Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
College of Agriculture
Research 2011 Annual Report
Before there was a UK College of Agriculture, there was an Experiment Station. Much has been written on the transformative creation of the land-grant university, catalyzed by the 1862 Morrill Act. It was, however, the additional commitment to research from the federal government with its passage of the Hatch Act of 1887 that established and funded agricultural experiment stations and brought respected, unbiased science to the practitioners of agriculture. So perhaps this is a good time to think about the long history and enduring and interdependent partnership between the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and the University of Kentucky.
While the Experiment Station still belongs to UK, it now is the research arm for the College of Agriculture. Station oversight is the job of the Experiment Station director, who also functions as the College’s associate dean for research. Today, the Station produces research on lands we manage in Kentucky, in real-world settings around the globe, and in state-of-the-art laboratories on campus. The equivalent of 100 full-time researchers aid Kentucky’s forests, farms, food, and families with their phenomenal work.
At the Kentucky Ag Experiment Station, we were multidisciplinary before it was cool! Working across scientific disciplines is the foundation of all our work and one of the most enduring contributions of Experiment Station research.
Early ag research at UK was dedicated to solving problems for producers and concentrating on new productive plant varieties and new cultivation processes. Experiment Station research created incredible improvements in animal breeding, nutrition, and management. The green revolution of the second half of the 20th century had its roots in land-grant university scientists and their partners in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We also made progress in the human sciences, solving problems about clothing, the home environment, nutrition, and marketing. Much of our success was due to our team approach, which many other disciplines, including biomedical research, have envied and emulated.
So how are we doing today? Team-based research is still second nature to us. We have refined the partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and many more funding partners from other federal agencies, state agencies, and industry. Today, the modern Experiment Station in Kentucky works on problems of state-specific and national priority and leverages the federal government’s investment more than five times over. We are completely integrated with the College’s teaching and extension programs, educating students on research and imparting the results of our research to the practitioner.
Are we still relevant? Our role in the university is less prominent, and today’s clientele are different from those 19th century farmers, but they are just as hungry for the latest information. We are up for the challenge. As you can see in this magazine, we work on more complex projects than the old days of improving crops and animals through breeding and management. In fact, we are working on non-food uses of crops through a bioprocessing project to use crops for fuel and bioproducts. We take a broad look at the effects of geography and poverty on nutritional health. We are still improving crops and animals, but we use advanced scientific techniques to focus our successes.
We work beyond the U.S. borders too, and we involve our students. From its home in the modern College of Agriculture, the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station is true to its principles of partnership, relevancy, and dedication to stakeholders.
And still cool.
Nancy M. Cox
Associate Dean for Research
Director, Kentucky Agricultural
S-129 Agricultural Science Center
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40546-0091
Could where we live influence our waistlines? Based on her research, Alison Gustafson thinks so. Gustafson, an assistant professor in the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition (formerly Nutrition and Food Science), is trying to understand the connection between people’s neighborhoods and what they eat. Her research focuses on the availability of healthier foods in communities with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economics Research Service, about 60 percent of SNAP recipients are overweight and half of those are obese. Although several factors are thought to cause high rates of obesity, one influence may be an individual’s environment. Specifically, the neighborhood where SNAP participants live and the food venues where they shop may influence what food choices they make.
Gustafson’s interest in this research area was sparked while staging heart disease and weight loss interventions among low-income women throughout the Midwest.
“There is a lot of time and money needed for a person to lose 10 pounds,” she said. “It’s a lot more than calories in and calories out. It made me think of other possible outside influences that could affect people’s weight.”
Using a geographic information system, GIS, Gustafson mapped where SNAP participants in 57 Kentucky counties lived as well as the number and type of food venues they could access. This gave her a better understanding of how an individual’s proximity to certain store types is associated with their diet.
Results show that SNAP participants living in counties with a supercenter consume seven more grams of fat per day than SNAP recipients living in counties without one. SNAP participants living in counties with three or more gas stations consumed 400 more calories per day than those living in areas with fewer. These additional calories roughly equal a pound per week.
In another study, Gustafson used the Nutrition Environment Measures Survey in Stores to determine whether the availability, price, and quality of healthy food within a grocery store influenced the diet of Fayette County SNAP participants.
She found participants who live near a store with a high availability of healthy options consumed two more servings of vegetables and more milk per day than those who did not live close to such a store. In addition, SNAP participants who live within a half mile of a farmers market consumed two more servings of vegetables per day than those who weren’t near one. Those who lived within a half mile of a convenience store consumed fewer fruits and vegetables than other participants.
Based on these results, Gustafson believes it’s not only the type of stores that are available within a neighborhood, but also the foods inside.
“We need to make the healthy option the easy option, but at the same time, we need to make choosing and buying the unhealthy option a bit harder, in order to see change at the community level,” she said.
Big Blue Trebuchet
When plant pathologist Michael Goodin talks about his recent visit to Brazil, he lights up with the idea that he’s helping to build what he calls the Big Blue Trebuchet. In other words, he’s helping to launch College of Agriculture students and researchers around the world for study, research, and outreach.
For instance, look at the coffee ringspot virus that Goodin experienced first-hand on his latest trip. He and his Brazilian collaborator, Professor Antonia Dos Reis Figueira, toured coffee plantations, where he was able to view the symptoms and understand the virus’s economic impact. As it turned out, the virus is genetically related to one Goodin has been working with, a plant rhabdovirus that is basically, as he puts it, a plant rabies. Currently, scientists know of more than 200 rhabdovirus-like viruses, which collectively cause diseases in plants, animals, fish, and humans.
The coffee ringspot virus is an emerging virus in a country that produces 40 percent of the world’s coffee. It’s always been around, but for some, as yet, unknown reason, it’s becoming more prevalent.
“Emerging viruses are a serious concern for agriculture and human health,” Goodin said. “In this case, this is a mite-transmitted rhabdovirus. You see changes in the vector (an organism that transmits diseases or parasites) dynamics when you get a certain combination of cropping systems and/or climate change, and viruses are happy to go along for the ride.”
The coffee ringspot virus causes a premature defoliation of the coffee plant, and under some weather conditions, can cause fruit to fall. This can negatively affect flavor, quality, and yield. The infected plants also are predisposed to secondary fungal infections.
Goodin is researching the relationship between the plant and the virus, with the goal of engineering a virus-resistant plant. He’s starting from ground zero, however, since very little is known about this particular virus. Anderson de Jesus Sotero, a Brazilian doctoral student who is spending a year working in Goodin’s UK lab, will sequence the viral genome before returning home to finish his degree.
“The cropping systems in agriculture are so intense in Brazil and the U.S.—good for virologists and plant pathologists perhaps, but difficult in terms of sustainable agriculture,” Goodin said. “The world being what it is, virus problems in Brazil may ultimately mean virus problems in the United States or other parts of the world. It’s not necessarily just helping Brazil; if you take a lesson from the tospoviruses and the geminiviruses, these are very globally conscious viruses, and they’re on the move.”
To Goodin, the ability to expand his role as researcher and teacher beyond our borders means a great deal, and he speaks enthusiastically about University and College offices and people initiating that.
“We’ve got U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded projects to globalize ag curricula,” he said, “so all these travels and all these studies will get integrated into teaching modules and into the classroom to stimulate a global consciousness among students.”
—Carol L. Spence
Fuel on the Farm
Sue Nokes and her colleagues in the colleges of Agriculture, Engineering, and Arts and Sciences can picture a day when farmers not only grow the crops needed for biofuels, but also do much of the processing on their own land.
The Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering department chair leads a multidisciplinary team of UK researchers and scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service’s Forage Animal Production Research Unit on UK’s campus, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, University of Wisconsin, and North Carolina State University. The scientists are in the thick of a four-year project, funded by nearly $7 million from the USDA and more than $2 million in cost-sharing from CNH America, H&R Agripower, and Miles Farms, to study each stage of the biofuels system. Starting with the agronomics of growing a crop for energy and ending with a tanker truck filled with liquid alcohols as it pulls away from the farm, Nokes’ team is refining each step in the process.
“With energy crops, the thinking is they can be planted on marginal ground,” Nokes said, “so we’re looking at best management practices and environmental impacts of growing plants, such as the perennials switchgrass and miscanthus, to see if that’s true. It may be that farmers can grow crops in places they never have before.”
One of the aspects the researchers need to overcome is harvesting and baling the grasses and ag residues like corn stover. Michael Montross, associate professor in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, is collaborating with a Pennsylvania company, CNH, to test a single pass combine that will separate the grain and bale the corn stover at the same time.
With this experimental method, the bales stay on the farm in a bunker silo, something most dairy farms already have.
Once in the bunker, the bales go through three major steps. Pretreatment comes in the form of white rot, a fungus commonly found on dead logs in the forest, which breaks down some of the lignin in the plants’ cell walls, allowing for step number two, hydrolysis, where bacterial enzymes extract the sugar from the plant material.
“It’s not like sugar cane, where you can crush the plant and the sugar comes out,” Nokes said. “This is bonded into the walls of the plant, so we have to break those bonds; that’s the tough part.”
Horticulture Associate Professor Seth DeBolt is researching genetic modifications that would make it easier to convert a crop into sugar.
Step number three entails using another bacterium to ferment the extracted sugar into butanol, acetone, and ethanol. From there, the combined alcohols and solvent will be shipped by tanker truck to an off-farm refinery.
A year into the grant, the study is ready to move off the lab bench into a smaller scale of the life-sized version.
“We’ve presented this idea to a lot of farmers,” Nokes said, “and they’ve all said, ‘I would do that, if it works.’ We still have work to do to get it to work, but I think the idea is a good one.”
—Carol L. Spence
Tall fescue is an important grass for feeding livestock, and it grows very easily in Kentucky pastures. However, the super grass does come with its own problems—namely, a common endophyte, a fungus that can be toxic to the animals grazing it.
Some of the earliest research about fescue came out of the University of Kentucky. For decades, now, research in the College of Agriculture and many other institutions has focused on fescue toxicity. Most recently, scientists in the departments of Animal and Food Sciences and Plant and Soil Sciences have teamed up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service to find ways to minimize fescue toxicity.
“The loss of productivity in animals grazing endophyte-infected tall fescue results in more than $600 million lost in the beef industry alone,” said Professor David Harmon, an animal scientist who studies ruminant nutrition. “Animals consuming the infected grass show reductions in feed intake and weight gain, which can be exacerbated in times of heat stress like we saw this past summer. We are grateful to work with the ARS lab because they bring expertise we don’t have. We benefit from one another; it’s a win-win to have them here.”
Harmon recently worked with Kyle McLeod, associate professor in Animal and Food Sciences, and Jimmy Klotz, a scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, housed on the UK campus. They used steers at UK’s C. Oran Little Research Center in Woodford County and administered either infected or endophyte-free fescue seed directly into their rumen to examine the effects. “The study data simply told us that the steers given the endophyte showed a reduction in their basal metabolic rate (the energy animals expend daily while at rest),” McLeod said.
Despite that, the researchers were surprised to find that some animals that consumed endophyte-infected fescue performed poorly, while others showed no difference from the control group that were given the endophyte-free fescue.
All three scientists agreed the results indicated more research is needed to determine the origin of the response—why the steers’ metabolic rates decreased. Harmon said the team is following up their research with a second study to evaluate how efficiently the steers use the feed. He said it’s just one facet of a complex syndrome.
“The benefit (of the research) is that we are making progress towards understanding the effects of the endophyte on the animal,” McLeod said, “so perhaps we may one day eliminate the negative impact.”