Plant Production Systems
Soybean Innovation Laboratory
The Soybean Innovation Laboratory provides the science necessary to enable small producers to share in the rising demand for soybeans. The research also will enable low-resource countries to address problems of food insecurity and protein malnutrition. Mississippi State University's Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station is among a consortium of universities and other partners receiving a $25 million, five-year international grant to boost soybean production across Africa. Mississippi State University is among a consortium of universities and other partners receiving a $25 million, five-year international grant to boost soybean production across Africa. The Feed the Future Innovation Laboratory for Soybean Value Chain Research, also known as the Soybean Innovation Laboratory (SIL), is being funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Where the Grass is Greener
Dr. Rocky Lemus is on a mission: to help Mississippi producers become better forage managers. To accomplish his mission, he and Joshua White, manager of the MAFES Official Variety Testing program in forages, are developing a year-round grazing system. The grazing system, combined with the Official Variety Trials program in forages, and a newly developed forage testing program all work together to make Mississippians better forage managers for grazing cattle and hay production.
Heed change, take root
The anticipated climate change will increasingly impact crop production and food security in the coming years. K. Raja Reddy, Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station scientist and research professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, studies how environmental stressors impact crops. As director of the Soil-Plant-Atmosphere-Research, or SPAR, facility at MSU, Reddy focuses on environmental plant physiology, evaluating factors such as temperature, drought, solar radiation and nutrients. He studies a variety of crops including corn rice, soybeans, cotton, sweet potatoes, peppers and biofuel crops. The research, much of which is funded by the corn, soybean, rice and cotton promotion boards, focuses on giving producers the tools they need in a changing climate. As scientists evaluate hybrid tolerance to such environmental stressors as heat and drought, their research helps producers select the ideal variety based on tolerance and yield potential for that particular location. As climate changes, Reddy hopes to continue to provide information that will optimize production while minimizing loss to environmental stressors in the field.
MSU scientists research essential tools and best practices to improve irrigation in the field. Pipe Hole and Universal Crown Evaluation Tool, or PHAUCET, surge valves and soil moisture sensors are three essential tools recommended by Jason Krutz, MAFES researcher and Extension irrigation specialist. PHAUCET is a computerized program that calculates the correct hole size and distribution for poly pipe to furrow irrigate row crops. Surge valves split the distribution of water in the field. Soil moisture sensors determine the amount of moisture in the soil profile. Additionally, the university engages in two dynamic research programs that cut down on the quantity of water used in irrigation while improving water quality overall. In MSU’s Row-crop Irrigation Science and Extension Research, or RISER, program, scientists partner with growers to promote better irrigation management practices. In MSU’s Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat, or REACH, program, scientists introduce growers to innovative management practices for water use that save money without compromising yield. MSU scientists are also looking ahead at research opportunities involving intermittent flooding, polyacrylamide gel and surface water.
Researchers explore early corn planting
Timing counts for a lot when it comes to planting corn. That’s why Mississippi State University scientists are researching the effects of planting date, plant population and hybrid selection for field corn. MAFES scientist Brien Henry studies how different hybrids and plant populations respond to the colder, wetter conditions of early planting. His work can gather information about environmental limitations, provide insight on optimal plant populations and explore avenues like whether certain hybrid traits will allow the crop to overcome the risks associated with early planning while reaping the benefits.
Researchers use precision agriculture for weed control and more
MSU scientists utilize precision agriculture in weed control and herbicide drift research. As Jason Bond, MAFES associate research professor at MSU’s Delta Research and Extension Center, conducts and develops prescriptions to help farmers control weeds, MAFES scientist Dan Reynolds has several herbicide-related projects focused on improving production and reducing costs for farmers.
Bond, along with other MSU researchers, developed a comprehensive herbicide program to manage glyphosate resistant Italian ryegrass. The prolific weed, resistant to the herbicide commonly known as Roundup, was first discovered in Mississippi and can be found throughout the state and in many states in the Southeast. The region looks to Mississippi to develop best practices for eradicating the weed.
Reynolds and his team evaluate auxin technologies like dicamba and 2,4-D. In one recent study they evaluated the effect of drift reduction technology on soybeans injured with herbicide containing dicamba. The goal of the research is to provide an objective tool for recognizing and assessing drift injury from auxin herbicides at the field and landscape levels.
Researchers assess plant health for nitrogen prescription
Determining the right amount of nitrogen for crops can be a challenge for Mississippi producers. If there isn’t enough nitrogen, yield is sacrificed, while an excess amount can result in nutrient loss, which can negatively impact the crop and the environment. Achieving optimal efficiencies in nitrogen management is essential in decreasing costs while increasing environmental stewardship. MAFES scientist, Jac Varco, evaluates plants directly to determine nitrogen needs. He studies cotton and corn. Varco’s team uses tractor-mounted sensors to measure relative differences in crop size, biomass, leaf area and plant greenness. The measurement helps researchers determine the right prescription of variable rate nitrogen that needs to be applied to the field. Research results indicate the sensor-based fertilization is capable of either decreasing the amount of nitrogen while maintaining yield or increasing yield with slightly more nitrogen.
Controlling aflatoxin in corn
United States corn and peanut farmers lose about $200 million each year due to crop contamination with aflatoxin, a naturally occurring toxin produced by the mold fungi Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. Delta R&E Center scientist Gabe Sciumbato and colleagues in the USDA Agricultural Research Service are evaluating an in-field approach to reduce amount of aflatoxin in corn. The scientists obtained A. flavus fungal strains that do not produce aflatoxin. The scientists innoculate cornfields with A. flavus fungal strains that do not produce aflatoxin. These atoxogenic fungi outcompete the resident toxogenic fungi—in essence, fighting a bad mold with a good one. Using non-aflatoxin fungi has the potential to protect much of the nation’s corn harvest.
Using High Tunnels to Produce Crops Year-round
Don’t tell assistant research professor Bill Evans that you can’t grow tomatoes in January. Evans is raising warm-season vegetables, including organic tomatoes, cucumbers, and broccoli, throughout the winter using high-tunnel greenhouses, unheated hoop buildings covered in polyethylene. While the procedure used at the Truck Crops Branch Experiment Station in Copiah County is not ready for commercial production, Evans’s project has led to the installation of dozens of high tunnels across the state. In another effort, Evans studies methods of building better soil structure during the low-production months of July and August to improve fall production.
Navigating the Farm Bill Maze
The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, also known as the 2008 U.S. Farm Bill, contains 15 titles covering everything from commodity crops to energy. As legislators work on the 2013 Farm Bill, agricultural economists Keith Coble and Barry Barnett are ready to tackle the massive legislation and decipher it for Mississippi producers. Coble serves as chief economist to the minority leadership of the Senate Agriculture Committee, while Barnett is an advisor for the U.S. Federal Crop Insurance Program. These economists understand the complex legislation and are nationally and internationally known for their work. They will soon begin developing computer models to help producers make the best decisions to manage risk.
Improving Turf Grass and Ornamentals
Associate research professor Maria Tomaso-Peterson knows a few things about disease-causing fungi, especially those that develop in grasses and ornamental crops. One problem she studies is spring dead spot in turf, with particular emphasis on determining why some plants develop a resistance to fungi. A key goal is figuring out how different cultivation methods can enhance disease management in Bermuda grasses planted in the South. Recently, Tomaso-Peterson showed that producers can help prevent Pythium fungi in poinsettias by using biofungicides, biological agents that fight fungi and other harmful microorganisms organically. Applying biofungicides will reduce the rate of conventional fungicides required, thus increasing producer profits and reducing the need for possibly harmful chemicals.
Conserving Mississippi's Water Resources
MAFES scientists Jason Krutz, Tom Eubank, Lyle Pringle, and Joe Massey are testing several water-saving strategies, including a computer program that calculates the performance and improves the efficiency of furrow-irrigation systems. In ongoing field tests, the Pipe Hole and Universal Crown Evaluation Tool (PHAUCET) demonstrated the potential to reduce the amount of water pumped from the Delta’s underground aquifer. Preliminary results showed that the PHAUCET program reduces pumping times and water use by about 20 percent.
MAFES scientists are also working with Mississippi rice growers to determine the potential for using the Asian technique of intermittent flooding. Mississippi farmers flood their rice fields and then let the water levels naturally subside. When the upper half of a paddy has drained, they pump back enough water to reflood the entire field. However, leaving the floodwater at a lower level allows the paddy to better capture rainfall. For every inch of groundwater that does not have to be pumped, farmers save about a gallon of diesel fuel per acre. To date, intermittently flooded fields have produced the same or better rice yields as traditional fields, and milling quality has been unaffected.
Developing Better Cotton Varieties
The USDA classifies plant-parasitic nematodes as one of the greatest threats to crops throughout the world. Nematodes alone or in combination with other soil microorganisms attack almost every part of a plant, including its roots, stems, leaves, fruit, and seeds. Associate professor Ted Wallace is working to develop nematode-resistant cotton cultivars. To date, he has selected breeding lines that show resistance to two of the most important nematode pests in cotton. Wallace has completed three growing seasons using marker-assisted selection and has evaluated more than 10,000 plants in search of a desirable combination of resistance, yield, and fiber quality.
Professor Dan Peterson has mapped the cotton genome in an effort to identify genes that code for beneficial traits in cotton, including pest resistance. Peterson is part of an international team that has described the first “gold-standard” genome sequence for Gossypium raimondii, the first cotton variety chosen for sequencing by worldwide cotton scientists. Identifying key cotton genes and their importance is a crucial step in developing improved varieties with greater yield, quality, and sustainability.
Controlling Weeds In Cropping Systems
Weed science professor Dan Reynolds conducts several herbicide-related projects designed to improve crop production and save producers money. Working with the MSU Extension Service, Reynolds developed a smart phone application to help farmers avoid costly mistakes in the complex process of calibrating sprayers. Reynolds also is evaluating the effectiveness of planting low-value cover crops in the fall to elimnate spring weed growth. With scientists at the Delta Research and Extension Center, he is studying the effects of herbicide drift and examining new treatments to control weeds that have developed a resistance to the commonly used herbicide glyphosate.
MAFES researchers Jason Bond and Tom Eubank are evaluating a two-phase approach to control glyphosate-resistant weeds: a residual herbicide treatment in the fall followed by application of a nonselective herbicide before planting in the spring. This approach has proven effective at killing resistant weeds and keeping other unwanted plants from developing a tolerance to glyphosate. Farmers and researchers throughout the Southeast have adopted control programs designed by these scientists.
Rice irrigation method saves fuel, water, money
Ten years of research indicates that a water management strategy can save rice producers money on fuel and conserve water without hurting yields. Joe Massey, a scientist with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and professor in Mississippi State University’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, has focused his career on water conservation in agriculture.
With funding from the Mississippi Rice Promotion Board and Mississippi Water Resources Research Institute, Massey worked with other MAFES researchers and rice growers to determine if intermittent flooding could work in Mississippi, as it does in Asia. Massey found that Mississippi farmers flood their rice fields and then let the floodwaters naturally subside. When saturated mud is exposed in the upper half of the paddy, they pump back to a full-flood depth of about four inches. Growers using this method might pump water onto their fields only every five to nine days, depending on weather and soil conditions.
By allowing the water level in the paddies to decrease, growers can better capture rainfall. One grower using intermittent flooding in 2011 subjected his field to eight wetting and drying cycles, resulting in substantial savings of water and fuel. For every inch of rainwater that is captured or groundwater that is not pumped, farmers save about one gallon of diesel fuel per acre.
For large operations, such savings can add up to tanker truckload quantities of fuel. Typically the Mississippi Delta gets 10 to 14 inches of rain during the growing season. If rice paddies are completely filled, there is no room to capture rainfall—it rains, and the water runs off. Runoff may carry away nutrients and other chemicals that are expensive to purchase, and it may also contaminate our streams and rivers. The study found that even partial adoption of intermittent flooding can save producers money on energy and can relieve stress on those producers who struggle to maintain their rice crop when other crops also need watering.
Cotton yields increase with new technology
Researchers at Mississippi State University have developed technology that uses reflected light to analyze the presence of certain nematodes in cotton fields so producers can increase profits. Since 2001, MAFES and MSU scientists have been developing a way to use remote sensing technology to battle reniform and root-knot nematodes, which are the No. 1 cotton pest in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. In recent years, Mississippi cotton producers lost more profits from these nematode infestations than any other state, including a loss of 225,000 bales worth $87.8 million in 2006.
Compared to the nematode counts, the data collected through hyperspectral imaging was 75 to 100 percent accurate. The data was used to generate a field map showing areas of low, medium and high nematode populations. From that, a prescription map for applying different amounts of nematicide was created. For the producers, the yields were higher, which increases profits. Plus they saved money by applying only the amount of chemical required rather than blanketing their field with the amount needed to treat the highest population of nematodes found in their soil samples. The third benefit is to the environment, because site-specific applications reduce the amount of chemical used.
This research benefits not only Mississippi, but the entire Southeast, as producers in Alabama and Georgia routinely use the site-specific application method for treating their fields.
MSU professor finds pandas may aid biofuel production
MAFES scientists are looking to "panda poop," or microbes in panda excrement that breakdown woody materials, as a possible means to biofuel production. Scientists recently discovered that microbes in panda feces are strong enough to break down the toughest plant materials. Panda poop might help overcome one of the major challenges to producing biofuels: breaking down the raw plant materials used to make the fuels.
The findings have garnered national attention as the reproduction of these microbes could contribute to developing alternative fuels that don’t interfere with food crops and could also save a great deal of money. One of the most expensive processes in making biofuels is the pretreatment, where sugar polymers are chemically treated so that they can be used to make ethanol or oil. If you can insert a microbe that does that naturally and efficiently, production costs for alternative fuels would be cut tremendously.
MSU research benefits poinsettia producers
Researchers at Mississippi State University have found a cost-effective and environmentally friendly strategy for fighting one of the most serious soil-borne diseases in poinsettia production. Pythium stem and root rot is a common problem in poinsettia production because the fungus thrives in cool, saturated and poorly drained soils. MAFES researchers found a way to use organic methods and fewer fungicides to successfully fight this pathogen.
Pythium is a widespread fungus. Plants are cross-contaminated by splashing water or soil from pot to pot. In nursery management, producers treat the plants when they transplant cuttings to the pot. Once the disease is established, it’s too late to treat, so growers have to use a fungicide early in the season to make sure they have a healthy crop. The standard conventional fungicide is effective but expensive, and there is a high risk that the fungus will become resistant to the chemical.
Managing resistance to important fungicides is a key component of a disease management program. One of the strategies MAFES scientists are researching is integrating biofungicides. Biological agents are not conventional fungicides or chemicals, but organic methods of fighting fungi or other harmful microorganisms. The study found that a reduced rate of the conventional fungicide, when used with a biological agent, resulted in plants that didn’t rot and had similar growth to the label rate of conventional fungicides. This is beneficial to growers because it reduces their impact on the environment. It also reduces the risk of the pathogens adapting to the fungicides and becoming resistant and may save producers money by reducing the amount of fungicide they use.
High-protein insect studied at MSU
Imagine an insect that can eat nearly anything, control microbes, live off of water alone in the adult stage, and be a good source of protein for animal feed. The black soldier fly is real, not science fiction, and it has researchers at Mississippi State University abuzz with excitement. MAFES scientists are studying the black soldier fly as a potential solution to dealing with large amounts of waste while also generating a feed product. Black soldier flies are 40 to 45 percent protein by dry weight. Theoretically, one metric ton can be produced per day in the space of a medium-sized house, and used as a feed product.
Harvested larvae can be dried and milled to create a high-protein meal for livestock, poultry and aquaculture consumption. Due to their high oil content, black soldier fly larvae may even be useful for biofuel production. They’re not a known disease carrier, they don’t bite or sting, and they’re not a nuisance. They’re a versatile species with huge potential.
Black soldier fly larvae will eat almost anything—manure, carcasses—without any remaining harmful fungi or microbial residue. These insects require no special diet, so they can be fed nearly any kind of agricultural byproducts or waste.
Corn researchers develop in-field aflatoxin approach
MAFES scientists are researching new ways to reduce aflatoxin in infected corn. Corn is one of the state’s leading row crops, but it is susceptible to aflatoxin, a fungus that can reduce profits and hurt marketability.
Aflatoxins are naturally occurring chemicals produced by the fungi Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus. The fungi appear as yellow-green or gray-green molds on corn in the field or in storage. Scientists are applying granules of Aspergillus flavus that do not produce aflatoxin but do compete with the native Aspergillus flavus. In essence, they are using a good fungus to fight a bad one. Aflatoxin levels are not normally high in corn, but Mississippi’s hot, humid climate encourages the growth of the fungus that produces the toxin. Heat, drought, high humidity, insect infestation and anything else that stresses the crop favor fungal growth.
Aflatoxin can build up in crops such as corn, cotton, peanuts and tree nuts. Aspergillus infects corn by invading through corn silks or through insect damage to kernels or ears. Using non-aflatoxin-producing A. flavus strains has the potential to protect much of the state’s corn harvest.
Energy From Grass
Scientists have identified a species of grassy feedstock that works well in sustainable bioenergy production. Giant miscanthus, a warm-season Asian grass, has potential as a biomass crop for fuel. MAFES scientists have isolated, identified and selected a genotype of the species that fits agricultural production systems of Southeastern farmers. This perennial plant offers several production advantages. It produces biomass that can grow as tall as 12 feet and thrives on marginal cropland. The crop is tolerant of drought and excessive rain, and it requires few inputs once established and maintained under a one-cut system. Giant miscanthus can be harvested and baled like hay using the same type of equipment.
Identifying Destructive Invaders
Exotic insect species enter the United States through multiple routes, such as on wood shipping pallets, plant materials, and imported fruits and vegetables. The U.S. government sets trade restrictions to help prevent the introduction of nonnative pests, and its inspectors work at all borders to search for and confiscate materials carrying these insects. Some hidden pests do make it past inspection and move into U.S. crops. Once established, these pests can damage crops and native plant species, ultimately causing severe economic damage. Quick identification of invasive species is crucial to stopping their spread. The Mississippi Entomological Museum was recently designated as the Eastern Region Identification Center for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Cotton Tolerance to Glyphosate
Research has documented Roundup Ready cotton tolerance to glyphosate, but there is little data on the effect of glyphosate application on the critical fruit partitioning stage in the newer Roundup Ready Flex cotton. A MAFES study evaluated several Roundup Ready Flex cotton varieties to shed light on this question. The study found that the varieties evaluated exhibited excellent tolerance to multiple applications with no significant differences in yield.
Asian Beetle Threatens Coastal Trees
A beetle that made its presence known in Mississippi this summer is threatening the extinction of red bay trees in the state. The beetle is the red bay ambrosia beetle, a dark brown insect about half the size of an uncooked grain of rice. It spreads the pathogen that causes Laurel wilt disease in many tree species, including Mississippi’s red bay and sassafras trees. MAFES scientists are trying to determine how the beetle got into Mississippi so it can be stopped.
Best Turf for Cemetery Use
MAFES researchers found it takes a special kind of turf to keep a cemetery looking nice without frequent maintenance.
Researchers planted St. Augustine grass, centipede grass, zoysia grass, bermuda grass and Mississippi Supreme, an ultra-dwarf bermuda grass. They examined each turf for performance in Mississippi’s climate, mowing requirements and ability to compete with weeds without regular fertilizer applications.
It is estimated that the state has more than 3,000 acres of cemeteries with a wide range of costs to maintain turf. Cost is not the only challenge in cemetery turf maintenance; weeds and turf establishment also present obstacles. Weeds are a challenge to all lawns in the state, and cemeteries are no exception.
St. Augustine is a high-quality turf that requires at least weekly mowing, and it works fine in the southern half of Mississippi, especially the lower third of the state. However, it is the least cold tolerant and may not be suitable for northern Mississippi.
Centipede is well adapted to poor soils, but it does not have the color or lush density of St. Augustine or zoysia. However, it is a good, low-maintenance grass that grows well without nitrogen fertilizer.
"Zoysia established from sod is a good choice. If it is good sod and you can supply enough water to get it established, it will last for a long time," Philley said. "Solid sod is the only recommended method of planting zoysia grass in cemeteries."
Bermuda grass is a good choice if the cemetery is highly maintained, but this turf requires regular nitrogen applications to compete with weeds. Mississippi Supreme, the ultra-dwarf bermuda grass, does not work well in nonfertilized cemeteries.
Toxin-free Castor Would Be Major Help to Industry
Castor oil is the highly desirable, plentiful product of castor beans. The oil is used to produce everything from cosmetics and paints to jet aircraft lubricants and certain plastics. The thick oil makes up 60 percent of the seed’s weight. By comparison, high-oil corn or canola only produce about 25 percent oil by weight. Ninety percent of the oil is ricinoleic acid, a fatty acid found in large quantities only in castor oil. This acid has many industrial applications.
MAFES scientist are trying to make it possible to grow the plant safely for commercial oil production in Mississippi. Castor seed meal, not the oil, contains ricin, a toxic protein that can become fatal if untreated in the body.
To make castor a commercially viable U.S. crop, scientists are trying to discover a way to genetically modify the plant so that either the gene that produces the toxin is no longer expressed or the toxin is no longer produced.
One of the challenges is that castor resists being transformed. The genetic modification process involves inserting a fragment of DNA foreign to the plant into the genetic code, where it must be accepted and become active.
Everything from cotton to corn and soybeans has been genetically modified, but castor is much more difficult. The castor cells can be transformed, but you can’t get whole plants to grow from the cells.
Researchers Make 'Elusieve' Dreams Happen
Ground corn flour, soybean meal and distillers dried grains with solubles (DDGS) — a by-product from ethanol production — comprise more than 70 percent of swine and poultry diets. While these ingredients are important for livestock nutrition, they are high in fiber, which is not easily digested by swine and poultry. Feed producers needed a system to remove the fiber while maintaining vital nutrients.
MAFES scientists developed a process called "Elusieve" that uses a combination of sieving and air classification to separate fiber from feeds. This technique sifts particles into four sizes and then blows them with air to remove fiber. They found that fiber separation increases starch content of ground corn flour by 3 percent and increases protein contents of DDGS and soybean meal.