College of ACES
College News

Soybean and corn export outlook

Published July 16, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - The escalating trade issues between the U.S. and many of our trading partners continue to affect the outlook in both corn and soybean markets. Drastic price declines since Memorial Day show the impact of trade uncertainty and yield potential.

“The prospect of large yields combined with trade issues set the baseline for determining export potential and price formation in both corn and soybean markets moving forward,” says Todd Hubbs, University of Illinois agricultural economist.

The USDA soybean export projection for the current marketing year totals 2.085 billion bushels, up 20 million bushels from last month’s estimate. Census Bureau export estimates through May place soybean exports at 1.762 billion bushels. Census Bureau export totals came in 42 million bushels larger than cumulative marketing-year export inspections over the same period.

As of July 12, cumulative export inspections for the current marketing year totaled 1.873 billion bushels. Hubbs explains that if the same difference in export pace continued through the current period, soybean exports would have totaled 1.915 billion bushels as of July 12. For the remainder of the current marketing year, 24.2 million bushels of soybean exports are required each week to meet the USDA projection.

During the last four weeks, export inspections of soybeans averaged 24.5 million bushels per week. Low soybean prices encouraged sales to destinations other than China over the last few weeks. As of July 5, total outstanding sales for the current marketing year totaled 263 million bushels, which is well above the estimated 170 million bushels required to meet the USDA projection. While China looks to cancel the 26 million bushels of outstanding sales it possesses, total outstanding sales still sit above the estimated total to meet USDA projection for this marketing year.

“Adjustments to 2018-19 marketing year trade numbers in the latest USDA forecasts present a bearish picture for soybean exports,” Hubbs says. “A reduction of 250 million bushels, to 2.04 billion bushels, from last month’s soybean export forecast is not a surprise given the current trade environment.”

In conjunction with lower U.S. soybean export projections, the USDA reduced the Chinese soybean import forecast to 3.491 billion bushels. The 73 million bushel reduction from last marketing year is the first decrease in year-over-year imports by China since the 2003-04 marketing year. While Chinese imports appear set to decrease, the USDA projects substantial increases in South American production next marketing year.

Argentine recovery from last season’s drought and expanded acreage in Brazil place soybean production forecasts in the region at 7.1 billion bushels, up 808 million bushels from the current marketing year. Barring a resolution to current trade issues, soybean exports next marketing year will struggle despite the low prices currently in place.

“The prospect of record corn yields and the uncertainty surrounding trade continue to place pressure on corn prices. At 2.4 billion bushels, the USDA estimate for corn exports during the current marketing year appears somewhat optimistic given cumulative exports to date and unshipped sales,” Hubbs explains.

Export estimates by the Census Bureau through May place corn exports for the marketing year at 1.656 billion bushels. Through July 12, cumulative export inspections totaled 1.907 billion bushels. Using the relationship between export inspections and Census Bureau totals, exports for corn currently sit at 2.01 billion bushels.

According to Hubbs, for the remainder of the marketing year, export inspections need to average approximately 56 million bushels per week to meet the USDA projection. For the last four weeks of export inspection data, corn exports averaged 56.7 million bushels per week. Total outstanding sales for the current marketing year sit at 454 million bushels, which is above the 394 million bushels required to reach the USDA projection. 

“While corn exports may fall short of the current estimate, the blistering export pace in the second half of this marketing year looks set to continue into the fall,” Hubbs adds.

Current USDA projections for corn exports during the 2018-19 marketing year total 2.225 billion bushels, up 125 million bushels from last month’s projections. World import projections during the upcoming marketing year provided by the USDA sit at 5.95 billion bushels, up 193 million bushels over the current marketing year estimates.

A low price and poor corn crops in South America and the Black Sea region provide an outlook for continued strength in corn exports moving into the next marketing year. Current export sales data give indications to support this idea. As of July 5, corn outstanding sales for the 2018-19 marketing year sit at 183 million bushels, a 41 percent increase in sales from the same time last year.

Exports in both corn and soybeans built some strength over the last few weeks as lower prices spurred demand. Current estimates of export pace place both crops on track to meet or come near USDA projections for this marketing year.

“The size of the 2018 crop domestically and in key producing regions will provide a critical factor in determining U.S. export potential next marketing year,” Hubbs says. “A resolution of trade issues with China and NAFTA partners would provide needed support. Current developments appear to make this a low-probability event in the near term.”

Discussion and graphs associated with this article are available here:

Friendlier fish may be quicker to take the bait

Published July 16, 2018
Bluegill. Photo credit: Jason DeBoer, INHS

URBANA, Ill. – The bluegill on your dinner plate might have been more social than the rest of its group, according to a new study from the University of Illinois, and its removal from the lake could mean major changes for the remaining population.

“There’s a reason everyone’s first fish is bluegill. They are social fish, forming big groups around structures close to shore. It seemed like their social behavior and their aggression would be super important in terms of angling vulnerability,” says Michael Louison, lead author on the study and graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and the Illinois Natural History Survey at U of I.

Testing this hypothesis meant a week’s worth of fishing for Louison, an avid angler. He first stocked an experimental pond with bluegill from a hatchery, each of which had been tagged to allow identification of individuals.

“They had been living in a natural lake environment,” he says. “They had to find food and avoid predators in that environment. So they were ‘real fish.’”

Over five days, he and another angler fished the pond using typical equipment and methods for bluegill. When they’d catch a fish, they’d quickly check the fish’s identification number and release it back into the water. At the end of the week, they drained the pond and brought all the fish they could find back to tanks in their laboratory. They assigned 38 fish to a test group: Half of these had been caught at least once, while the others had never been caught.

To determine if there was a sociability difference in fish that took the bait versus their uncaptured counterparts, Louison and his research team devised a simple test. They split an ordinary rectangular fish tank in half with a glass divider, placing a test fish on one side and six random bluegills from the pond on the other.

“We were looking at how much time this fish spent hanging out right next to the divider trying to associate with the fish on the other side,” he says. “You’d expect a social fish to be hanging out close to the glass a lot, whereas you’d expect a non-social fish to be further back.”

It turns out that fish that had been caught spent significantly more time near the divider than fish that had never been caught. The trial was repeated twice for each fish, and the results were consistent: Fish that had been caught were inherently more social.

Louison thought aggression might also make a fish more likely to attack bait, so he paired one fish from the test group with another fish from the pond in an open tank.

“In every case, one fish emerged as dominant. It would be hanging out in the center of the tank, with the other fish driven into the corner. Every time the submissive fish tried to come back into the center, the dominant fish would attack it and drive it back to the side,” he says.   

Interestingly, fish that had been caught were not more aggressive or dominant than uncaptured fish. Only more social.

If anglers are removing the most social fish from bluegill populations, what does that mean for the fish left behind? Louison thinks it could change the entire social structure, at least in the short term, potentially leaving the remaining fish at risk.

“Broadly speaking, for animals living in groups, social individuals are really important. They help spot predators, find prey, and transmit information about these things to the rest of the group,” says Cory Suski, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences and co-author on the study. 

“Our previous research has shown that removing fish with certain characteristics – like parental quality or even overall vulnerability to angling – has potential to change the character of a population,” says Jeffrey Stein, fish ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey and co-author of the study. “Understanding how characteristics like sociability affect vulnerability to angling can lead to more effective management of high-quality recreational fisheries.”

The researchers don’t know whether bluegills adjust their social groups when a particularly gregarious individual is removed, or whether consistent removal of these fish through angling might constitute a long-term evolutionary shift.

“In this experimental setting, we’ve shown that sociability could be under selection by anglers. The next step, which is more difficult to do, is to actually go out into wild populations and evaluate whether we see differences in behavior in fish in heavily fished lakes versus lakes back in the woods where only one person might fish. That’s the next step,” Louison says.

The article, “Sociable bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus, are selectively captured via recreational angling,” is published in Animal Behavior [DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2018.06.013]. Authors include Michael Louison, Jennifer Jeffrey, Cory Suski, and Jeffrey Stein. Funding for this research was provided by the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Fund (Project F-69-R) via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Products of omega-3 fatty acid metabolism may have anticancer effects, study shows

Published July 12, 2018

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A class of molecules formed when the body metabolizes omega-3 fatty acids could inhibit cancer’s growth and spread, University of Illinois researchers report in a new study in mice. The molecules, called endocannabinoids, are made naturally by the body and have similar properties to cannabinoids found in marijuana – but without the psychotropic effects.

In mice with tumors of osteosarcoma – a bone cancer that is notoriously painful and difficult to treat – endocannabinoids slowed the growth of tumors and blood vessels, inhibited the cancer cells from migrating and caused cancer cell death. The results were published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry.

 “We have a built-in endocannabinoid system which is anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing. Now we see it is also anti-cancer, stopping the cells from proliferating or migrating,” said study leader Aditi Das, a professor of comparative biosciences and an affiliate of biochemistry at Illinois. “These molecules could address multiple problems: cancer, inflammation and pain.”

Graduate student Jahnabi Roy was the first author of the study.

In 2017, the Illinois team identified a new group of omega-3 fatty-acid metabolites called endocannabinoid epoxides, or EDP-EAs. They found that these molecules had anti-inflammatory properties and targeted the same receptor in the body that cannabis does.

Since cannabis has been shown to have some anti-cancer properties, in the new study the researchers investigated whether EDP-EAs also affect cancer cells. They found that in mice with osteosarcoma tumors that metastasized to their lungs, there was an 80 percent increase in naturally occurring EDP-EAs in cancerous lung tissues over the lungs of healthy mice.  

“The dramatic increase indicated that these molecules were doing something to the cancer – but we didn’t know if it was harmful or good,” Das said. “We asked, are they trying to stop the cancer, or facilitating it? So we studied the individual properties and saw that they are working against the cancer in several ways.”

The researchers found that in higher concentrations, EDP-EAs did kill cancer cells, but not as effectively as other chemotherapeutic drugs on the market. However, the compounds also combated the osteosarcoma in other ways: They slowed tumor growth by inhibiting new blood vessels from forming to supply the tumor with nutrients, they prevented interactions between the cells, and most significantly, they appeared to stop cancerous cells from migrating. 

“The major cause of death from cancer is driven by the spread of tumor cells, which requires migration of cells,” said study coauthor Timothy Fan, a professor of veterinary clinical medicine and veterinary oncology. “As such, therapies that have the potential to impede cell migration also could be useful for slowing down or inhibiting metastases.”

The researchers isolated the most potent of the molecules and are working to develop derivatives that bind better to the cannabinoid receptor, which is plentiful on the surface on cancer cells.

“Dietary consumption of omega-3 fatty acids can lead to the formation of these substances in the body and may have some beneficial effects. However, if you have cancer, you want something concentrated and fast acting,” Das said. “That’s where the endocannabinoid epoxide derivatives come into play – you could make a concentrated dose of the exact compound that’s most effective against the cancer. You could also mix this with other drugs such as chemotherapies.”

Next, the researchers plan to perform preclinical studies in dogs, since dogs develop osteosarcoma spontaneously, similarly to humans. They also plan to study the effects of EDP-EAs derived from omega-3 fatty acids in other cancer types.

“Particular cancers that might be most interesting to study would be solid tumors or carcinomas, which tend to spread and cause pain within the skeleton. Some of the most common tumors that behave this way are breast, prostate, and lung carcinomas, and we can certainly explore these tumors in the future,” said Fan, who is also a member of the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the Cancer Center at Illinois and the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology.  

Das is an affiliate of the Neuroscience Program and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the U. of I.

The National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association supported this work.

Editor’s notes: To reach Aditi Das, call 217-244-0630; email: To reach Timothy Fan, call (217) 333-5375; email

The paper “Antitumorigenic properties of omega-3 endocannabinoid epoxides” is available online or from the News Bureau.

DOI: 10.1021/acs.jmedchem.8b00243


Deadline to suppress directory information 

All Day Event

#askACES Twitter chat July 17: Urban Food Systems in Cook County

Published July 11, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - What does urban ag look like in Chicagoland? How much produce can actually be grown in urban and peri-urban areas?

The food insecurity rate in certain areas of Cook County exceeds 50 percent. This means half of the individuals living in those communities do not know where their next meal is coming from. This level of food insecurity, mixed with large amounts of available vacant and underused land, is an opportunity to address food insecurity with nutritionally dense food production and small business creation. A long tradition of food production in urban areas dates back to the start of the 20th century and the advent of the modern city. Join us for a Twitter chat with University of Illinois Extension educator Zack Grant on July 17 from noon to 1 p.m. CT to discover urban agriculture’s potential to address issues of food insecurity and create entrepreneurial opportunities.

How can you take part in this exciting conversation?

  1. Go to Twitter. Type in #askACES. Click the “Latest” tab. Watch the questions and answers from noon-1 p.m. CT.
  2. Ask your own questions and contribute to this conversation by including #askACES with your question.
  3. If you aren’t on Twitter, watch the live feed at If you have a question, but can’t participate in the live chat, send it to
  4. Watch ACES social media (Twitter and Facebook) for a follow-up podcast with Zack Grant.

Don’t miss the discussion on July 17.Your questions are important to us as we tackle this impactful topic.


The College of ACES is excited to host this series of chats - #askACES - on Twitter addressing some of the hot topics in social media today. Recently, we’ve discussed a variety of topics from water quality with Dr. Laura Christianson, Dr. Paul Davidson and Jonathan Coppess to nutrition labeling with Dr. Brenna Ellison, Dr. Anna Arthur, and Dr. Jennifer McCaffrey. Our goal is to distribute sound science on social media and provide the public an opportunity to engage in a conversation and ask their questions about these topics. We would love to have you join us on Twitter for these chats and contribute to the conversation. Or, listen to the follow-up podcasts at

News Source:

ACES Staff

Agronomy Day 2018 field tour topics announced

Published July 10, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – Ever wondered how you could use drones to make life easier on the farm? Need new and effective management strategies for western corn rootworm, soybean diseases, or herbicide-resistant weeds? Plan to hear about these and other crop-related topics on Aug. 16 at the 61st annual Agronomy Day, hosted by the Department of Crop Sciences and the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.

This year’s theme – where science meets practice – is well represented in the lineup of field tour topics and speakers, now available.

Tour A

  1. Evaluating cover crop performance with drones – Cameron Pittelkow and Nicolas Martin
  2. Concentrating on nutrient loss: A review of tile drainage nutrient concentrations – Allan Hertzberger and Laura Christianson
  3. The science behind the official snack food of Illinois: Popcorn – Tony Studer

Tour B

  1. Drones: Where we’re at and where we’re going – Dennis Bowman
  2. On-The-Implement-Intelligent-Soil-Sensing (OTIISS) – Tony Grift
  3. Controlling corn and soybean costs – Gary Schnitkey

Tour C

  1. Managing the evolution of herbicide resistance – Adam Davis
  2. Fact or fiction: Do glyphosate-resistant cropping systems reduce crop health? – Christopher Landau and Marty Williams
  3. Genetic resistance to stop losses from soybean cyst nematodes (SCN) – Brian Diers

Tour D

  1. Evaluating management strategies for western corn rootworm – Nick Seiter
  2. And the survey says... – Kelly Estes
  3. Diagnosing seedling and stem diseases in soybean – Nathan Kleczewski

Tour E

  1. Is there a best way to fertilize corn with nitrogen? – Fred Below and Brad Bernhard
  2. Reaching corn’s top yield potential with hybrid-specific management – Eric Winans and Fred Below
  3. Continuous corn: Challenge accepted – Alison Vogel and Fred Below
  4. Setting yourself up for success in 20-inch corn rows – Brad Bernhard and Fred Below

For over 60 years, Agronomy Day has attracted producers from across Illinois seeking the latest information on technology and techniques to improve food and fuel production. Agronomy Day will be held at 4202 South 1st Street in Savoy on Aug. 16. For more information on speakers, displays, and location, join Agronomy Day 2018 on Facebook or visit the Agronomy Day website.

News Source:

Bob Dunker, 217-244-5444

Too much pork, tariffs mean too few buyers

Published July 9, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - The pork industry appears to be headed for a period of large losses in which excess pork supplies force prices below costs of production, according to Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt.

“Demand will likely be weakened by reduced exports with tariffs in place on U.S. pork exports to China and Mexico. On a positive note, Chinese tariffs on U.S. grains and soybeans are helping to erode feed prices along with favorable growing season weather,” Hurt says.

The industry has expanded the breeding herd by 3 percent according to a recent USDA producer survey. This is the highest rate of breeding herd expansion since this expansion phase began in 2015. Hurt explains that a breeding herd of this magnitude is likely to be a primary contributor to excess supplies in 2018 and 2019.

The market herd was up 3 percent and farrowing intentions for this summer and fall were up 2 percent. With the breeding herd up 3 percent, Hurt says there is concern that actual farrowings this summer and fall could be higher than the 2 percent increase recorded by survey respondents.

According to Hurt, pork supplies will also be large. First-half supplies this year have been up 4 percent and are expected to rise to 5 percent higher in the third quarter this summer, and 4 percent higher in the final quarter of 2018, Hurt explains. Current expected supplies for the first half of 2019 are up 4 percent and 3 percent in the last half of 2019.

The second driver of the large losses facing the pork industry revolve around the current trade war the U.S. has entered.

“The U.S. pork industry has done an amazing job of producing low costs and high-value pork products and adapting them to our foreign customers,” Hurt says. “As a result, we have targeted exports as a strategic objective to grow the U.S. pork industry. Our success in growing exports to 22 percent of production means that pork became a target of both China and Mexico.”

Pork exports started the year with a lot of promise, up 9 percent at the end of April compared to the January to April period last year. Chinese tariffs on U.S. pork began on April 2 and were raised again on July 6 making additional tariffs of at least 50 percent. Mexico placed tariffs of 10 percent on U.S. pork June 5 and raised those to 20 percent July 5.

Weekly export data from USDA suggests a sharp drop in pork export sales during the month of June, representing about a 25 percent decrease from last year.

“Weakness in exports will be expected as long as the tariffs stay in place. China has also placed tariffs on U.S. beef and poultry which may reduce U.S. exports of these competitive meats,” he says.

Just how large are the loss prospects right now considering the large pork supplies, reduced exports due to tariffs, and reduced feed prices due to tariffs and favorable growing conditions?

Liveweight prices for 51-52 percent lean carcasses are expected to average about $49 in the third quarter of 2018 before dropping sharply in the last quarter to near $40. Current estimates of cost of production are near $50.

In 2019, prices are expected to be below costs for much of the year. Liveweight prices are expected to be in the low $40s in the first quarter and then move to near $50 for averages in the second and third quarter before dropping back to the low $40s for the final quarter.

Estimated losses are expected to be large this fall and winter with losses averaging about $25 per head for this six month period. Hog prices may be close to breakeven in the second and third quarters before returning to losses greater than $20 per head in the last quarter of 2019. Losses for the calendar year of 2018 are estimated at a loss of $10 per head and $12 per head of loss in 2019.

Feed costs are expected to be somewhat lower in the second half of 2018 versus the first half.

“This is especially true for soybean meal where Decatur prices for high protein meal were near $365 per ton in the first half,” Hurt explains. “That same price in the second half is expected to be closer to $340 per ton. Unfortunately, corn costs may be similar in both halves of the year and thus the modestly lower feed costs are not enough to offset low hog prices.”

Hurt’s prices for hogs and feed are primarily based on July 9 futures prices. “Clearly, agricultural product markets are in a period of high uncertainty and volatility,” Hurt says. “Weather will continue to be a driver of crop prices over the next six to eight weeks. What happens to tariffs on U.S. exports of crops and animal products will also add dynamic price potential.

“Given the heightened level of uncertainty, most pork producers will not want to make long-term decisions at this point. That means carrying on as best they can with short-term plans. The current trade war that agriculture has been unwillingly forced to participate in has an unknown and difficult to predict outcome. Only time will help bring the ‘end game’ into better focus.”

From corn to flake: Health-promoting phenolic acids lost during food processing

Published July 9, 2018
three stages of corn processing

URBANA, Ill. – For many Americans, highly processed foods are on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Even when the raw materials – grains, for example – are high in vitamins and health-promoting phenolic compounds, processing can rob the final product of these nutrients. In a set of recent studies, University of Illinois scientists reveal what happens to cancer-fighting phenolic acids in corn when it is processed into cornflakes.

In a Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study, the research team made cornflakes from 19 corn genotypes varying in phenolic content. They wanted to know if higher ferulic acid and p-courmaric acid content in the corn kernel translated to higher concentrations of these phenolics in the final product.  

“What we found was not particularly good news, but it was interesting. Regardless of the concentration in the grain at the beginning, the dry-milling process removes the majority of phenolics,” says Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer, lead author of the two studies and research assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I.

The phenolic compounds in corn are primarily concentrated in the bran, or the outer covering of the corn kernel, which is removed in the first steps of the dry-milling process. The researchers wanted to determine if they could increase the remaining soluble phenolic content by heating the starchy leftovers during later processing stages. Although most of the phenolics in corn are bound to fiber, heat can release bound forms of the compounds and improve the antioxidant content of corn-based foods.

“We did see an increase in soluble phenolics, but it was so small, you could have gotten the same benefit from going to the refrigerator and eating a few blueberries,” Butts-Wilmsmeyer says.

Despite the less-than-ideal outcome, the studies represent important steps forward for food science researchers and the food processing industry. First, the lab-bench-size process developed and demonstrated by the researchers in JoVE Video Journal allows testing of small batches of experimental corn lines.

“Before this project, the only published study on cornflake processing used a sample size of 45 kilograms. We worked with ag engineers to get it down to 100 grams, literally a 450th of the size,” Butts-Wilmsmeyer says.

They found that the biggest changes in phenolic content were happening at three stages of the dry-milling process: whole kernel, flaking grit, and toasted cornflake.

“Since we now have the process miniaturized and can control everything in the lab, we can also start figuring out how we can change the process to recover more of these compounds in the end product,” says Martin Bohn, co-author of the studies and associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I.

Although the phenolics didn’t make it to the final product, they weren’t lost entirely.

“We have to focus on the bran and other ‘waste’ products,” Bohn says. “Is it possible to extract these compounds and fortify the food with them? This is what I think is important. Our study showed that at the beginning, there’s variability in corn hybrids for all these compounds but through processing, it’s all leveled off, it’s all gone. But they’re still in the co-products, and I think we could actually recover them and add them to the end product.”

Butts-Wilmsmeyer says fortifying processed foods with health-promoting, cancer-fighting phenolics could benefit people without easy access to fresh foods, such as Americans living in food deserts. “These itty-bitty compounds are tied to everything,” she says.  

The article, “High-throughput, microscale protocol for the analysis of processing parameters and nutritional qualities in maize (Zea mays L.),” is published in JoVE Video Journal [DOI: 10.3791/57809]. Authors include Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer, Nicole Yana, Gurshagan Kandhola, Kent Rausch, Rita Mumm, and Martin Bohn, all from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.

The article, “Changes in phenolic acid content in maize during food produce processing,” is published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry [DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.7b05242]. Authors include Carrie Butts-Wilmsmeyer, Rita Mumm, Kent Rausch, Gurshagan Kandhola, Nicole Yana, Mary Happ, Alexandra Ostezan, Matthew Wasmund, and Martin Bohn.

Both studies were supported by the Kellogg Company and Dow AgroSciences and through a USDA Hatch Grant.

Illinois’ corn-counting robot earns top recognition at leading robotics conference

Published July 3, 2018
Agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary leads the team that developed TerraSentia. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

URBANA, Ill. - Today’s crop breeders are trying to boost yields while preparing crops to withstand severe weather and changing climates. To succeed, they must locate genes for high-yielding, hardy traits in crop plants’ DNA. A robot developed by the University of Illinois to find these proverbial needles in the haystack was recognized by the best systems paper award at Robotics: Science and Systems, the preeminent robotics conference held last week in Pittsburgh.

“There’s a real need to accelerate breeding to meet global food demand,” said principal investigator Girish Chowdhary, an assistant professor of field robotics in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and the Coordinated Science Lab at Illinois. “In Africa, the population will more than double by 2050, but today the yields are only a quarter of their potential.”

Crop breeders run massive experiments comparing thousands of different cultivars, or varieties, of crops over hundreds of acres and measure key traits, like plant emergence or height, by hand. The task is expensive, time-consuming, inaccurate, and ultimately inadequate—a team can only manually measure a fraction of plants in a field.

“The lack of automation for measuring plant traits is a bottleneck to progress,” said first author Erkan Kayacan, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But it’s hard to make robotic systems that can count plants autonomously: the fields are vast, the data can be noisy (unlike benchmark datasets), and the robot has to stay within the tight rows in the challenging under-canopy environment.”

Illinois’ 13-inch wide, 24-pound TerraSentia robot is transportable, compact and autonomous. It captures each plant from top to bottom using a suite of sensors (cameras), algorithms, and deep learning. Using a transfer learning method, the researchers taught TerraSentia to count corn plants with just 300 images, as reported (DOI: 10.1002/rob.21794) at this conference.

“One challenge is that plants aren’t equally spaced, so just assuming that a single plant is in the camera frame is not good enough,” said co-author ZhongZhong Zhang, a graduate student in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Science (ACES). “We developed a method that uses the camera motion to adjust to varying inter-plant spacing, which has led to a fairly robust system for counting plants in different fields, with different and varying spacing, and at different speeds.”

This work was supported by the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) as part of the TERRA-MEPP project at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology. The robot is now available through the start-up company, EarthSense, Inc. which is equipping the robot with advanced autonomy and plant analytics capabilities.

TERRA-MEPP is a research project that is developing a low-cost phenotyping robot to identify top-performing crops led by the University of Illinois in partnership with Cornell University and Signetron Inc. with support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

Photos are available online at Additional photos and videos are available by request.

Implications of USDA reports for corn and soybeans

Published July 2, 2018

URBANA, Ill. - On June 29, the USDA released the Acreage and Grain Stocks reports. University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs shares that the reports provided little support for corn and soybean prices and adds that trade policy and weather developments look to dictate corn and soybean price movements through the summer.

A growth in principal crop acreage constituted one of the major revelations in the USDA reports released on Friday. Total principal crop acreage came in at 322.1 million acres, up 4.1 million acres from the March Prospective Planting report. Principal crop acreage estimates increased by 2.9 million acres over 2017.

Significant increases over March planning intentions occurred in hay (1.4 million acres), corn (1.1 million acres), and spring wheat acreage (575,000 acres). Despite the increase in corn acreage from March, corn and soybean planted acreage is down 1.6 million acres from last year to 178.7 million acres.

Corn producers reported they intended to plant 89.128 million acres of corn this year, 1.03 million less than planted last year. Corn-planted acres came in 1.1 million acres larger than March planting intentions. When compared to March planting intentions in major producing states, the June survey revealed higher corn acres in North Dakota (300,000 acres), Minnesota (300,000 acres), Kansas (300,000 acres), and Nebraska (400,000 acres).

Acreage lower than March intentions in South Dakota (500,000 acres) and Texas (100,000 acres) offset gains seen in many areas of the western Corn Belt. The major producing states in the eastern Corn Belt saw slight to no changes from the March intentions. 

The projection for corn acreage intended for harvest sits at 81.8 million acres, 0.9 million less than harvested in 2017.

“Yield is challenging to predict at this point in the growing season. The strong start to the year indicates potential yield is likely above the USDA’s June assessment of 174 bushels per acre,” Hubbs says. “Corn production in the U.S. during 2018 may be in the range between 14.1 and 14.4 billion bushels.”    

Soybean producers intended to plant 89.557 million acres of soybeans. The soybean acreage intentions came in near market expectations. Soybean planted acres increased by 575,000 acres over March planting intentions. At the time of the survey in early June, producers indicated that 8.5 percent of the intended soybean acreage is yet to be planted.

When compared to March planting intentions in major producing states, the June survey revealed greater soybean acres in many states. The most substantial adjustments came in Iowa (100,000 acres), Missouri (350,000 acres), and Illinois (300,000 acres). Acreage lower than March intentions is reported in North Dakota (500,000 acres), Minnesota (100,000 acres), and Nebraska (100,000 acres). 

Soybean-harvested acreage is projected at 88.9 million acres, 660,000 acres less than harvested in 2017. Hubbs explains that yield potential is also highly uncertain at this point in the growing season.

“Favorable growing conditions throughout the summer could result in the U.S. average yield near 49.5 bushels per acre. At this yield level, 2018 soybean production would be close to 4.4 billion bushels,” Hubbs adds.

June 1 corn stocks came in at 5.31 billion bushels, nearly 77 million bushels larger than last year and 38 million bushels larger than the average trade guess. Estimation of total disappearance during the quarter is 3.58 billion bushels.

According to Hubbs, despite the size of the livestock herd throughout this marketing year, feed and residual use continue to show disappointing consumption numbers. Estimated third-quarter feed and residual use come in slightly lower than last year at 939 million bushels. Estimates of feed and residual use during the first three quarters of the marketing year sit at 4.694 billion bushels.

“To reach the projected 5,500 million bushels of corn the USDA projects for feed and residual during this marketing year, feed and residual use in the fourth quarter must equal 806 million bushels.

“Fourth-quarter feed and residual use has not exceeded 800 million bushels since the 2005-06 marketing year. Based on current stocks estimate, it appears feed and residual use this year may not reach the projection of 5,500 million bushels and indicates a reduction by the USDA in the next WASDE report on July 12,” Hubbs explains.

The June 1 soybean stocks estimate indicated a record 1.22 billion bushels, up 256 million bushels from last year. Total disappearance for the quarter was approximately 890 million bushels. To meet the current USDA projection for soybean ending stocks, 717 million bushels of use is necessary for the fourth quarter, according to Hubbs. Despite the continued uncertainty in soybean export markets, June 1 soybean stocks are neutral for soybean prices as soybean consumption maintains a pace to meet USDA projections for the 2017-18 marketing year. 

Hubbs concludes that the uncertainty surrounding trade policy and the evolving weather for crop development will continue to dominate corn and soybean prices over the near term.

“The USDA reports were not supportive for corn prices. Given the current pace of consumption in feed and residual now being experienced, year-ending stocks for corn will likely be higher than the 2.102 billion bushels projected by USDA on June 9,” he says. “In addition, the increase in corn acreage points to adequate supply during the next marketing year. A record June 1 stocks for soybeans combined with a moderate rise in acreage continues to place the focus on China-U.S. trade issues.”

Discussion and graphs associated with this article are available here: