It is a great pleasure once again to share some highlights of research of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and the overall accomplishments of the UK College of Agriculture.
In 2007, our scientists worked on 180 projects and developed a variety of new initiatives to put research discoveries on the ground and in the communities of Kentucky.
A complete report of projects, publications, and grants is on the Web at http://www.ca.uky.edu/research/. It has been an exciting year; several of our programs received national recognition in 2007. As always in this report, we have highlighted for you some of our best projects in both scientific quality and relevance to Kentucky.
In an index created by an organization called Academic Analytics, a company partially owned by the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the College ranked 10th nationally in agricultural research. In more specific categories, UK Ag placed fifth in overall plant sciences, UK’s plant pathology program placed fourth, and entomology placed ninth.
The productivity of faculty members is measured based on publications, grant dollars, honors, and awards. The rankings are corrected for size, so that a smaller department is not penalized. In the top 10 ag research ranking overall, the College of Agriculture joins nine of the finest universities and agricultural colleges in the world, including the University of Arizona, Rutgers, the University of California—Davis, the University of Wisconsin—Madison, Cornell University, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, Washington State University, and Michigan State University.
Another record year in funding
Once again the College faculty and staff brought in more than $31 million in external grants and contracts, a figure larger than the state allocation to the experiment station. These funds attest to the confidence placed in our faculty by federal and state government, agricultural producers, and industry. Such funds are critical in times when state budgets are static or declining.
Highlights in this edition
We often say that UK Ag programs encompass food, families, farms, and forests. In this issue we have two reports related to food—nutrition for animals and food safety for humans. Other projects involve reforestation of mine sites, development of new products from crops and other biomass, and support for healthier marriages. We hope you enjoy learning about these great projects. Those of us who are part of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station are grateful for the opportunity to use our knowledge and skills for the benefit of Kentucky.
Nancy M. Cox, Associate Dean for Research
Gifts & Endowment-------$4,276,108
Grants & Contracts*---------$31,488,174
* Includes funding secured by teaching and extension faculty
Grants & Contracts
Bringing Back the Forest
Work over the past decade by the College, government agencies, the coal industry, environmental groups, and other universities has shown that uncompacted “topsoil substitutes,” including what’s removed in the process of surface mining, are suitable for reestablishing native hardwood forests on surface-mined lands in Appalachia.
But what, specifically, is the best available material other than topsoil for growing trees?
Chris Barton in the Department of Forestry and Carmen Agouridis in the Department of Bioysystems and Agricultural Engineering have developed a research project to find out.
Barton had noticed on a previous project that brown sandstones, generally the closest layer of rock to the native soil, would naturally develop ground cover faster than deeper and less weathered layers. Would the trees, he wondered, also grow faster in the brown sandstones?
Questions about water quality and quantity were just as important: Which layer would provide the best drainage and water storage for tree roots? Is one spoil type better for reducing the offsite water pollution problems that plague many surface mines in Appalachia?
To answer these questions, Barton asked coal miners at the Bent Mountain Surface Mine in Pike County to segregate rocks from different geologic layers into 1-acre plots.
A variety of native hardwood species were planted on the plots, including various oaks, sugar maple, American sycamore, white pine, black locust, dogwood, redbud, and a blight-resistant hybrid of the American chestnut.
Agouridis surveyed the plots. “We wanted to see what happens to these spoils both physically and chemically,” she said.
What Barton and Agouridis have found so far is that “superior tree growth” occurred in the brown sandstones, but tree survival was similarly high (more than 80 percent) in all spoil types and mixtures.
They’ve also found that water moved through the brown sandstones in the same way it did the other plots. And after two years, water chemistry from all plots was found to be similar and of good quality.
These results demonstrate that soil can be returned to the land in a way that’s economically feasible—as a mixture of the previous geologic layers. That’s promising for reforestation and the environment and good news for Eastern Kentucky.
Big Help for Small Crops
Say you grow tomatoes, or apples, or squash—or perhaps pumpkins melons, or cukes—and you’ve watched bugs eat away at your farm’s income.
Spraying’s an option, but when you check out the pesticide labels, your crop isn’t listed, so that’s out. Still, you need help with insects. Who are you gonna call?
IR-4, which stands for Inter-Regional Program No. 4, is a long-standing federal program that helps people who are growing a specialty crop—a crop totaling less than 300,000 U.S. acres.
Entomologist Ric Bessin is the program’s Kentucky coordinator.
“IR-4 is extremely successful in getting out new products,” Bessin said. “Eighty percent of the new labels are reduced-risk chemicals that are safer for the environment and consumers.”
He said that more than half of the new products in Vegetable Production for Commercial Growers (ID-36, a Kentucky Cooperative Extension publication) are the result of IR-4 work.
Four researchers in the College are currently testing products through IR-4 to see how well they work. They are:
In Central Kentucky, 14 percent of couples are at severe risk for domestic violence and another 28 percent at mild risk. Sometimes, these people show up in marriage education classes and need to be steered elsewhere.
Now, steps are in place to help marriage educators and other professionals help those couples at risk for domestic violence, thanks to the Bluegrass Healthy Marriage Initiative.
Ann Vail is principal investigator of the project. Vail also is director of the School of Human Environmental Sciences and assistant director of Family and Consumer Sciences Extension.
The healthy marriage initiative is a collaboration between the Department of Family Studies in the School of Human Environmental Sciences and a local, non-profit group, the Bluegrass Healthy Marriages Partnership.
It is federally funded and administered through the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
The initiative’s domestic violence protocol has earned national attention. It grew out of research carried out in the Department of Family Studies by both faculty and by students working on graduate degrees.
The protocol “allows as much consistency as possible in the handling of domestic violence issues,” Vail said.
Still, much of the initiative’s emphasis has been on helping strong marriages get better.
“A lot of research related to marriage focused on the negative, such as abuse,” Vail said. “What this research does is build on assets, strengthening them rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong.”
More than 750 people in the Bluegrass have taken part in the research, which is used to develop training for community leaders. “The workshops have helped translate the research into usable terms,” said Erik Carlton, project director.
Central Kentucky benefits directly from that research and training—more than 100 couples and many individuals have taken part in marriage education workshops offered through UK’s partners in the initiative.
A Web site is available to the public at www.bluegrassmarriage.org.
Vail sees a ground swell across the state in the push for healthier marriages, including a statewide task force on marriage education and strong-marriage initiatives in several communities.
Keeping It Simple
In 2001, U.S. consumers learned that some seafood —but not all—was high in mercury and that they should limit their consumption of tuna, especially. But seafood lovers went further.
“Twelve weeks after the alert, there was a drop in all types of frozen fish consumption,” said Leigh Maynard, an agricultural economist. The downside of that response, he said, “is that seafood has a lot of health benefits—it’s low in saturated fats, high in Omega 3’s.”
And therein lies the problem.
“Conflicting messages occur when consumers are advised to eat a lot of seafood but also avoid certain seafoods,” he said.
Maynard has a particular interest in foods that people choose for health reasons as well as taste, such as seafood. “As a land-grant institution, where you’re helping people improve their lives, the health impact of food is one of the most important aspects to look at,” Maynard said.
He and Sayed Saghaian, also an agricultural economist, and Megan Nickoloff, a master’s degree student, have also studied how consumers reacted to another food scare.
In 2004, Science magazine reported higher levels of PCBs (a family of chemical toxins) in farmed salmon as compared to wild-caught salmon. “That’s a pretty simple message,” Maynard said.
Maynard and the other researchers studied the reaction of consumers to that alert. They found consumers immediately responded by buying less farmed salmon but eagerly bought a new wild salmon product when it hit the market.
In other words, they got the message about which kind of salmon was considered safer to consume at that point and purchased accordingly.
Research such as this, Maynard said, “can help improve the effectiveness of public health messages and help growers and processors market healthy food.”
Finding a Practical Way to
Bio-oil may not yet be a star like ethanol or biodiesel, but as the price of petroleum climbs, it has some definite advantages as an alternative fuel.
“You can convert anything into bio-oil,” said Czar Crofcheck of the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, who is involved in several alternative fuel projects.
“Anything” is any plant material (biomass), and it includes waste wood and agricultural residue—what’s left on the ground after harvest.
Bio-oil isn’t exactly similar to petroleum oil, since it comes from raw plant materials, but it can be used to make gasoline and a wide range of other fuels as well as industrial chemicals. Another plus is that making bio-oil is relatively simple. It doesn’t require sugars like ethanol or oils and methanol like biodiesel, but it can be made from just about any part of the plant.
“The energy problem is a big one,” Crofcheck said. “It needs a number of solutions, and bio-oil is one of them.”
Right now, either high temperature or high pressure processes are used to convert biomass into bio-oil, and those processes yield a substance that eventually solidifies.
Crofcheck and Mark Crocker, who is in the Center for Applied Energy, have added a particular chemical agent, a catalyst, to the conversion process. The catalyst, which contains metal nanoparticles, stabilizes the bio-oil into a black, tar-like substance that’s easier and cheaper to transport. It also remains fluid enough to be easily refined to all kinds of products otherwise produced from petroleum crude.
These researchers are also devising a system to turn the biomass into crude bio-fuel on-site based on an extruder-reactor. This system uses a large auger to force the biomass through the system. (Think of a meat grinder.) At the same time, it carefully controls temperature and pressure.
This extruder-reactor is still in the experimental stage. Crofcheck expects it eventually to be upsized for use on a tractor-trailer bed that could be moved from farm to farm, where it could churn biomass into crude bio-oil as it goes.
“We should be able to move it just as easily as we move petroleum crude,” Crofcheck said.
“Right now, it processes about 100 pounds an hour,” she said. “We hope to eventually process 1,000 pounds an hour.”
If this equipment and catalyst-assisted process work, it could become economically feasible to turn farm and timber waste into crude bio-oil. That could mean more profit for producers and another fuel source for all of us.
Helping Cattle Thrive
David Harmon and Christy Taylor-Edwards
People and animals have to eat in order to grow. But how does that work, exactly? Christy Taylor-Edwards, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences, and David Harmon, her major professor, wanted to answer that question about cattle.
“I’m interested in understanding how the gastrointestinal tract recognizes what the animal eats and the process by which it decides how those nutrients will be used for growth and lactation,” Taylor-Edwards said.
Similar research is already going on in people, where better understanding of how the body uses nutrients may well help premature babies and the elderly better absorb the nutrients they need to thrive.
This work in the College adds what Taylor-Edwards calls the “ag component” to the research. The work could, for example, help lactating dairy cows maintain the body weight they need to produce milk or help young calves afflicted with scours, a bacterial infection that can deplete their body stores.
Taylor-Edwards and Harmon are investigating gastrointestinal hormones, which are produced by the digestive tract and play a role in controlling nutrient absorption and thus the body’s growth. Taylor-Edwards and Harmon have focused on one hormone in particular.
In a first experiment, three groups of cattle were fed three different diets, including one high in nutrients. Genomic analysis showed that “yes, the hormone does exist in cattle,” Taylor-Edwards said. This finding was important because its presence in cattle was not previously known.
In a second experiment, Taylor-Edwards said, “We were trying to determine where the hormone was expressed, where along the gastrointestinal tract it had an important role.”
She and Harmon determined that this particular hormone is probably most active in the small intestine.
The researchers found that increased nutrient intake causes the hormone to be produced in greater amounts. In other species, this hormone causes the gastrointestinal tract to grow, making it possible for an animal’s body to absorb more nutrients. A current experiment is determining if the hormone will increase gastrointestinal tract growth in cattle.
“Understanding the interaction between nutrient intake and this hormone is important,” Taylor-Edwards said, “but ultimately what we want to be able to do is manipulate the system to improve nutrient absorption.”