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Data-intensive farm management program receives $2.4 million grant, seeks participants

Published May 10, 2016
aerial view of farm fields
Aerial view of farm fields

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced a $2.4 million grant through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to fund an interdisciplinary program led by researchers at the University of Illinois. The data-intensive farm management (DIFM) program will use precision agriculture technologies to run full-field, on-farm agronomic trials that change application rates of nitrogen fertilizer. The data generated from the project will help farmers manage nitrogen application to increase profits and reduce nutrient runoff.

Until now, precision agriculture technology’s potential for improving farm management has not yet been fully realized.

“What we’re doing differently is changing the management variables,” says U of I agricultural economist David Bullock. “We’re characterizing the fields and taking yield data, but we’re also going to be changing nitrogen application rates on a fine scale throughout each field. This will generate a lot of information on what works and what doesn’t.”

The team of 28 researchers and extension personnel from six universities will be coordinating on-farm experiments across 100 fields in Illinois, Nebraska, Kentucky, Argentina, and Uruguay over the four-year study period. In addition to generating a substantial amount of data, the ultimate aim of the project is to develop software that will communicate management ideas to farm advisors. Once that software is developed, the researchers hope to run trials on thousands of farms.

“Because all our experiments will be run on a common framework, we will end up with a lot of data,” Bullock reports. “We’re going to use cutting-edge statistical and economic analysis to determine how different farm characteristics affect optimal application rates.”

Existing management recommendations are often geared toward entire regions or cropping systems, without taking site-specific data into account. The researchers estimate that, after a few years, they will be able to give farmers profitable advice based on experimentation done in their specific fields.

“That’s revolutionary,” says Bullock.

The researchers are seeking farmers to participate in the study. Although farms will become experimental sites, disruption to farmers will be minimal. Experimental protocols will be automatically programmed into farm machinery, meaning farmers simply need to drive their machines as usual. Importantly, farmers will be fully compensated for any losses throughout the experimental period. They will also receive $500 for their participation in the project. 

Interested parties can email David Bullock ( or Don Bullock ( for more information and to sign up.


Export progress for corn, ethanol, and distillers grains

Published May 9, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Last week, the Census Bureau released the corn export estimate for March. Exports for the month totaled 171 million bushels, 16 million bushels larger than exports in the same month last year. Exports during the first seven months of the 2015-16 marketing year are estimated at 814 million bushels, 150 million bushels less than during the same period last year.

According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good, the pace of corn exports has remained brisk in recent weeks. For the five weeks ended May 5, USDA corn export inspection estimates totaled 223 million bushels, seven million bushels larger than exports during the same period last year. Through March, cumulative Census Bureau export estimates exceeded cumulative export inspection estimates by 39 million bushels. “If that margin had persisted, cumulative marketing-year exports as of May 5 would have reached 1.036 billion bushels, 164 million bushels less than cumulative exports of last year. To reach the USDA projection of 1.65 billion bushels for the year, exports during the remainder of the marketing year that ends on August 31 need to total 614 million bushels, or an average of about 36.4 million bushels per week. Based on the current pace of weekly exports and export sales, it appears that exports may exceed the current USDA projection, but will be well below last year’s exports of 1.864 billion bushels,” Good says.

The U.S. also exports corn in the form of livestock and livestock products and in the form of products made from corn, Good says. Two of the larger corn export products are ethanol and distillers grains. The Census Bureau estimates that 520 million gallons of ethanol were exported during the first seven months of the 2015-16 marketing year, accounting for about 6 percent of total domestic ethanol production. China and Canada were the largest importers during that period, importing about equal amounts and accounting for 52 percent of total U.S. exports. India, South Korea, and the Philippines rounded out the top five importers and accounted for an additional 18 percent of U.S. exports. Ethanol exports during March 2016 were about 11 million gallons larger than during March 2015, but cumulative marketing-year exports through March were 23 million gallons smaller than during the same period last year. Exports last year reached 872 million gallons, the second largest total behind 2011-12 when Brazilian ethanol supplies were unusually small.

“In addition to exporting slightly less ethanol so far this year, a larger percentage of U.S. ethanol has been produced with sorghum as the feedstock than was the case last year, further reducing the magnitude of corn exported in the form of ethanol,” Good says. “The USDA does not report the amount of sorghum used to produce feedstock every month in order to prevent disclosing data for individual operations. For the three months of October through December 2015, an estimated 32 million bushels of sorghum were used to produce ethanol, up from 8.7 million in the previous year. Sorghum used for ethanol production in the first three months of 2016 was estimated at 50.4 million bushels, with no comparison available for last year. For the period October 2015 through March 2016, a total of 3.127 billion bushels of corn and sorghum were used as ethanol feedstock, with 2.6 percent of that total being sorghum.”

U.S. exports of distillers grains during the first seven months of the 2015-16 corn marketing year were estimated at 7.14 million tons, up from 6.04 million tons during the same period last year. China was the largest importer, accounting for 30 percent of the total. Mexico accounted for 16 percent of the total, with South Korea, Vietnam, and Canada rounding out the top five importers.

“Corn exports in all forms during the 2015-16 marketing year will be less than exports during the previous year, with the largest decline in the form of whole corn,” Good says. “Corn exported as ethanol may be down slightly while corn exported as distillers grains will be larger.  Estimates of the amount of corn exported in the form of livestock have not been made, but red meat and poultry exports are increasing from the relatively low level of 2015.

“Corn exports may exceed the current USDA projection, but the decline from exports of a year ago contributes to prospects for ample year-ending stocks and the continuation of relatively low corn prices,” Good says. “Although July 2016 soybean futures prices increased nearly 12 percent from April 8 through May 6, July corn futures managed to increase by only 3.6 percent.  The corn market does not appear to think that ongoing drought conditions in a large portion of the second-crop corn production areas in Brazil will increase the demand for U.S. corn enough to substantially alter the year-ending stocks projection. The focus continues to be on prospects for another very large U.S. corn crop in 2016, led by an increase in acreage, and a further buildup of domestic stocks during the 2016-17 marketing year.  The USDA’s projected 2016-17 corn supply and consumption balance sheet to be released on May 10 will likely confirm those expectations for now.”



Study finds declining sulfur levels

Published May 9, 2016
sample of coal with pyrite, power plant in background
Power plants burned coal that released sulfur into the atmosphere, but coal use has declined. In this sample from an Illinois mine, pyrite is visible as gold flecks in the center of the coal.
  • With the move from burning coal to natural gas and low-sulfur coal and an increase in the use of scrubbers, only about 25 percent as much atmospheric sulfur is available today, compared to 40 years ago.
  • Sulfur balances in agricultural fields are now negative, with more removed each year in crop harvests and leaching than is added from fertilizers and deposition.
  • Fields with tile drainage move sulfate quickly to surface waters, contributing to the low levels in the soil.
  • Rivers in agricultural watersheds have declining sulfate concentrations, a direct response to declining atmospheric deposition.
  • Farmers may need to apply sulfur fertilizer at some point in the future, particularly on fields with less soil organic matter.

URBANA, Ill. – Air pollution legislation to control fossil fuel emissions and the associated acid rain has worked – perhaps leading to the need for sulfur fertilizers for crop production. A University of Illinois study drawing from over 20 years of data shows that sulfur levels in Midwest watersheds and rivers have steadily declined, so much so that farmers may need to consider applying sulfur in the not too distant future.

“We don’t think there are actual sulfur deficiencies yet, but clearly more sulfur is coming out of the soil and water than what is going in,” says U of I biogeochemist Mark David. “As the Clean Air Act and amendments have taken effect there has been a reduction in sulfur emissions from coal combustion, so that the amount of atmospheric sulfur deposited each year is only 25 percent of what it used to be. At some point, farmers are going to have to fertilize with sulfur.”

David says farmers whose fields have fine-textured soils that are high in organic matter have less of a concern. “For many, it could be 10 or 20 years from now, but for some, particularly those farming on poorer soils, it’ll be sooner. Farmers whose fields have poorer soil or notice a yield reduction may want to have their soil tested for sulfate. If it registers low, they can consider applying fertilizer.”

David explains that sulfur in soil comes from two main sources. It’s in the air from fossil fuel combustion and in groundwater where water has come in contact with coal or pyrite seams. It comes out of the soil through  tile-drained fields and it is taken up into plants as they grow and are then harvested. Most fields in Illinois do not receive fertilizers containing sulfur. Some in the Embarras and Kaskaskia watersheds apply ammonium sulfate, which adds not just nitrogen, but also sulfur.

In their study, David and his team analyzed data from three rivers in east-central Illinois at times when the flow was high and low from the field drainage tiles and the rivers. Sulfate concentrations were greatest in the Salt Fork River, followed by the Embarras, and then the Kaskaskia Rivers.

“As we go from northeast to southwest across this part of Illinois, the sulfate that we think is from groundwater near coal seams, decreases. In the Tuscola and Atwood areas, we don’t think there are any groundwater sulfate inputs.

“When we looked at a whole variety of fields with tile drainage systems, we found that some had very low sulfate concentrations – just a few milligrams per liter. One farm in our study had applied bed ash from a power plant. We saw high concentrations of sulfate in that field. There’s no doubt that it boosted the level of sulfur. But over the next three or four years most of it had washed out through the tile system,” co-author and U of I agronomist Lowell Gentry says.

The long-term nature of the study allowed the team to do watershed balances and look at the inputs and outputs of the sulfur “budget” for the area.

“That balance is negative, with greater outputs from harvest and leaching, than inputs from atmospheric deposition and fertilizers, so what is missing is coming from the soil. There is a lot of sulfur in soil in organic forms and that’s being slowly depleted. At some point, there won’t be enough to keep up with what the crop needs. That’s when farmers will need to add fertilizer,” Gentry says.

David began his career in the 1980s studying the effects of acid rain – a main ingredient of which is sulfur. “Back then no one ever thought about fertilizing with sulfur because there was always plenty of atmospheric sulfur available from burning coal.”

The samples David collected over the past two decades were primarily used to track nitrates that enter the rivers via drainage tiles in agricultural fields, and eventually reach the Gulf of Mexico. He says that unlike nitrate, “sulfate is not a problem in Midwestern streams and rivers. It’s not like other chemicals that cause problems downstream and in the Gulf.”

David believes that this is the first study looking at long-term trends in sulfur in agricultural areas. “Most of the studies about atmospheric deposition in sulfur have been in forested watersheds in the northeast where lakes were acidified, such as in the Adirondack Mountains in New York and in streams in the Appalachian Mountains, areas that were sensitive to acid rain. Sulfate is more of a problem in the northeast in forest soils,” he says.

“Riverine response of sulfate to declining atmospheric sulfur deposition in agricultural watersheds” is published in the Journal of Environmental Quality and is available online through open access. It was written by Mark B. David, Lowell E. Gentry, and Corey A. Mitchell.

The work is based on research partially supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, under Agreement No. 2011-039568-31127, the National Atmospheric Deposition Program through HATCH Project ILLU-875-935, and the Energy Biosciences Institute.


Osteoporosis Awareness Month: Nutrition and osteoporosis

Published May 2, 2016

URBANA, Ill. - At a young age parents encourage children to drink their milk and eat their vegetables. The importance of good nutrition goes beyond growing up healthy, though. It is also important in prolonging the occurrence of diseases such as osteoporosis later in life. 

May is Osteoporosis Awareness and Prevention Month. According to research, 1 in 3 women worldwide over the age of 50 will experience a bone fracture due to osteoporosis, as will 1 in 5 men. Osteoporosis, meaning “porous bones,” is defined as a condition in which bones become weak and brittle, making individuals more susceptible to fractures. Similar to other prevalent diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, age, family history, ethnicity, and gender all contribute to the occurrence of osteoporosis.

“Although there are many risk factors that are uncontrollable in prevention of osteoporosis, lifestyle changes such as exercise and a healthy diet can help prolong occurrence of the disease,” says University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator, Lisa Peterson.

“A balanced diet is important for bone health including plenty of foods rich in calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and even fluoride found in toothpaste and drinking water,” she explains.  Calcium and vitamin D work together in the body to keep bones strong. Vitamin D, a fat soluble vitamin, is necessary for the body to absorb calcium and overall protect bones. The major dietary source of vitamin D is foods fortified with the vitamin, such as milk, yogurt, cereals, and breads. Natural sources of vitamin D are quite few, but mainly found in fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and fish oils, such as tuna or cod liver oil, Peterson adds.  

“Natural sunlight through ultraviolet B rays is also a way to get vitamin D. The skin can absorb all the vitamin D needed in a day in half the time it takes for the skin to tan or turn pink. Vitamin D absorption through sunlight depends on time of day, where you live, color of skin, and amount of skin exposed,” Peterson notes. “Additionally, taking supplements may be necessary, but consult a physician prior to consumption. Supplements, although they may be necessary, should not replace food.”

As mentioned, the body needs vitamin D and calcium to produce strong and healthy bones. The body cannot make calcium by itself, and 99 percent of calcium is stored in bones and teeth. When the body does not get enough calcium, it is taken from the bones. Aside from needing calcium to maintain bone health, calcium helps with muscle contraction, blood clotting, and sending messages throughout the nervous system. “Foods rich in calcium are dairy products, such as yogurt, cheese, and milk. Vegetables also contain calcium such as collard greens, broccoli, bok choy, and even soy beans,” Peterson says.

Vitamin D and Calcium are important at every stage in life for maintaining optimum bone health, but are there foods that should be limited? Foods high in sodium or salt can negatively impact bone health because the body eliminates more calcium with a diet high in sodium. Choosing less processed foods, rinsing canned foods, choosing no-salt-added options, reading nutrition facts labels, and consuming less than 2,300 milligrams, or a teaspoon of salt per day, are a few recommendations Peterson suggests to limit sodium.

“Aside from eating plenty of foods with calcium, fortified with vitamin D, or supplements, exercise is another method for keeping bones strong,” Peterson says. “Remember, walking is a free form of exercise and a simple way to keep bones strong. Enjoy the beautiful spring weather with a walk around the neighborhood or use a ten-minute work break to walk around the office.

“Balance and flexibility exercises can also help prevent falls and potential fractures. Take a few friends and try a Tai Chi or yoga class to help improve strength, balance, and flexibility.”

Falling cattle prices: Where is the bottom?

Published May 2, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Cattle prices have had a rough spring. After peaking in late 2014 and early 2015, prices have been adjusting downward from very lofty peaks. High prices and profits at that time provided the incentives to expand beef production. According to a Purdue University Extension economist, expanding beef production and a remarkable recovery in total meat supplies continues to put downward pressure on cattle prices. Unfortunately, more downward price pressure is expected this summer.

Chris Hurt provided this report.

Finished cattle prices reached their year-to-date high in the third week of March near $140 per hundredweight. Since that time, prices have fallen to the mid-$120s with much of this drop coming in the past week or two. This $15 drop is much more than the average seasonal decrease in prices for this time of year.

Prices in the live cattle futures market paralleled the decline in the cash market. June futures had a year-to-date high at $131.35 before closing near $115 at the end of April. The $16 decline for June futures was of similar magnitude to the decrease in cash prices.  

Beef production this year has been up 3 percent. The increase has been composed of about 1 percent higher cattle numbers and nearly 2 percent higher cattle weights. So far this year, live marketing weights have averaged 1,378 pounds compared to 1,352 pounds for the same period in 2015. Going back two years, market weights are up 48 pounds from 1,330 pounds during the first four months of 2014. That means weights are up 3.6 percent over the past two years.

An apparent reason for the sharp decline in prices over the past several weeks has been an escalation of slaughter numbers. April numbers were up about 5 percent on average, but with two weeks being 6 percent to 7 percent above the same weeks in 2015. Cattle on Feed data from USDA suggest that on-feed numbers had grown last fall. This meant that marketings were able to rise this year, thus providing the more recent surge of cattle. Monthly marketings of cattle from feedlots were up 5 percent in February and 7 percent in March.

Recent heavy placements of cattle into feedlots are keeping futures markets nervous about continued large beef supplies into the summer and fall. Placements were up10 percent in February and up 5 percent in March. In addition, feedlot managers have been more aggressive at placing heavier cattle that will reach market weights more rapidly this summer. For the first three months of 2016, placements of cattle 700 pounds and heavier have been up 8 percent, while placements of cattle weighing less than 700 pounds have been down 1 percent.

There is more competition for beef this year as meat supplies recover from the 2014 lows. In fact, per capita meat supplies have risen by 13 pounds in the United States since 2014. That is over 6 percent more meat per person in the past two years.

Another possible explanation of low cattle prices is that retail beef prices have not dropped enough to spur the added consumption that is required for the higher level of beef production. Retail beef prices in the first quarter of 2016 were only 4 percent lower than in the first quarter of 2015. Finished cattle prices, on the other hand, were 17 percent lower. Over time, further reductions in retail prices will likely occur, and these lower prices can help support the live prices of cattle.

With the cash price of finished cattle already in the mid-$120s, the futures market suggests that declining prices will continue into the summer and beyond. Current futures forecast are for finished cattle prices to average about $122 in the second quarter and then drop toward an average of only $112 in the third quarter and $113 in the final quarter of 2016. These are in sharp contrast to USDA forecasts that are about $20 higher for the final two quarters of the year. Perhaps prices somewhere between these two extremes are most likely.

One thing is clear, cattle prices are adjusting to more moderate levels after the spike of 2014 and early 2015. This adjustment process is of large magnitude and markets have lost their historic benchmarks. For these reasons, there are dramatic differences of opinion about the level of longer-term prices.

Cattle finishers need to remain cautious about overpaying for calves. Iowa State University’s calculated cattle feeding losses for closeouts in March 2016 were still estimating losses of nearly $300 per head for finishing calves.

Cow-calf producers will need to reconsider their expansion plans. With current live cattle futures prices and feed prices showing signs of some strength, calf prices are less likely to be high enough to provide profitable returns from the retention of more heifers. Overall, it appears that the expansion of the beef herd will begin to slow in the second half of 2016.


Photo contest challenges Illinois residents to capture what water means to them

Published April 28, 2016

URBANA, Ill. - Illinois photographers are invited to share photos that capture what water means to them, their communities, and the state in the second annual “Water Is” photo contest. First place winners will receive a $25 Amazon gift card.

The contest is open to the public, including state employees. Professional photographers are welcome to submit entries under a separate category. All participants may submit a total of five images.

All entries must be original work. Previously published material may be entered as long as the submission includes the date and name of the publication.

Entries must be submitted as high-resolution JPEG files no larger than 8 megabytes. Photos that have been digitally altered beyond standard optimization (cropping, color adjustment, etc.) will be disqualified.

Email your submissions to Anjanette Riley at by August 31, 2016. Emails must also

  • Explain what is happening in the photo
  • Identify the location and date the image was taken, including the name of the waterbody if appropriate
  • Identify the category of submission:
    • Adult professional
    • Adult amateur
    • Youth 13 and under
    • Youth 14 and older

A panel of judges will select first place and honorable mention winners for each category. Photos will be featured in the 2017 Illinois Water magazine and on host websites.

The Illinois Water Resources Center and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, part of University of Illinois Extension, will have unrestricted use of all submitted photos and accompanying materials and have the right to use all entries in any future online and print materials. Photographers assume responsibility for obtaining consent from any persons appearing in their photograph prior to submission.