From Issue  Winter 2016

The Delta Dawgs

Graduate research at the Delta Research and Extension Center


Graduate students are a big piece of the puzzle when it comes to research conducted by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has more than 400 graduate students. Many of those students serve under faculty mentors that have appointments as MAFES researchers and MSU Extension Service specialists. This feature profiles graduate students working at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Mississippi.

Research is made possible through several funding entities. The commodity promotion boards are among the organizations that support graduate research at Mississippi State.

In 2015, the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board provided more than $460,000 to support 16 graduate students while awarding an additional $160,000 to fund four doctoral fellowships. In 2016, the group spent just over $380,000 funding 13 graduate students and awarded nearly $124,000 to fund three doctoral students. Jan DeRegt, immediate past president of the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board and current board member, discussed the importance of funding graduate research.

“We allocate 25 percent of our annual budget to research that includes graduate education because there is a continual need to develop the next generation of talented soybean researchers. Our funding gives these students an opportunity to work with world-class researchers,” DeRegt said. “The partnership between MSU and the Soybean Promotion Board is vital to agriculture in Mississippi and throughout the Midsouth.”

Jeff Johnson, professor and head of the Delta Research and Extension Center, said hard work and dedication are paramount for graduate students in Stoneville.

“It takes a certain kind of student to survive and thrive in this environment. Students who come into this program are very committed to crop research and are looking for a high level research experience that directly impacts the farmer,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said the program is a win-win for students and faculty members alike.

“The graduate students get the opportunity to work alongside an established, respected researcher. In turn, the faculty members have the opportunity to take on multiple projects because they have motivated students who take ownership of the work going on,” Johnson said. “This collaboration expands the reach of our research exponentially. We’ve formed a strong community of graduate students who work closely together and lend support to one another. Our research is richer because of that community.”


Tyler Hydrick Soybean


Tyler Hydrick is working on his master's in weed science under the direction of Dr. Jason Bond and plans to graduate in May 2017. While Hydrick was born in Starkville, he grew up in Jonesboro, Arkansas. He earned his bachelor's degree in biology from the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas.

Hydrick is studying the efficacy of soybean herbicides when tank-mixed with foliar fertilizers or cytokinin products commonly applied in soybean production.

"Each treatment is rated for weed control to examine the impact on herbicide efficacy when the foliar fertilizers or cytokinin mixtures are tank-mixed with commonly applied herbicides. Leaf samples were taken from a weed-free site to determine nutrient levels within the plant to reveal if the foliar fertilizers actually benefit the soybean plant," Hydrick said. "The first year of data gave us some pretty interesting ideas for future research. Now, we are exploring the relationship between each individual nutrient within the foliar fertilizer and two herbicides."

Hydrick pursued the research because the relationship between herbicides and these additives has not been documented.

"Knowing how a plant reacts to certain herbicides is interesting to me. Plus, Palmer amaranth is a major problem where I am from. Figuring out the best techniques and new methods to control this weed, as well as others, impacts so many agronomic decisions," he said.

Hydrick said the most exciting aspect of his research is getting to watch the final product come full circle when farmers and industry become interested in the results of a study or make changes to their own recommendations.

"Our goal is to provide the most economically sound and highest yielding scenarios to improve the lives of farmers and everyone else who relies on agriculture," he said.

Jeffrey Mansour Soybean


Greenville, Mississippi native, Jeffrey Mansour, is pursuing a master's degree in plant pathology. He earned his bachelor's in biological sciences from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He plans to graduate in May 2017 and then work on a doctoral degree. He is studying under Dr. Tom Allen.

Mansour chose plant pathology because growers lose yield to plant diseases each year.

"Losses can add up to billions in lost revenue and millions in lost commodities that are desperately needed to sustain the high demand of food, clothing, and bio-fuels for a growing population," Mansour said. "The field of plant pathology is a continuous challenge due to the arduous task of understanding plant diseases and the frustration associated with the uncertainty of how to manage that disease."

Mansour is studying phytotoxicity in fungicides used to treat frogeye leaf spot in soybean. Phytotoxicity is when a compound produces a visual effect on the foliage of the plant. Determining if the phytotoxicity results in a reduction in yield is one of the components of his project.

"In 2010, a failure of a popular fungicide class used to manage frogeye leaf spot was found in Tennessee. Scientists determined resistance to that particular fungicide class had developed, likely due to continuous use of the fungicides within that class," Mansour explained. "Since then, producers are using alternate fungicide chemistries in multiple chemical classes. These modes of action, however, can result in phytotoxicity responses that can potentially injure the plant."

Mansour said the research is exciting and that graduate school as a whole is a fast-paced, challenging environment.

"The most exciting aspect is examining the results and seeing how they vary from each test trial. Then being able to present the data to growers so they can better manage their soybean crop," he said.

Justin McCoy Soybean


Columbus, Mississippi native, Justin McCoy, is pursuing a master's degree in agronomy. His emphasis is soil fertility. McCoy earned his bachelor's degree in biological sciences from MSU. He is researching supplemental nitrogen addition for soybeans under the direction of Dr. Bobby Golden.

"I chose agronomy because it encompasses all aspects of agriculture. We get to study the crop itself and figure out how we can improve our production practices. Then we get to transfer that knowledge to the real world and hopefully increase the bottom dollar for producers," McCoy said.

McCoy is studying the use of supplemental nitrogen to increase soybean yields in high performing environments. Through field experiments, he studies how the aboveground biomass of soybean responds to nitrogen addition. In greenhouse studies, he evaluates how nitrogen addition influences nodule formation and belowground biomass. Both studies include two different soil textures.

While McCoy said the student experience can be a little hectic, he said the payoff is worth it in the end.

"It is satisfying to apply something you have learned in the classroom to your research or vice versa," he said. "It's exciting when all the time you've invested pays off and data comes together. It's a great feeling when you can definitively answer the scientific question you have asked."

McCoy hopes to continue on as a doctoral candidate in rice after his master's is completed. One day, he would like to work in the private sector of the agricultural industry.


Brian Pieralisi Soybean


Brian Pieralisi has always called Leland, Mississippi home. For the past 15 years, he's worked in production agriculture on his family's farm. Pieralisi earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural pest management from Mississippi State University and a Master of Business Administration from Delta State University. As the family business evolved, he returned to MSU to begin work on his doctoral degree. He is studying agronomy with an emphasis on nutrient management and soil fertility. His major professor is Dr. Bobby Golden. Pieralisi's anticipated graduation date is summer 2020.

Pieralisi is evaluating soybean nutrient uptake, partitioning, and relocation across soybean herbicide technologies. The technologies include the Round Up Ready system, the Liberty Link system, the Round Up Ready Extend system, and a conventional soybean system.

"My research goal is to find a potential link to yield drags—a negative effect on grain yield associated with crop plants that have a specific trait—in relation to nutrient uptake and partitioning," Pieralisi said. "I will run economic tests on these technology systems to see which ones are the most profitable in a secondary study."

Pieralisi said the transition from production agriculture to research agriculture is difficult. Yet, it is a challenge he is happy to embrace.

"The most exciting aspects are the same as the most challenging ones. I am excited to learn the research procedures and protocols. I look forward to acquiring an entirely new skill set."

As someone who has always been interested in soil fertility and nutrient management, he hopes the research will provide a better understanding of nutrient partitioning and yield across herbicide technologies in soybeans, if one exists.

"Ultimately, I hope this research provides producers and the industry with more information to make better decisions when it comes to proper soybean fertilization and fighting weeds," he said.

Richard Smith Soybean


Richard Smith grew up in the Arkansas Delta. He earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural business and plant science at Arkansas State University. He is pursuing a master's degree in agronomy under the direction of Dr. John Orlowski. His anticipated graduation date is Spring 2018. In his research, Smith is comparing soybean growth and seed yield for multiple row-spacings and seed rates in irrigated soybean production in Mississippi.

"In our initial research, we determined that soybeans planted in 50 centimeter, or 20 inch, rows resulted in faster canopy closure compared to soybeans planted in both single and twin rows," Smith said.

The research will be repeated across multiple seasons so the team can figure out how row spacing interacts with seed rating under multiple environmental conditions. Smith will continue monitoring canopy closure as well as weed, insect, and disease pressure. He will also utilize soil moisture sensors to quantify water-use efficiency across different row spacing and planting densities.

Smith said the research has helped bring what he's learned in the classroom to life.

"The hands-on training provides experience that solidifies the theories taught in the classroom through exposure to real-world practices," he said. "I hope to better understand the growth habits and management practices of soybeans, as one of the most widely grown crops in the region."

Tessie Wilkerson Soybean


Tessie Wilkerson is from Greenville, Mississippi. She earned her bachelor and master's degrees in biology and natural science with an agronomy concentration from Delta State University. She is pursuing a doctoral degree in plant pathology and will graduate in May 2017. She has been at MSU for three years and was the Alan Blaine Fellowship awardee in her first year at the university. Dr. Tom Allen is her major advisor.

Wilkerson said graduate school has been a worthwhile challenge that requires a considerable amount of organization and will power.

"I have children so juggling being a mom with being a Ph.D. student can be quite a challenge. I have received so much support from MSU professors and administrators, which has made the journey very rewarding."

Wilkerson is studying charcoal rot in soybean.

"Every year, millions of soybean bushels are lost to the effects of charcoal rot. Additional management options need to be put in place to prevent these losses. That is where my research comes into play," Wilkerson explained. "Basically, I am trying to reduce or suppress the effects of the disease by adding nutrition—specifically calcium and magnesium—to the soil."

She said the most exciting part of the research is seeing the project come to life.

"Observing the results gives me hope that I might be able to help find solutions for this problem," she said. "My project has been in the works for several years, but no specific conclusions have been made on the topic. I am continuing the research with some slightly different angles. I hope to provide some answers and solutions not only for the academic community, but for our growers."


Wilks Wood Soybean


Wilks Wood is working on a doctoral degree in agronomy. The Cleveland, Mississippi native earned his bachelor's degree in environmental science from Delta State University. He completed his master's degree in entomology from Mississippi State University. Wood is studying irrigation management under the direction of Dr. Jason Krutz.

"My research deals with Midsouth soybean production. I am studying the impacts of planting dates and plant population on irrigation efficiency. We are also investigating different soil moisture thresholds at various growth stages," Wood said.

Wood described the student experience as different from typical college life.

"I live and work two hours from Starkville, so I stay separated from the main campus the majority of the time. While my wife and I would love living in Starkville, it's a privilege to work at a renowned research facility. The experience and contacts here are unmatched. Many industries and academia know the quality of research that is done at DREC and I am very proud to be a part of it."

Wood said his favorite aspect of the research is obtaining and interpreting results from a trial and then delivering those findings to local producers.

"Everything we do is done with the producers in mind. It is a great feeling knowing that we are helping them and their livelihood," he said.

Wood said the declining aquifers drew him to this particular research.

"Declining aquifers is a major issue plaguing not only producers but also the world. It's a problem that will not be going away anytime soon," he said. "I saw a need for improved irrigation management and wanted to vary my knowledge base. That's why I decided to pursue my degree under Dr. Krutz."

Justin Smith Soybean


Justin Smith grew up in southeastern Missouri. He earned his bachelor's degree in plant science with a minor in spatial technologies. He became a fulltime graduate student at the Delta Research and Extension Center in August 2016. He is pursuing a master's degree in agronomy under the direction of Dr. John Orlowski. His anticipated graduation date is Spring 2018.

In his research, Smith is studying how herbicides and spray volume affect harvest aid performance in soybeans. He is also studying how soybean yield, moisture and shattering are affected at different harvest intervals after the use of aids. Additionally, he is exploring tank contamination and drift on soybean growth.

Smith embraces research as an exciting and challenging experience.

"Things can get a little overwhelming when there are three or four studies entering critical stages at the same exact time during the growing season," Smith said. "Organization and planning are crucial in all research, even more so with the application timing aspect of spray windows and harvest intervals that we are currently assessing with harvest aid recommendations."

He appreciates the unpredictable nature of research, including season to season changes as well as the adoption of new protocol.

"I learned early in my experiences with research that the data gained from various research efforts are much more than numbers and values. The data needs to be reliable in order for producers and other researchers to get the most utility out of the findings," he said.

His goal as a graduate student focused on precision agriculture is to help retailers and growers alike get the most out of every acre by bringing together several specialized management practices.

"This not only includes knowledge of site specific farming, but the integration of global positioning systems and geographic information systems, on the fly data collection sensors and implementing variable-rate technologies. I believe there is a great demand in the work force for young minds, as this technology continues to flourish with the efforts to meet certain needs of an increasing global population."

Gene David Spencer Corn


Gene David Spencer is currently pursuing a master's degree in agronomy. Spencer is from Collierville, Tennessee. He earned his bachelor's in civil engineering from Mississippi State University. He worked as a civil engineer before returning to begin his advanced degree program. He plans to continue on and work toward a doctoral degree so his anticipated graduation date is May 2021. He is studying cover crops in corn in irrigated environments. He is under the direction of Dr. Jason Krutz.

Spencer was drawn to the research because of the challenges agricultural producers face when it comes to irrigation.

"My interest in water is what initially drew me to agricultural irrigation," he said. "When I learned about the challenges facing producers and the research being done by Dr. Krutz, I wanted to be a part of it."

Spencer is studying the effects of legumes as a cover crop. He wants to see how that particular cover crop impacts corn grain yield, soil quality, and irrigation application efficiency. He is also interested in determining how the cover crops influence off-site agrochemical transport for both furrow and sprinkler irrigation. He is also investigating nitrogen use efficiency by irrigation level and the yield response of corn in the cover crop system under different irrigation levels.

His ultimate goal is to be able to contribute to finding a solution to a significant problem Midsouth growers face.

"Research has already shown that producers can utilize less water through certain irrigation practices while maintaining or increasing yield and profit," he said. "We need to build on this current data by researching new means and methods and push for widespread implementation of these water and money-saving practices among producers."


Dustin Pickelmann Cotton


Dustin Pickelmann is working on a master's degree in agronomy. He was born and raised in Greenville, Mississippi. He earned a bachelor's degree in business from Delta State University. Pickelmann is studying irrigation under the direction of Dr. Jason Krutz. His research focuses on varying irrigation and plant growth regulators in cotton.

"We are studying varying irrigation at four intervals across five varieties of cotton. The trials also study plant growth regulators in relation to irrigation," Pickelmann said.

"We hope to determine optimal irrigation and plant growth regulator use across five varieties of cotton."

Pickelmann was a research associate in the Jamie Whitten Delta States Research Center (USDA-ARS) for nearly a decade. He joined Krutz's team as a research associate in 2012.

"I helped manage Dr. Krutz's research program for a year. Then he suggested that I go to graduate school. The university pays up to six hours of tuition for employees," Pickelmann said. "In my undergrad, I studied business and computer systems. I took a liking to computers when I was young. I liked to take computers apart and rebuild them."

His analytic nature and passion for problem solving are two reasons Pickelmann enjoys research. He enjoys seeing a project through from beginning to end.

"Research is interesting because you do different things from year to year. In my current role, I get to see the farmers adopt a practice that we explored as a research topic. It's seeing the fruits of your labor."

Pickelmann said he enjoys the student experience.

"All the graduate students operate as one big family. We help each other out whenever someone needs help," Pickelmann said. "Harvest is the most exciting time. It's a big payoff to see the results of something you put your blood, sweat, and tears into all summer."

Bhupinder Singh Cotton


Bhupinder Singh is working toward a doctoral degree in agronomy. His major professor is Dr. Daryl Chastain. Singh's anticipated graduation date is July 2019. He earned a master's degree at MSU in agronomy under the direction of Dr. K. Raja Reddy in spring 2016. Reddy now serves as a co-advisor. Farming has always been a way of life for Singh.

"I come from an agricultural background, having grown up in the Punjab State, which is considered one of the top agricultural producing states in India. I got involved in agriculture in high school, which motivated me to pursue a bachelor's in the subject."

Singh earned his bachelor's degree in agricultural sciences, specializing in agronomy, soil sciences, and agroforestry at Punjab Agricultural University in India. Singh's doctoral research focuses on how environmental factors influence cotton.

"Cotton is a major crop in Mississippi. However, unfavorable conditions like drought and high temperatures make cotton production more difficult and expensive. Some producers have switched to soybean or corn production systems because of the challenges," Singh said. "If we can understand more about how commercial cotton cultivars respond to environmental factors we can hopefully help ease production challenges for producers. In the meantime, we also hope to collect extensive data to help future scientists researching cotton and other crops in Mississippi."

He appreciates the team atmosphere in the Delta, which he said is similar to the atmosphere at the Soil-Plant-Atmosphere-Research facility, or SPAR, at the R.R. Foil Plant Science Research Center in Starkville, where he worked on his master's.

"I love conducting research as part of a team," Singh said. "The day I started working at the Delta Research and Extension Center, I knew I would love it here. The entire faculty is supportive and enthusiastic in the research field."

Stephen Leininger Peanuts


Stephen Leininger is pursuing a master's degree in agronomy. He was born in Riverside, California, but has spent most of his life in the Mississippi Delta, living in Greenville and then Cleveland. He earned a wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture bachelor's degree in MSU's College of Forest Resources. He is studying furrow irrigation strategies for peanut production in the Midsouth. He's under the direction of Dr. Jason Krutz.

Leininger saw a need for irrigation research in peanuts. He said the research has enhanced his academic experience.

"My research has transformed class for me. I see the big picture now. My peers often poke fun at me for having 'ah-ha!' moments in class. These instances occur during and after lectures when the pieces of the puzzle fit together for me," he said. "The lectures present the knowledge. The research illustrates that knowledge in action through trial, error, and successes."

Leininger has enjoyed the student experience thus far.

"MSU is filled with quality professors who care about your individual achievement in class. They are invested in your success in landing a career," he said.

He said that while there are several challenging aspects of the research, the work pays off in the end.

"Challenges include doing something no one else has done before; not being able to account for all variables and unknowns; and finding an effective way to communicate what you have found to your target audience," he said. "But it's worth it when people understand the value and importance of your research. It's also good to know that I am developing a skill set designed to solve problems."


Joel Moor Peanuts


Joel Moor is working on his master's in entomology. He hopes to graduate in May 2017. Originally from Indianola, Mississippi, Moor earned a bachelor's in business from Delta State University. He is studying thrips in cotton and peanuts under the direction of Dr. Jeff Gore.

"In peanuts, I am studying the interaction between herbicide injury and thrips damage and their effect on yields. In cotton, I am evaluating different varieties that have different susceptibility ratings to thrips. I have three different varieties: susceptible, moderate, and tolerant to thrips damage. I am also investigating how thrips pressure can delay the maturing of cotton and how this affects yields."

Moor worked as a scout for a crop consultant before enrolling at MSU.

"I worked for a crop consultant scouting over 25,000 acres of crops. We would have to cover a lot of ground quickly to get everything scouted each week. Adjusting from that to small plots has been the hardest part for me. The meticulous evaluation of every detail that goes into each trial takes some getting used to."

Moor pursued this particular research because cotton has always been his favorite crop to scout, and he's seen firsthand the damage thrips can cause. He chose to study peanuts since the crop is relatively new to Mississippi and little data is available. Peanuts are also a good rotational crop to cotton.

"I hope the research I am doing will benefit growers and give them a better idea on how to manage thrips in their cotton and peanut fields," he said.

Lee Atwill Rice


Lee Atwill is working on a doctoral degree in agronomy. He plans to graduate in December 2017. The Blytheville, Arkansas native earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Arkansas State University. He earned his master's degree in agronomy from Mississippi State. He is studying alternate wetting and drying irrigation practices in Midsouth rice production under the direction of Dr. Jason Krutz.

"I am working to establish best management practices for rice irrigation. The ultimate goals are reducing irrigation pumping amounts and increasing farm profitability," he said.

Atwill described the experience in Stoneville as immersive.

"Not only do we take part in the academic side of graduate school, but we are also surrounded by specialists in almost every field of agriculture. This provides an expansive look into how research translates into on-farm situations for the growers in Mississippi," he said. "This is true for the academic side as well. I can take what I"ve learned working for the MSU Extension Service and apply it in the classroom. Each aspect builds on one another and creates an amazing learning experience."

Atwill cited weather as the largest challenge when it comes to irrigation research.

"We focus on irrigation in corn, cotton, soybeans, rice, peanuts, and cover crops. Rainfall can really have an impact on the outcome of our research projects," he said.

Atwill said his favorite aspect of the research is when he has an opportunity to connect with growers. He said the growers are a large part of what drives the research forward.

"In the past three years, Mississippi has had an unprecedented adoption rate of water saving technologies on a farm scale. Our state has made a bold statement to the rest of the Midsouth. The ability and willingness of growers to adopt these irrigation practices drives our research efforts and fuels the passion we have for our state and industry."

Benjamin Lawrence Rice


Benjamin Lawrence is pursuing his doctoral degree in weed science under the direction of Dr. Jason Bond. Lawrence is a native of New Albany, Mississippi, where he grew up farming soybeans in Union and Lafayette counties. Lawrence attended Mississippi State University for both his bachelor and master degrees. He earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural business while minoring in economics, finance, and business administration. Lawrence obtained a master's degree in weed science.

Lawrence said the student experience, while challenging at times, has been great.

"Living in Leland and being minutes away from the research farm is extremely beneficial during the growing season," he said.

Lawrence is studying the effects of non-target herbicides on rice growth and development. He said the research is based on real-world issues Mississippi rice producers face.

"Rice is typically grown adjacent to corn, cotton, and soybeans in the Mississippi Delta. Herbicides commonly used in these crops for weed control can negatively impact rice growth and development. My research aims to determine the effect of non-target herbicide applications at low rates to rice growth and development."

Lawrence said the project allows him to apply scientific principles to try and solve a real-world problem.

"Weeds are an ever changing issue with row-crop producers. They compete with crops for valuable resources," Lawrence said. "Earning a master's and now working toward a doctoral degree in weed science helps me to better understand the challenges row-crop producers face when it comes to weed management."


Richard Turner Rice


Richard Turner is working on a master's degree in agronomy. His emphasis is soil fertility. Turner is from Belzoni, Mississippi. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology at Delta State University. He plans to graduate in May 2017. Turner is studying alternative nitrogen management strategies in rice under the direction of Dr. Bobby Golden.

"I am working on establishing improved nitrogen management strategies in rice. We are testing new nitrogen fertilizer products and new rice varieties," Turner said. "We are using alternative nitrogen sources at various nontraditional timings. We hope to better understand the nitrogen fertilization dynamics in new rice varieties."

Turner added that while time management is critical as he juggles work, school, and family; he enjoys how one aspect informs the next.

"The research side informs the academic side and brings things full circle," he said. "I learn how to make good agronomic decisions at work. Then I learn why those decisions exist in the classroom."

Turner worked on a rice farm in high school. He loved the uniqueness of the crop compared to other crops in the Delta. He hopes his research will help area growers.

"I look forward to helping the rice growers of the region. I hope the research finds better nitrogen management practices that lead to higher yields," he said.

Corey Bryant Cover Crops


Corey Bryant is pursuing a doctoral degree in agronomy. His anticipated graduation date is May 2019. The Monticello, Arkansas native graduated with a plant and soil sciences degree from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. After that, he obtained a master's degree in soil science from Texas Tech University. His research focuses on the use of in-field best management practices to improve irrigation efficiency and reduce the amount of water used for irrigation purposes. He is studying under Dr. Jason Krutz.

"We are evaluating conservation tillage and the inclusion of winter cover crops," he said. "The project also includes a water quality aspect. We collect water samples from each irrigation and rainfall event. Then we analyze the samples for common pollutants. It's an effort to determine the effect of conservation practices on water runoff quality."

He said the student experience is different being in the Delta compared to being on campus.

"Being an internationally-recognized research institute allows the graduate students to interact with members of the international agricultural community," he said. "The research informs the academic side by allowing me to choose classes that address portions of my research where I feel my knowledge base needs to grow. Additionally, my prior academic knowledge lets me expand my project beyond the initial scope."

Bryant likes being able to transfer knowledge onto the producer. The producers in West Texas, in particular, inspired him to pursue this research.

"I became interested in irrigation after spending time in West Texas. I watched those producers respond to a diminishing water supply," he said. "I would ultimately like to try to implement some of the irrigation systems being used in West Texas to research in the Delta to see how those systems perform here."