From the genetic manipulation of seeds to the reaches of outer space and everything in-between, research experts with the Agricultural Research Service work to find solutions to agricultural problems from field to table that impact Americans every day.
As the main scientific arm of the United States Department of Agriculture, more than 2,100 ARS scientists and 6,000 employees work on more than 1,200 research projects at more than 100 locations nationwide in an effort to save time, effort and resources while improving the efficiency and quality of agricultural products all of which benefits the people and the producer's bottomline.
A few recent examples below show the breadth of the organization's efforts.
Photos Courtesy of USDA --
In a cornfield in Beltsville, Md., agronomist Craig Daughtry, left, and Andy Russ, a remote-sensing specialist, use a portable spectroradiometer to measure reflectance of crop residues and soil.
Wheat gene with resistance to stripe rust
Spread by the wind and prone to ruin crops in mild winters, wet springs and wet summers, stripe rust has been devastating wheat fields in the Pacific northwest since the 1950s and has recently caused severe outbreaks in the South and Midwest in the 2000s with the most devastating occurring in California in 2003 when 25 percent of the state's wheat crop was wiped out.
The fungus has been hard to manage in the past because of its rapid evolutionary path of developing new races that overcome numerous race-specific seedling resistance. But recently an international team of researchers discovered a gene that will make wheat capable of resisting all known strains of stripe rust.
Known as Yr36, the resistant gene was taken from a race of wild wheat collected in Israel and was transferred into a handful of domesticated pasta and bread wheat varieties. Results of the research team's genetic transformation experiments in which they isolated a candidate gene sequence using a detailed map of one wheat chromosome and transferred it into a susceptible variety showed that the transformed plants were resistant to at least eight races of stripe rust.
Although not a cure, the gene keeps the fungus from spreading, minimizing yield loss. But it works best above temperatures of above 90 degrees.
Ann Blechl an ARS geneticist, said it is common for wild varieties to have more pathogen resistance than domestic varieties because they are forced to survive with human intervention, primarily in the form of herbicides and insecticides.
While the heightened resistance was expected by scientists, they did receive a surprise.
"One of the most interesting things we found on the wild Emmer wheat is that just down from the area on the chromosome we were using was a protein gene that increases the zinc and iron (content) by 30 percent when it is introduced into domestic varieties," said Blechl. "The find provides another argument for conserving wild wheat (varieties) and preserving the area they grow in because we might not have been able to make this vital discovery for breeders otherwise."
According to the ARS, the publication of the gene sequence should give breeders the ability to use sequence-based DNA markers to incorporate resistance into new wheat varieties in the future.
Crude glycerin use for swine and poultry populations
As feed costs continue to rise, many livestock producers are looking to new technologies to fulfill their need for nutritionally sound yet cost-effective feed. A long list of nontraditional feed sources are already available from distiller grains a co-product of corn ethanol production to wheat midds and several varieties of meal, and the list continues to grow as scientists tests the limits of technology, but there are some limitations to their use.
"Several scientists have shown that it is possible to supplement pig diets with dried distiller's grains ... (and) though this can result in equivalent animal productivity, it can also result in increased manure production and higher levels of volatile organic compounds which may increase odor emissions," said Brian Kerr, animal nutritionist with ARS. "We decided to look at using the coproducts from biodiesel production as feed supplements because no such data was available to the livestock industry."
The co-product of focus for Kerr and his partners William Dozier, a fellow animal scientist, and Kristjan Bregendahl, a colleague from Iowa State University, was crude glycerin. Producing a gallon of biodiesel from soybean oil also yields approximately two-thirds of a pound of crude glyercin which, when refined to 99 percent purity, can be used in numerous products including food and drink, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, toiletries and now potentially as the another feed source for livestock.
The team concentrated on the swine and poultry sectors, conducting experiments using different levels of glycerin use on starter and finisher pigs as well as egg-laying hens and broilers.
Initial and follow-up studies on the starter and finisher pigs found that the animals were able to digest the crude glycerin efficiently and that there were no effects on the weight, carcass composition or meat quality in pigs with a feed consisting of 5 to 10 percent crude glycerin. Researchers also found that the supply of caloric energy was equaled to that of corn grain.
Similar results were found in the poultry experiments of the hens and broilers, which were divided into three age groups and tested. Comparing the feed consumption, egg production, egg weight and egg mass, Dozier and Bregendahl found that there no significant differences between the four groups.
Although initial results indicate that crude glycerin is an excellent source of energy for swine and poultry populations, researchers did note that the substance contains small amounts of salt and methanol which could potentially limit their use as a feed supplement and encouraged continued research. Similar to other co-products, economical issues such as distance from the source and the ability to handle liquid will also play a part in its use.
"If people are close to the supply, it's a cost-effective energy source," Kerr said. "But producers need to remember that it is a price-driven commodity, so if the plant can get more money from a pharmaceutical or cosmetics company, that's where it will go."
Satellites to measure crop residue
The movement toward conservation tillage in which one-third of soil is covered by residue seems to be gaining momentum, and researchers want to know how much.
Research agronomist Craig Daughtry and agricultural meteorologist Paul Doraiswamy are studying satellite sensors and geographic information systems technology to find out how much of the nation's cropland is being farmed using conservation tillage practices. They're also using the study to identify fields that could sustain more residue removal for ethanol production without harming the soil a find which could help add to a producer's bottom line.
Current methods of estimating tillage intensity are often costly and time-consuming. The Conservation Technology Information Center, a non-profit private and public agriculture organization, does its estimating by driving around farmland and stopping every so often to take a look while the Natural Resources Conservation Service places 50-foot lines of beaded string diagonally across crop rows and counts the number of beads that hit the residue to calculate the percentage of crop soil covered by crop residue.
For more than a decade, Daughtry and Doraiswamy have been trying to devise ways to estimate crop residue more quickly and accurately by using images from satellites and airplanes to measure the visible and infrared light reflected from fields, concentrating their efforts on corn and soybeans in the Midwest.
Research breakthroughs have been slow-coming, Daughtry said, because the researchers have had to use satellites that are part of The Landsat Program, a series of Earth-observing satellite missions that were first launched in 1972, which have passed their prime in both functionality and technology. Although the scheduled launches of new satellite sensors are still years away, Daughtry said that the technology they have been developing will be viable once the satellites are up and running.
"We will be able to assess residue cover and conservation tillage practices over large areas and we will also be able to localize and see sensitive areas in a watershed," Daughtry said. "Using this information we will be able to redirect funds to those sensitive areas and (the technology ) could also lead to more effective conservation practices."
While the immediate effect of the technology will allow farmers the opportunity to further capitalize on biofuels and biomass technology, and conservation groups to be more effective in their efforts, there are potentially other uses as well.
As the carbon credit trade debate continues in the United States, Daughtry said the technology could help be used to verify carbon sequestration by keeping track of tillage practices on a large scale, although he emphasized that direct sampling on the ground would still need to be conducted.