Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station

Plant and Soil Sciences

The Department of Plant and Soil Sciences conducts research related to major agronomic crops, including cotton breeding and genetic improvements, row crops, soil microbiology and ecology, and the impact of environmental factors on plants and soils. Additional research is focused on new and existing herbicide and weed control management strategies in ornamental and row-cropping systems. Scientists also work in floriculture and ornamental horticulture, including landscape performance, production and propagation of nursery crops. Other scientists study management and eradication of aquatic and invasive weeds.

Learn more at pss.msstate.edu

 

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.

Seeds of hope

George Awuni understands food insecurity firsthand. A native of Ghana, in sub-Saharan Africa, Awuni has seen what the scarcity of food does to a community and a nation. He has known hunger and, even though, his mother worked to provide for the family, there were times when Awuni went to bed on an empty stomach. As a post-doctoral researcher in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Awuni, along with Dan Reynolds, the Edgar E. and Winifred B. Hartwig Endowed Chair in Soybean Agronomy, is working to enable small-scale Ghanaian farmers to share in the rising demand for soybeans in Ghana. The research includes collaboration between five institutions of higher learning and 10 governmental and non-governmental research partners.

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.

Irrigation innovation

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Studying coastal impact of ecofriendly green roofs

Horticulturists Christine Coker and Gary Bachman of the Coastal Research and Extension Center are studying and recording the effects of the coastal climate on eight “green roofs” at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport. Green roofs are gardens planted in layers of specialized materials on properly reinforced rooftops. These green roofs sit atop the first floor and are visible from the veterans’ apartments, which rise above in towers. The 78,000-square-foot green roof system was a requirement for the retirement home to be certified through the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Certification measures, like installing green roofs, increase biodiversity and reduce energy consumption, erosion, and pollution. They also provide beautiful spaces for residents, staff, and visitors to enjoy. Coker and Bachman study how the coastal climate affects the microenvironments of green roofs. They gather data, such as median air temperature, humidity, moisture content of the plant medium, and saltwater spray exposure. Because limited data is available on green roofs in coastal areas, the project is expected to provide valuable insights on these types of ecosystems.

Cultivating sunflowers for energy production

Agronomist Normie Buehring has been testing his green thumb on sunflowers, a crop that has potential as a food and bioenergy crop that farmers can grow in Mississippi. At the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona, scientists set out to evaluate new hybrid sunflowers with shorter stems, about 3–4 feet tall. They later planted the sunflowers at four locations around Mississippi as far north as Verona and as far south as Newton. Yield and oil content were equivalent to sunflowers grown in the North, where the flowers are typically raised. However, the Mississippi-grown sunflower seeds contained higher concentrations of oleic acid than the original planting seed. The high oleic acid content would be good for high-quality cooking oil production. Seed production and oil content are also important for bioenergy production.

Squeezing energy from a beet

Energy beets could provide an off-season crop for Mississippi farmers and an alternative energy source for the nation’s expanding biofuel industry. At the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, plant scientist Wayne Ebelhar and other researchers are examining the growth and profit potential for varieties of energy beet, a nonedible relative of the sugar beet used only in biofuel production. Because they are traditionally grown in much cooler climates, energy beets will grow best during Mississippi winters as a cover crop on fields between fall harvest and spring planting.

MSU Extension agents are enlisting farmers willing to grow energy beets to test how well the crop grows in Mississippi and whether it can be produced at a profit. While energy beets are not a cheap crop to grow—about $700 per acre—the financial breakeven point would be yields around 20 tons per acre. Energy beets could yield as much as 50 tons per acre. After a few more years of testing, scientists are confident energy beets will make an excellent winter crop with minimal insect, disease, and weed pressure during the cold months.

Turning perennial grass into green gasoline

Plant scientist Brian Baldwin spent years developing a variety of giant miscanthus for use in biofuel production. Baldwin’s discovery, an adaptation of a perennial grass native to Asia, is particularly suited to the Southeast’s climate and soils, and it produces more biomass per acre than other bioenergy crops. MSU filed a plant patent application for the resulting variety, named Freedom, in 2010 and licensed it to Georgia-based Repreve Renewables LLC. Cool Planet Biofuels has used Freedom giant miscanthus to create gasoline, a breakthrough in the biofuels industry. In a pilot test, Cool Planet generated about 4,000 gallons of gasoline per acre of biomass using Freedom grown under nearly optimal crop growth conditions. Their process used air-dried, coarsely ground grass subjected to moderately high temperature and pressure to produce a ready-to-use gasoline, chemically identical to the petroleum-based fossil fuel.

Baldwin also works to develop other crops suitable for biomass production, including oilseed crops, native and exotic grasses, and Sunn hemp, kenaf, and other fiber crops. For example, he is testing several switchgrass species for their ability to germinate on demand, which would allow farmers to increase yields of this biomass crop. Baldwin also examines the use of traditional crops as alternative energy sources. In one such project, he works to improve the sugar content of a sweet sorghum variety. In collaboration with the USDA-ARS, Baldwin is developing a cold-hardy sugarcane variety.

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.

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.

No-till farming opens hills to crop production

Time, experience and research findings show no-till farming can boost production, prevent soil erosion and transform hayfields and pastures into viable cropland. Producers who practice no-tillage grow crops without disturbing the soil except at planting, using any residue carried over from previous crops as mulch. Instead of tillage, earthworms and other soil organisms aerate the soil while preserving its structure.

Today’s surge in commodity prices has created an ideal time for producers to embrace no-till methods. No-till works particularly well on sloping land that is often passed over by buyers and renters looking for cropland acres. Land cost in the Hills is lower than in the Mississippi Delta, and one can easily farm with no-till practices on sloping land. These fields drain well and will support equipment much better than land that has been tilled, so producers can work more days than in a tilled system.

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.

Improved Grazing Systems for Cattle and Wildlife

MAFES scientists are evaluating cattle performance and environmental impacts of grazing based on native, warm-season grasses. These grasses once dominated the landscape but have been eliminated by conversion to agriculture and exotic forage grasses. Native grasses produce high biomass that is palatable and nutritious for livestock. These grasses also provide superior habitat for a variety of wildlife species, including bees and butterflies.

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.