It is a pleasure to once again
summarize the successes of the
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
Our scientists are always looking for
new opportunities while also responding to unexpected and emerging issues.
In 2005 our scientists worked on 112 projects in the areas of food, farms, family and communities, biology, and business.
In addition to scientific projects, the experiment station supports other activities that are key to Kentucky's farms, agribusinesses, and consumers.
The Division of Regulatory Services conducted over 120,000 inspections and analyses on Kentucky's feed, seed, fertilizer, and milk industries. Eli Miller, who is retiring as the division's director, leaves it in good financial condition with a high reputation for service to the state's agricultural industries.
In 2005 the Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center served veterinarians in all phases of the agricultural animal and pet industries. The center has the highest case load of horses in the world and one of the highest case loads for cattle in the country, and it is key to the successful management of disease of all animals statewide. In 2005 the center performed 5,000 animal necropsies (postmortem examinations) and more than 150,000 other chemical and biological tests. It also is developing a real-time, statewide animal disease surveillance system. We appreciate the recognition of its importance by Kentucky's elected officials, and we look forward to the second phase of renovation, which is expected to lead to the center's full accreditation status.
The partnership with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Forage-Animal Production Unit continues to flourish. Thanks to the efforts of Kentucky's congressional delegation, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, $4 million was awarded for a new $30 million federal laboratory building that also will house University scientists.
In 2005 Dean Scott Smith established the UK College of Agriculture Equine Initiative, which will enhance educational and research services for the equine industry. We have already started new programs in economics and pasture management to augment the already-strong programs of animal scientists, entomologists, and researchers at the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center.
The experiment station serves as the grants and contracts office for the College of Agriculture, so funding totals reflect contributions of College faculty with teaching and extension appointments as well as those with research positions. College external funding increased slightly over 2004 totals, and early indications are that funding in 2006 will increase by several more million dollars.
A main feature in this issue focuses on commercializing of biotechnology and students working on research for biotech companies.
In this research report, you‘ll read about:
- How Dan Potter began, in 2001, to apply his broad insect knowledge to Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome
- A new partnership at Griffith Woods that provides another test site for research in forestry and native plants
- David Horohov's discovery of a key protein in immune function that can be applied to both young and old horses
- UK's partnership with the University of Louisville to focus some of the state's best scientific minds on gaining independence from fossil fuel
- How faculty and students in biosystems and agricultural engineering have come up with a flexible, affordable tractor for the future
- Research in organic farming, part of our ongoing efforts to assure that our agricultural practices sustain our land for the future.
Nancy M. Cox, Associate Dean for Research
Director, Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
S-129 Agricultural Science Center
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40546-0091
for the Federal Fiscal Year—
October 1, 2004 through September 30, 2005
Federal — $5,263,287
Gifts & Endowment Income — $4,423,124
Grants & Contracts*— $23,492,755
State — $28,413,787
* Includes funding secured by teaching and extension faculty
to the UK College of Agriculture
through the UK Research Foundation
(Grants are for the state fiscal year, July 1 - June 30)
a Driverless Tractor
A farmer sitting atop a huge tractor has been an American icon, but what if we had a tractor that has no cab, no view—in fact, no farmer?
This dream machine, called an autonomous tractor, is close to reality. It wouldn't need a driver, because it's controlled by computer and a GPS system. That could mean that labor costs would go down, and producers could use it day or night.
The Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering has been working on the driverless tractor for several years (see the Summer 2001 issue of the Ag Magazine). They've now figured out how much it would cost and what it could look like.
The first phase of research was carried out by Tim Stombaugh and graduate student Matt Darr '04 (who now is enrolled in a doctoral program at Ohio State).
"We wanted to know if we could control an autonomous tractor with inexpensive electronic controls," Stombaugh said.
Indeed they could.
He and Darr put together a networked computer package that controls ignition, steering, and transmission and a GPS system to keep the tractor on course and on task. The cost of the electronic hardware would be about $1,000.
From the left:
Jeremy Cantrell '05, and Tim Stombaugh
Once Stombaugh and Darr demonstrated that the autonomous tractor was feasible economically, Scott Shearer, also in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, and graduate student Jeremy Cantrell '05 began to think about its design.
"If there's no driver, what are the constraints?" Shearer said. He and Cantrell started with the chassis of a compact diesel tractor as a base point and redesigned it. What they've come up with looks, to the layperson's eye, like four wheels and a frame and calls to mind a gurney without the bed.
But do not be fooled. This tractor can be raised to spray a corn crop 6 to 7 feet tall or lowered to the ground for seeding. It can harvest like a combine, and more. All of this activity—where it goes, what turns it makes—can be controlled with a wireless link to a computer in the farm office.
The hurdle for manufacturers, both Stombaugh and Shearer say, is liability. If a tractor without a driver has an accident, who is responsible?
Shearer and Stombaugh think a smaller vehicle might be the answer.
"If you go to a smaller horsepower autonomous tractor, you've significantly reduced the liability," Shearer said.
They see other advantages, too. Smaller tractors could more easily maneuver much of Kentucky's hilly and oddly shaped farm terrain, and unlike larger, heavier tractors, they wouldn't compact the soil, which makes it harder for plants to thrive.
Both Shearer and Stombaugh are optimistic. "The technology is here," Shearer said.
"We think we can interest major manufacturers in looking at this," Stombaugh said.
Making Organic Profitable
Kentucky has approximately 8,000 acres in vegetable production but fewer than 200 are certified as organic, making it an untapped market for many Kentucky farmers.
The potential profit for organic farming is big: the organic food market currently is growing at a rate of 20 percent a year, according to the USDA. That makes it the fastest growing segment of U.S. agriculture.
The USDA earlier this year authorized the Kentucky Department of Agriculture to certify the state's organic producers.
"An increasing number of farmers in Kentucky are responding to consumer interest in organic products and practices," said Mark Williams of the Department of Horticulture.
But even with infrastructure in place, any farmer considering a move to organic needs answers to questions such as: How can I maximize my yield and crop quality? How can I increase my soil's fertility? How do I best manage diseases, insects, and weeds? And, finally, how much money will I make?
In 2003, to answer those questions and others, the Department of Horticulture earmarked 11 acres for organic crops research at the Horticulture Research Farm in Lexington. Four projects in organic vegetable production are either under way or planned, with funding from the College's New Crop Opportunities Center.
One research project, already completed, showed that you can profitably grow organic bell peppers and some other horticultural crops using a production system that includes plastic-covered raised beds and wood-chip mulch for weed control.
For farmers making a gradual switch to organic vegetables, another project will provide data on what techniques work best and are most cost effective.
In a third project, researchers at UK in collaboration with Kentucky State University are evaluating the effectiveness of no-till and shallow cultivation.
This project also is examining the use of biodegradable plastic mulch as an alternative to the more commonly used petroleum-based black plastic.
Trials began this year in a fourth project to determine which varieties of leafy greens are best suited for Kentucky.
Americans don't eat many leafy greens (collards, kale, Swiss chard, etc.), although they're considered good for you. Williams thinks that as consumers become even more health conscious, the demand for vegetables such as greens is likely to increase.
Growing them could be a profitable crop option for both conventional and organic vegetable producers in Kentucky.
Another researcher, Larry Grabau in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, is looking at various crop rotation systems to discover if Kentucky producers could successfully use organic methods to raise corn, soybeans, and wheat.
Organic vegetable research has involved a number of other researchers in the College along with Williams and Grabau, including Brent Rowell and John Snyder in the Department of Horticulture, Elisa D‘Angelo in Plant and Soil Sciences, and Mike Mullen (now associate dean for academic programs and formerly a faculty member in Plant and Soil Sciences).
All of this research will have the farmer's bottom line in mind. "Economic profitability is a driving force," Williams said. "We‘ll be looking not only at yield analysis but economic analysis too."
for Horse Farms
Dan Potter in the Department of Entomology would be quick to tell you he doesn't have all the answers. He does, however, have some solutions, and that's good news for the equine industry.
Potter is an urban landscape entomologist, and his research focuses on insect pests of trees, shrubs, and turf. Over the past five years, he and his students have tested, analyzed, and compared a variety of options to control the eastern tent caterpillar, which research has shown is linked to Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS).
MRLS devastated Central Kentucky's equine industry five years ago, causing thousands of fetal losses and costing the industry millions of dollars.
The solution is not as simple as using an effective insecticide.
"Horse farm managers don't want to spray anything that's potentially harmful to horses," Potter said.
Dan Potter, left, and
arborist Larry Hanks
"Many insecticides will take care of eastern tent caterpillar but have grazing restrictions on the label so they can't be used in pastures. Even if they're not restricted, they may have intrinsic toxicity, and horse farm managers don't like to use them," he said.
Potter and his research team have counted caterpillar egg masses, determined exactly where they occur on trees, and figured out how to predict when they will hatch—which, as it happens, is when forsythia is half in bloom.
All this work has been to figure out when and where the caterpillars are likely to become active, so control can be timed and targeted.
Potter also has tested horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps and organic, synthetic, and microbial insecticides. His work has been done over several years, on different farms, and on different life stages of the pest. He's also carried out trials to figure out the best way to use ground sprays to stop caterpillars as they crawl through pastures.
The most recent tests evaluated trunk-injected insecticides, which Potter described as "like giving an IV to a tree."
This method involves drilling small holes in the base of a wild cherry tree, inserting a tube in each hole, and then attaching a small canister of insecticide to the tube.
"The trees soak it up in the sap stream," Potter said. "I don't think it's been used against eastern tent caterpillars before."
The beauty of this method is that no chemicals move beyond the tree.
One insecticide Potter tested with this method was very effective, but a certified applicator was required to stay on site until the process was complete.
Recently, he's found success in tests with an insecticide that isn't restricted, so the person applying it doesn't have to be certified. In fact, staff can be trained to use it in a self-study course.
"We're trying to develop non-hazardous control methods so that the next time there's a big outbreak of eastern tent caterpillar, farm managers will be armed with as many options as possible," Potter said.
Griffith Woods in Harrison County must have looked like paradise in the 1800s. Weary travelers making the long wagon trek from Cincinnati found there a tavern where they could get food and drink and a bed for the night before heading on to
Lexington, 30 miles away.
The tavern still stands, but it's the land that's most precious to conservation biologists and researchers of the 21st century. Griffith Woods is the largest and best remaining example of savanna-woodland in the Bluegrass—a mosaic of pastureland, lone trees, and patches of woods near the Bourbon County line.
More than 500 ancient trees are part of the Griffith Woods landscape, including some of the most characteristic and majestic Bluegrass species such as blue ash, chinquapin oak, bur oak, and the Kentucky coffee tree.
"Griffith Woods is a unique historical and ecological site within the Bluegrass, and it's considered one of Kentucky's last great places," said John Cox of the Department of Forestry, research coordinator and site manager for Griffith Woods, referring to the book Kentucky's Last Great Places by Thomas G. Barnes, Department of Forestry.
In 2004, the University, using a grant from the Kentucky Land Heritage Conservation Fund, purchased almost half of the 746-acre Griffith Woods from The Nature Conservancy, which had bought the entire tract two years earlier.
Now, the University is working with The Nature Conservancy and the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission to restore Griffith Woods to what it looked like just before the Revolutionary War, when Native Americans lived on it and bison and elk roamed it.
To guide the restoration, they are using explorers' records from that time.
Research is already under way and is wide-ranging, from understanding how to best re-establish blue ash trees to determining what bird species inhabit Griffith Woods. Much of this research will help with restoration, but it will also provide a wealth of information that can be used to help with preservation and restoration of other natural landscapes in the state.
Although Griffith Woods is not yet open to the public, some or all of it eventually will be, when it is turned into a state nature preserve.
Right now, much of the restoration work is the arduous job of controlling exotic invasives—non-native plants that have taken over much of the original landscape. They make it hard for native species such as buffalo running clover and cane. Cox said the cane once grew so tall in the Bluegrass that “riders on horseback got lost in it.”
The Friends of Griffith Woods, a volunteer organization, is growing many native Bluegrass species at an on-site nursery.
"They‘ll be used to re-colonize the site and hopefully be a source of native plants for local nurseries and other regional restoration projects," Cox said.
Answers for Foals
Young foals grazing in pastures is a sure sign of spring in the Bluegrass State. They look the picture of health, but foals up to the age of about 3 months are particularly prone to the pneumonia caused by the bacterium Rhodococcus equi. While it rarely kills, diagnosis and treatment can be costly, as those who run horse farms in Central Kentucky can attest.
There's no sure-fire way to prevent this disease, but David Horohov in the Department of Veterinary Science has focused on Rhodococcus equi as part of his larger research effort to better understand how the horse's immune system works. With that understanding, better treatments for all kinds of infections can be devised, including this pneumonia, which strikes only young foals.
"We're primarily interested in immune regulation in horses so we can improve their responsiveness to vaccines and their response to ongoing infection," Horohov said.
David Horohov and graduate student
He and his laboratory team at the Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center have isolated, characterized, and replicated various genes associated with the horse's immune system. They have found that young foals lack a particular protein that would make them immune to Rhodococcus equi and bacteria that cause other similar diseases.
"We think that's why they're susceptible," Horohov said.
His lab is now testing two products that would enable young foals to produce, at an earlier age, the pneumonia-protecting protein they later develop naturally.
Horohov is also interested in older horses. "Young horses are only a small part of our equine population," he said.
"Even in the Thoroughbred industry, where people first think of three-year-olds, there are older stallions and broodmares on many farms," he said.
Older horses and people are alike in that they show many of the same kinds of age-related changes in the immune system.
"We think we can learn from both directions," Horohov said.
Horohov and those who work with him are investigating why older horses have reduced ability to make new white blood cells and how this is tied to their age-related decline in immune responses.
He tells his new graduate students that their work is like a puzzle—they"ve got the pieces, but they're not put together, and they don't have a picture to go by.
"That's what science is like," Horohov said. "We are finding answers, putting the puzzle together, but it is a complex process. Because we don‘t have the complete picture, it has to be done step by step."
Kentucky is putting some of its best research minds to work on energy questions with what's called the Kentucky Rural Energy Consortium. It's a project that may be unparalleled in the extent of its collaboration between UK and the University of Louisville.
The consortium was launched in 2005. It is a partnership in three ways:
• Scientists at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville are working together on some of the projects.
• Federal money (nearly $1.4 million) and state money ($295,000) have been pooled to give researchers the dollars they need.
• Higher education and state government joined forces to organize the consortium (the Kentucky Office of Energy Policy is working with the two universities).
Seven research projects have been funded. The projects seek to develop technologies that will either increase energy efficiency or use agriculture-related products as alternative sources of energy.
These projects include:
• Creating a pilot facility that would demonstrate how corn stover (everything left over from the corn plant after the corn is harvested) could be cost-effectively collected, handled, and stored so that biorefineries would find it economical to convert the stover into a fuel source.
• Improving the ability of a particular bacterium (C. thermocellum) to turn organic matter (plant material, known as biomass) into ethanol, an alternative fuel.
• Increasing the stability of bio-oil, which is made from processing biomass at high temperatures, so it can be stored and transported—a necessary step before it could ever be considered as an alternative to petroleum oil.
• Creating briquettes (much like charcoal) of biomass made from agricultural products such as corn stover, fescue, and wood waste. The briquettes could become an alternative to coal for industrial boilers.
• Developing a technology to adjust ventilation in homes in relation to outside temperatures and wind. This technology could help homeowners improve indoor air quality, which is a concern as homes become more air-tight in order to cut heating and cooling costs.
Researchers in UK's Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering and its Department of Animal and Food Sciences are part of the consortium, with some of them working on more than one project. They include Michael Montross, Czarena Crofcheck, Scott Shearer, Sue Nokes, Don Colliver, and James Bush in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering and Herbert Strobel in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences.
Other UK researchers involved in the consortium include Mark Crocker, Darrell Taulbee, and Rodney Andrews, all part of the UK Center for Applied Energy Research; Barbara Knutson, Department of Chemical and Material Engineering; and Bert Lynn, Department of Chemistry.
The consortium grew out of Kentucky's Strategic Plan for the New Economy, which was unveiled in 2002 to position the state as part of the high-tech global marketplace.