the bracketOn March 19, Nelson posted the bracket and competition information on his Twitter account. Response was so overwhelming, he adjusted Weed Science Madness from a traditional paper bracket to an online polling system that allowed users to vote and monitor results.

Participants included high school educators, college professors, farmers, industry professionals and more. Nelson’s original bracket reached more than 40,000 Twitter users and sparked nation-wide discussion and lively debate surrounding weed science.

“I noticed a lot of conversation about different seeds for the weed species. I loved learning which weeds people view as bigger issues. For example, people from up north don’t consider barnyardgrass to be an issue, but farmers and agronomists in the south see it as one of their primary foes in rice production.” says Meaghan Anderson (’12 agronomy, ’14 MS crop production and physiology), agronomy field specialist for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Tweet about the bracketThe 12-day tournament netted more than 100,000 Twitter impressions and included more than 1,500 votes.  The Weed Science Madness championship ended on March 30. Palmer amaranth, an aggressive, invasive weed known for its impacts across the U.S. and particularly in Iowa soybean fields, was the ultimate winner.

“The response to this bracket was outstanding,” says Nelson, “I was glad we were able to provide some fun and great discussion surrounding weed science during a really challenging time.”

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumni who helped create the bracket:

  • Dawn Refsell (’01 agronomy, ’03 MS crop production and physiology)
  • Meaghan Anderson (’12 agronomy, ’14 MS crop production and physiology)
  • Bob Hartzler (’87 PhD agronomy)
  • Lowell Sandell (’97 agronomy, ’00 MS crop production and physiology)