University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Agriculture Image
2001 Research Annual Report

Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station

In 1885, the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station began as a place where scientists showed farmers the best way to grow crops and animals. It was a big step forward from advice picked up at the local feed mill or over a neighbor’s fence.

But today, the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station is not so much a physical place as gathering place for scientists and their ideas. These scientists work at the Lexington campus, the Research and Education Center in Princeton, and at Robinson Forest and Robinson station in southeastern Kentucky.
Some of our scientists come up with answers to Kentucky’s immediate needs. Others are making discoveries that may have impact only well into the 21st century— including those that will lead to future start-up businesses and become a boon to the commonwealth’s economy.

This report will show you the breadth of our work, including the human dimension that is most evident through the social sciences. It makes clear that our scientists, whether they work in a lab, in a farm field, or in a community meeting room, are committed to serving Kentucky and its people.

Areas of Emphasis in 2001 include:

  • Discovering new enterprises to support a transition from a tobacco-based farming economy
  • Encouraging new life science businesses that grow out of scientific discoveries about how plant and animal genes function
  • Conducting an in-house research program that determined that the eastern tent caterpillar is the probable source of Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome, which caused mares to lose pregnancies during 2001 and 2002
  • Improving the ability of livestock producers to create value-added products
  • Strengthening partnerships with state agencies that promote Kentucky agriculture

Experiment Station Highlights for 2001:

Generation of outside funding was more than $14 million— more than $10.5 million in College-wide research grants and contracts and more than $3.8 million in gifts and endowments (which is a 5.8 percent increase over gifts and endowments in 2000). That means that the College generated almost one dollar for each dollar the state contributed. This is significant not only as income, but because all these sources of outside funding enable us to leverage the state’s investment for maximum impact in Kentucky. Other highlights:

  • Approximately $5.3 million in federal funds
  • A 22.5 percent increase in doctoral and master’s degrees awarded over the previous year
  • Faculty publication of 209 original refereed research papers, 38 books and book chapters, and 166 other articles
  • Creation of a forage animal production unit in partnership with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service
  • Issuing of two patents by Experiment Station scientists that will result in new business start-ups in Kentucky
  • Forging of a partnership of the Kentucky Horticulture Council, UK’s New Crop Opportunities Center, and the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board to discover new opportunities to diversify the small-to-midsize farm enterprise
  • Securing of federal, state, and private funding to develop new linkages between local beef producers and their markets
  • Discovery of new opportunities in high-technology agriculture, including biotechnology, for agribusiness operations of small and midsize farms

Nancy M. Cox, Associate Director
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
S-107 Agricultural Science Center
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40546-0091

2001 federal fiscal year
(October 1, 2000 through September 30, 2001)

State—$24.2 million

Grants & contracts—$10.5 million

Gifts & endowment income— $3.8 million

USDA—$5.3 million

From Coal to Cattle

In Perry County, not so long ago, you could look out on what is now a green and productive cattle enterprise—D & D Ranch—and see the land being mined for coal. The ranch is now home to the East Kentucky Heifer Development Center, which has become a magnet for beef cattle producers who want to improve cattle quality and increase their profits.

“This was the site for the largest beef cattle research project on reclaimed mine land in the country,” said UK’s David Ditsch, the project’s agronomy advisor.

The center, along with its benefits for beef cattle producers, is the result of a five-year study to determine what level of cattle production is sustainable on mined land—the maximum number of cattle that can be grazed with the land still able to replenish itself. The answer may have implications for the nearly 1 million acres of reclaimed mine land potentially available in the eastern part of the state. If all that land were put to pasture and hay land, it could return nearly $50 million annually to Eastern Kentucky beef cattle producers.

The heifer development project began in 1994, when members of two beef cattle associations decided they wanted to improve forage quality and herd genetics and find innovative ways to market their cattle. They formed the East Kentucky Beef Cattle Council and looked to UK agronomists and animal scientists to help them in their efforts.
The need was clear. “Typically we’ve not had good marketing opportunities in Eastern Kentucky,” Ditsch says. He says cattle from this part of the state didn’t have a good reputation for quality. When that happens, he says, “it’s difficult to get good local prices, and it doesn’t attract outside buyers to come in.”

A windfall came in the form of 360 acres of reclaimed land from the Pine Branch Coal Company, leased for an extended period of time.The project, which was funded in its first five years by the E.O. Robinson Trust, initially focused on research, training, and marketing.

Mike Collins, UK livestock forage researcher, regularly collected soil and plant tissue samples and used geographic positioning and information systems to create what Ditsch calls “revealing maps.” These maps told researchers that if they stocked at the rate of one cow and her calf for every six acres, the land’s forage quality and animal performance could be sustained.

Workshops were held for producers on how to increase herd quality. Topics included herd management and artificial insemination techniques. As a result of the project, the number of producers coming together to learn how to manage their heifers and sell their cattle began to grow.

Working with project leaders, producers began to use new marketing methods, including a satellite sale that allowed buyers to see videos of Eastern Kentucky cattle before placing their long-distance orders.
The heifer development project began in 1998. Producers began bringing their heifers to the ranch for an 11-month period, where the animals are developed to sufficient quality and then bred to high-quality sires. Heifers have to meet certain guidelines to enter and stay in the program, but when they “graduate,” they go with a guarantee of quality, whether they are being sold or going back to the farm.

In 2000, the East Kentucky Beef Cattle Council, by then four associations strong, applied for and received nearly $135,000 in tobacco settlement money from Kentucky’s Agricultural Development Board to expand the program.
Ditsch says the return on investment has so far been greater than most producers had previously.

Raising the Curtain on Convenience

In Kentucky and elsewhere, tobacco was traditionally seeded using a simple, time-honored method: placing seeds in a seed bed, waiting for germination, and then transplanting to the field. More recently, seeds have been placed in plastic foam trays, with the trays floating on water to provide moisture, then waiting for nature to add sun and fresh air. Originally the trays were floated in the seedbed with simple covers such as tarps or plastic, but soon the tobacco greenhouse was invented to streamline the process and reduce the vagaries of nature. These greenhouses have roll-up plastic curtains on greenhouse sidewalls that are cranked up or down to regulate moisture and temperature inside.
This method has been used for the past decade or so. It requires the farmer to keep a steady eye on the sky and a constant ear to the weather report so the curtain can be opened or closed when necessary. Otherwise, the plants can get too hot or cold and fail to thrive. And, if too much moisture condenses on the greenhouse roof, it can cause a drip that washes away the seeds—and potential profits.

Rich Gates and George Duncan in UK’s Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering have developed a system that controls the curtains in the greenhouse automatically. The technology, developed in part with funds from the Council on Burley Tobacco, uses a computerized motor that closes the curtain when it gets too cold, opens it when it gets too hot, and lowers the greenhouse temperature even more at night during certain growth periods to save energy.

Researchers at UK and the University of New Hampshire are cooperating to take the automated sidewall curtain technology beyond growing tobacco to potted nursery plants during winter storage. Because this technique uses natural ventilation, it has the potential for big savings in energy costs, and it could have implications for Kentucky’s own thriving nursery industry.

Salad for Swine

Antibiotics not only make people well, they keep animals healthy. They have been a boon to the U.S. animal meat industry since the 1950s, resulting in healthier animals, shorter time to market, and less expensive meat for the consumer.

But the use of antibiotics in livestock production has a downside—the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract of the animals can become resistant to the antibiotics. There is concern by some people that bacterial resistance in animals can be transferred to humans, just as we can build up resistance from taking too many antibiotic medicines. Any resistance—no matter what the source—could mean drugs wouldn’t work as well for us in the future.
Melissa Newman and Gary Cromwell in UK’s Department of Animal Sciences are exploring ways to eliminate or reduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria in swine.

Newman has firsthand evidence of how difficult it is to reverse antibiotic resistance once it is established in a livestock population. For research purposes, UK’s swine herd at Princeton has not been fed antibiotics for almost 30 years. Several generations later, bacterial resistance to the antibiotics used in the distant past still exist in the herd.
Newman began exploring natural compounds and discovered that certain plant phytochemicals were able to reverse the resistance found in some bacteria, sort of a salad mix for swine that could reduce the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “Some of them are very promising,” Newman says. If these compounds work, we could reduce the presence of the resistant bacteria in swine, and it would help to calm fears about antibiotic resistance in humans.

Putting the Future on Paper

Some Kentucky counties believe the time has come to manage change instead have it manage them. They have been spurred on by Lori Garkovich in UK’s Department of Sociology with a process called community visioning.
It began in 1996, when people in Johnson County decided they needed a better sense of where the county was going. They also wanted to expand the number of people involved in community life.
Seven years later, about 15 other communities have also undertaken a process to explore their future, put their dreams on paper, and figure out how to make those dreams happen.
“It’s about civic engagement, democracy in action,” Garkovich says.

First, a local coordinating group identifies every organization imaginable in the community, from 4-H clubs to book groups to service groups like Rotary. Every one of those groups is then contacted and asked if its members want to take part in creating the community vision. If they say yes, they’re asked to send someone to training on how to lead the group through the visioning effort.

The process boils down to responding to questions on heritage, change, vision, and action. There are only four questions, but the impact of the answers can be enormous.
The questions help local visionaries carry what should be cherished from the past while moving steadily—and with a game plan—into the future.

To get as many people as possible to take part in the visioning, communities have outdone themselves. One group set up a tent at the county fair, offering lemonade and shade. All fair-goers had to do was sit down and answer a few questions.

Another group set up posters at a soccer match and encouraged people to scribble their comments while waiting in line at the concession stand. One county’s local radio station had a regular call-in show. The show’s host posed a question a day to listeners over several days, who responded by calling in their opinions.
“The point is to get as many people as possible talking about the same four questions at the same time,” Garkovich says.

Despite the hundreds of people taking part in the process in any community, common themes do emerge, Garkovich says. A major portion of the report is the recording of every single response by every community member who participates in the process. “There’s power in that,” Garkovich says. “There’s magic about seeing your own words written down.”

These reports are not being tucked away in a drawer somewhere: several communities have reshaped their land use policies as a result of the visioning. Garkovich isn’t overly concerned about how many Kentucky counties decide to envision their future. “You’re either ready or you’re not,” she says. But once the decision is made, a process to assist communities is available.


Fighting the Bug from Siberia

In 2000, the soybean aphid was discovered in Kentucky at only three sites, and in small numbers. This aphid, naturally found from Siberia to Iran, had made its way across the Pacific and North America and onto some of Kentucky’s farms. There, if unchecked, it could injure a good portion of the state’s soybean crop.
UK entomologist Grayson Brown already knew the soybean aphid can be a killer. It stunts plant growth by sucking plant sap or, as a carrier of viruses, kills off the beans. Asian farmers at times have lost half their soybean crop to this tiny insect. The soybean aphid can double its population in about three days, creating swarms so large they have shut down a major league baseball game.

Brown got to work. By January of 2001, he and his colleagues had obtained a USDA grant to devise a regional plan to manage the insect. (At that time, Kentucky was the only state in the Southeast that had spotted the aphid.) The objective was to come up with an environmentally and economically sound approach.
The project has been a joint one with the University of Arkansas, where research on the only disease affecting this aphid is being done.

Meanwhile, the soybean aphid kept up its migration. By the 2001 growing season, a survey of Kentucky soybean fields indicated that, while the aphid was not yet rampant in the state, it was spreading.
This year, the entomologists are ready. The plan is in place, and they are already training crop advisors, ag agents, and farmers in how to use it. This integrated management plan enables farmers to give environmentally friendly biological controls (including a type of ladybug, an aphid-killing disease, and stinging wasps) as much time as possible to work. It also has guidelines for counting aphid numbers and noting other field conditions that help to signal if and when costly insecticides are necessary.

Shunning the Sun

Everybody knows that it’s a good idea to use sunscreen if you’re at the beach, out on the farm, or on the ski slope. But sunscreen for wood?

Absolutely. So much so that in Jackson at the Department of Forestry’s Wood Utilization Center, researchers are giving various woods a yearlong suntan, testing about 20 different protective wood coatings. The project is being carried out in cooperation with the Forest Products Laboratory at Mississippi State to find out which formulations work best.

The protective coatings, which are for wood used on building exteriors, were developed by various U.S. manufacturers. They are being compared to products available on the market today.
Kentucky is one of only three sites on the continent where the testing is being done, says Carroll Fackler, superintendent of the Wood Utilization Center. It’s ideal because the state has extreme weather conditions, including humidity and heat. It’s also a good site for the fungicide testing of the wood samples that’s also going on. Moisture causes mildew and mold damage to wood, and, because of its location next to the North Fork of the Kentucky River, the center gets plenty of both.

In another project, the center continues to monitor emissions from dry kilns in Kentucky, which are used to draw moisture out of newly cut wood before it is treated, processed, and manufactured.
About 500 kilns are at work in Kentucky, making it a substantial industry in the state.
Recently, as a result of evidence from the kiln study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chose to exempt those kilns from standards put in place for air quality. Evidence from the study had shown that emissions from the kilns were not harmful.

Making Precise Decisions

Precision agriculture offers the prospect of detailed field data for cutting costs and increasing yield and profits. What’s not to like? Maybe the price tag on the equipment.

“Currently, it’s not an inexpensive technology to purchase,” says Carl Dillon of UK’s Department of Agricultural Economics. Dillon and collaborators Jean-Marc Gandonou in Agricultural Economics and Scott Shearer and Tim Stombaugh in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering have come up with a way to help producers know if they should buy or “custom hire” precision agriculture equipment. (Custom hiring includes not only equipment rental but the skill to operate the equipment’s hardware and software.)

This “tool,” as it’s called in ag economics lingo, gives producers a way to decide, based on their farm acreage, whether they should buy or custom hire the equipment needed for precision agriculture.
Using the break-even acreage value, they can know which way to go. Based on whether a farm is larger or smaller than that acreage level, the “tool” will help determine whether to purchase or custom hire in order to operate in the least expensive way.

To come up with this tool, the researchers did a partial budget to estimate the effect of precision agriculture on profits and incorporated data on equipment ownership, operating expenses, and current custom hire rates. Then they came up with a mathematical formula that resulted in a break-even point.

A farmer who wanted to do field mapping, grid soil sampling, and apply one fertilizer, for example, would have a break-even point of about 1,000 acres. Farmers with considerably less acreage would likely want to custom hire since they have less acreage from which to recoup the fixed cost. Those with more acreage would likely want to buy the equipment since they have more acreage over which to spread the fixed cost. Those close to the mark would probably need to do more analysis.

The break-even point was figured for other sets of precision ag components as well as for the “package” of field mapping, grid soil sampling, and application of one fertilizer.
Dillon thinks more farmers should consider custom hiring as an option. “Precision agriculture won’t make a good manager out of an average manager,” he says, “but it has the potential for increased profits.”

An Enemy Becomes a Friend

Fungal pathogens are a scourge for plants, causing many devastating diseases. Currently, chemical fungicides provide the most effective means of control, so the need for biological control, which would be less costly and more environmentally friendly, would be a breakthrough.

Said Ghabrial and his research group in UK’s Department of Plant Pathology have discovered an unlikely ally in the battle against these deadly pathogens—viruses. Focusing on the plant disease Victoria blight of oats as a model system, the researchers have shown that the fungal causal agent of the disease can be weakened to the point that it no longer damages the plant.

These UK plant pathologists have discovered that a virus follows a particular path to infection: it creates multiple copies of a particular protein. When the expression of this protein is activated, it reduces the strength of the fungal pathogens so they lose their power to destroy plants—if the fungal pathogens were Superman, the protein would be Kryptonite.

The researchers predict that if the expression of this protein can be activated in the Victoria blight fungus and similar proteins can be activated in other plant pathogenic fungi, this novel approach can be used to fight fungal infections even when a virus is not present.

They also have discovered that virus-infected isolates of the Victoria blight fungus secrete an antifungal protein, which has been shown to be effective against a wide range of fungal pathogens. The researchers have been able to isolate the gene that codes for the antifungal protein and believe that plants modified to include this gene will have resistance to a broad range of fungal pathogens.