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New 3D model predicts best planting practices for farmers

Published June 23, 2017
row spacing
Double row spacing is better for sugarcane plants and soil, but sacrifices up to 10% yield.

URBANA, Ill. – As farmers survey their fields this summer, several questions come to mind: How many plants germinated per acre? How does altering row spacing affect my yields? Does it make a difference if I plant my rows north to south or east to west? Now a computer model can answer these questions by comparing billions of virtual fields with different planting densities, row spacings, and orientations.

The University of Illinois and the Partner Institute for Computational Biology in Shanghai developed this computer model to predict the yield of different crop cultivars in a multitude of planting conditions. Published in BioEnergy Research, the model depicts the growth of 3D plants, incorporating models of the biochemical and biophysical processes that underlie productivity.

Teaming up with the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, they used the model to address a question for sugarcane producers: How much yield might be sacrificed to take advantage of a possible conservation planting technique?

“Current sugarcane harvesters cut a single row at a time, which is time-consuming and leads to damage of the crop stands,” said author Steve Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Plant Biology and Crop Sciences at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at U of I. “This could be solved if the crop was planted in double rows with gaps between the double rows. But plants in double rows will shade each other more, causing a potential loss of profitability.”

The model found that double-row spacing costs about 10% of productivity compared to traditional row spacing; however, this loss can be reduced to just 2% by choosing cultivars with more horizontal leaves planted in a north-south orientation.

“This model could be applied to other crops to predict optimal planting designs for specific environments,” said Yu Wang, a postdoctoral researcher at U of I who led the study. “It could also be used in reverse to predict the potential outcome for a field."

The authors predict this model will be especially useful when robotic planting becomes more commonplace, which will allow for many more planting permutations.

The paper, “Development of a Three-Dimensional Ray-Tracing Model of Sugarcane Canopy Photosynthesis and Its Application in Assessing Impacts of Varied Row Spacing,” is published by BioEnergy Research (DOI: 10.1007/s12155-017-9823-x). Co-authors include: Yu Wang, Qingfeng Song, Deepak Jaiswal, Amanda P. de Souza, and Xin-Guang Zhu. This research was supported by the IGB, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project, Energy Biosciences Institute, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. RIPE is an international research project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to engineer plants to more efficiently turn the sun’s energy into food to sustainably increase worldwide food productivity.


Construction on U of I building to shut down (again) on July 1

Published June 22, 2017
IBRL exterior

URBANA, Ill. – Plagued by the state’s budget impasse, the Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois will shut down for the second time on July 1. Contractors have received written notifications from the Capital Development Board to prepare the site for demobilization. 

Officials at U of I report that the budget for IBRL increased by nearly 30 percent after the previous yearlong stoppage. They are concerned that an extended delay at the present state of construction will result in much more extensive rework with unknown cost escalation to the $32-million project.

According to IBRL Director Vijay Singh, the building was scheduled to open for business in spring 2018.

“We’ve made great progress after recovering from the first shutdown. That momentum will be lost, as attention shifts to protecting the building rather than foundational project scoping,” Singh says. “Relationships that we’ve built with industrial partners will undoubtedly suffer major setbacks and exciting prospects for economic development related to bioprocessing and bio-products in Illinois and along the I-72 biocorridor will be delayed.”

Singh adds that federal and industrial research projects that were expected to begin in 2018 will be postponed or cancelled. Companies, which had set aside monies for projects, will likely look elsewhere for scale-up work.

The remaining days of June will be unproductive toward completion of the building as the work focus becomes securing it against weather and vandalism. Singh also notes that delays like this are compounded because contractors move on to other projects, disrupting the restart of the project.

IRBL is a part of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. ACES Dean Kim Kidwell says this second halt on construction could have serious long-term consequences.

“It’s not just about a building,” Kidwell says. “Obviously, we’ll need to postpone hiring staff to operate the facility, but there is also the potential for the loss of very talented faculty and scientists as they consider other opportunities. Illinois will be challenged to retain and recruit talent working in the industrial biotech space. Enrollment in the Professional Science Masters (PSM) program in bioprocessing and other related majors may suffer from the lack of available facilities and faculty.”

Kidwell adds, “It is an ironic twist that the construction on this building, which is to be a catalyst for innovation, is stalled not once, but twice. It’s disappointing, not just for the College of ACES, but also for the state of Illinois’ efforts to be a leader in renewable bioprocessing technologies.”


Behavior study shows piglets prefer new toys

Published June 21, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – We can’t help but be tempted by new things. We see it in a child’s eyes when she opens a new toy, and feel it every time a new version of the iPhone is released. It turns out our preference for shiny, new things is pretty universal throughout the animal kingdom. Yes, even piglets prefer new toys.

In a recent study from the Piglet Nutrition and Cognition Lab at the University of Illinois, 3- and 4-week-old piglets were given dog toys to play with. Then, after a certain delay, they were given that toy again, along with a new one. Researchers wanted to see if the delay diminished the piglets’ memory of the first object.

Females and 4-week-old piglets of both sexes were a little better than males and 3-week-olds at remembering the first object, even after a two-day delay. But, for the most part, piglets made a beeline for the new toy.

The study wasn’t really about proving that piglets are capable of learning and remembering – that’s already well known. “You could ask any farmer how smart pigs are and they’ll tell you they’re smarter than dogs. That piece isn’t new,” says Stephen Fleming, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in the Department of Animal Sciences and the neuroscience program at U of I.   

The study wasn’t about designing a new way of testing animal behavior, either; the same test has been used in rodents. The real utility of the study was the fact that the test worked for pigs. Pig brains are remarkably similar to human brains, so they are often used as model systems by neuroscientists.  

“With humans, when we want to know if something’s affecting how they learn or behave, we can ask them a question; with animals, we can’t. Historically, researchers have had animals complete a maze or press a lever every time a light comes on. But if you try to translate that to people, it becomes difficult. We don’t usually put people through mazes,” Fleming explains.

The study measured object recognition behavior in two ways, each of which reflects activity in a different part of the brain. Novel object recognition, already described, is thought to be controlled by a brain region called the perirhinal cortex. Novel location recognition, or piglets’ ability to remember where a familiar object is located, is likely controlled by the hippocampus.

It turns out 3- and 4-week-old piglets, whose brain development is roughly equivalent to 3- to 4-month-old infants, have a bad spatial memory: when familiar toys were in a different spot, the piglets played with them as if they were new.

The test will be used primarily as the foundation for additional research. For example, scientists could use it to determine if there are any behavioral or neurological effects of dietary additives or nutritional deficiencies.

“We wanted to prove that piglets are able to remember objects and that the test is sensitive. Are we actually measuring memory or is it something else? Now that we’ve proven they can recognize that objects are new, we can go in with a nutrient and see how they perform,” Fleming says.

The article, “Young pigs exhibit differential exploratory behavior during novelty preference tasks in response to age, sex, and delay,” is published in Behavioural Brain Research. The study was co-authored by Fleming’s Ph.D. advisor, Ryan Dilger, associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I. Support for the research was provided by Mead Johnson Nutrition and the American Egg Board.

Dr. Lulu Rodriguez Receives Research Award

Published June 20, 2017
Lulu Rodriguez with award
Dr. Lulu Rodriguez

Prof. Lulu Rodriguez, NRES associate professor and director of the Agricultural Communications Program at the University of Illinois, received an Excellence in Research Award on June 15. It was presented by the international organization, Association for Communication Excellence (ACE), at an annual conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.

She was recognized for being among the most active and productive communications researchers in the subject areas of food, natural resources, renewable energy, rural development, and others related to agriculture. Through her research she is contributing to understanding of the effects of science and risk communication interventions on public knowledge, attitudes, and behavior. A companion research stream involves evaluating and improving media performance in communicating science and risk.

Her studies address questions central to some of today’s most vigorous debates, domestically and globally. For example, rural women throughout the world are benefitting from her research, which is helping lay the groundwork for empowering these vital agricultural producers and improving the lives of rural families.

She was also recognized for strengthening the research base of the Agricultural Communications Program while enhancing student participation in research. The Program she leads has been offered jointly by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and College of Media since 1962.

News Source:

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, 217-333-2770

Wheat coproducts vary in protein digestibility when fed to pigs

Published June 19, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Research from the University of Illinois is helping to determine the quality of protein in wheat middlings and red dog, two coproducts of the wheat milling process that can be included in diets fed to pigs and other livestock.

Red dog consists mainly of the aleurone layer that lies between the bran and the endosperm, along with small particles of bran, germ, and flour. Wheat middlings are granular particles of the wheat endosperm, bran, and germ. They contain about three times as much dietary fiber as red dog.

"We have information about the digestibility of crude protein in some wheat coproducts produced in Canada and China, but only very limited information about the nutritional value of wheat middlings and red dog produced in the United States," says Hans H. Stein, professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I.

"In addition, because wheat coproducts vary in terms of the conditions under which they are produced, their nutritional value may vary as well," he says.

Stein and Ph. D. candidate Gloria Casas procured wheat middlings from ten suppliers in Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, along with red dog from a supplier in Iowa, and fed them to growing pigs.

Despite the variety in the sources of wheat middlings, the concentration and standardized ileal digestibility (SID) of crude protein were generally consistent. However, there was variation in the digestibility of most amino acids among sources of wheat middlings.

Red dog contained slightly less crude protein than wheat middlings: the mean protein concentration of the wheat middlings samples was 17.67 percent, compared with 17 percent in red dog.

However, the SID of crude protein and all but three amino acids—arginine, histidine, and serine—was greater in red dog than in wheat middlings.

According to Stein, "The SID of amino acids is probably greater in red dog because it contains less fiber compared with wheat middlings. It's also possible that excessive heat was used in the processing of the wheat middlings, causing heat damage."

The SID of lysine, the amino acid most susceptible to heat damage, was 72.3 percent in red dog but averaged only 46.2 percent in wheat middlings.

Stein says the results of this study provide guidance to producers who hope to incorporate wheat co-products into diets fed to pigs.

"The amino acids in red dog are well digested, so there should be no problem with incorporating them into swine diets," he says. "However, we would advise anyone feeding wheat middlings to add crystalline amino acids or other protein sources so that the diet will have sufficient digestible amino acids."

The paper, "The ileal digestibility of most amino acids is greater in red dog than in wheat middlings when fed to growing pigs," appears in the June 2017 issue of the Journal of Animal Science. The National Pork Board of Des Moines, Iowa, provided funding for the study.

News Source:

Hans Stein, 217-333-0013

News Writer:

Jennifer Roth, 217-202-5105

Growing hops in west central Illinois

Published June 19, 2017

URBANA, Ill. - As a new generation of commercial and home brewers emerges, the demand for locally grown hops is on the rise. Traditionally grown in the Pacific Northwest, hops can also be grown successfully in the Midwest climate. However, this crop requires more inputs and infrastructure than a typical backyard garden.

University of Illinois Extension will offer two opportunities in July to learn more about growing hops on both a small scale and commercial scale.

On Friday, July 14, join University of Illinois Extension small farms and local foods educator Grant McCarty for “Growing Hops for Homebrewers,” as he details what you need to get started growing hops in the Midwest. McCarty will cover disease and insect management, irrigation setup, harvesting, and marketing hops to brewers.

This program will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the McDonough County Extension Office and 4-H Center in Macomb, Illinois. It is free and open to the public. Registration is encouraged, but not required. Register online at For more information, call 309-342-5108, or email

On Saturday, July 15, McCarty will present an educational workshop at The Hallowed Hops Farm Field Day near Lewiston, Illinois. This field day will allow participants to experience a living, working hops yard. This event will be from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and will include a tour of the farm, discussion of industry details, lunch, educational workshops, and networking. Space is limited, and registration is required. Register online at For more information, call 800-526-9943, or email This event is sponsored by Illinois Cooperative Development Center and Hallowed Hops Farm.

Anyone interested in growing hops, homebrewing, or the “drink local” movement is encouraged to attend either of these events for a chance to ask questions and learn from experts.