URBANA, Ill. – The USDA’s March 1 Grain Stocks report released on March 31 provides an opportunity to assess the progress of corn consumption during the current marketing year and to re-evaluate prospects for the magnitude of year-ending stocks. In addition, the Prospective Plantings report, also released on March 31, provides an opportunity to evaluate the potential size of the 2016 corn crop.
According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good, March 1 corn stocks were estimated at 7.808 billion bushels. The stocks estimate allows for a calculation of feed and residual use of corn during the second quarter of the 2015-16 marketing year. Total disappearance during the quarter was 3.45 billion bushels. Exports during the quarter are estimated at 334 million bushels, although the Census export estimate for February 2016 to be released on April 5 will allow for a more accurate estimate for the quarter. Corn used for ethanol and co-product production during the quarter totaled 1.313 billion bushels. Corn processed domestically for other food and industrial products was likely near 335 million bushels.
“The remaining disappearance, estimated at 1.468 billion bushels, is allocated to the feed and residual category,” Good says. “Feed and residual use during the first half of the marketing year is estimated at 3.641 billion bushels. Use during the first half of the 2015-16 marketing year represents 68.7 percent of the current USDA projection of 5.3 billion bushels to be used during the entire year. Use during the first half of last year accounted for 68.9 percent of the marketing year total. It appears feed and residual use this year is on target to reach the projection of 5.3 billion bushels.”
The USDA currently projects 2015-16 marketing-year corn exports at 1.65 billion bushels. Good says the pace of shipments was very slow during the first half of the marketing year, averaging only 25 million bushels per week. “With 22 weeks left in the year, corn exports need to average about 38.6 million bushels per week to reach the projected level for the year,” he says. “Weekly inspections averaged 40.1 million bushels per week for the three weeks that ended March 31. With the accelerated pace of shipments and current unshipped sales of 504 million bushels, exports should reach the projected level.”
The USDA projects 2015-16 marketing-year use of corn for ethanol and co-products at 5.225 billion bushels, 0.5 percent more than used last year. Estimates provided by the USDA’s Grain Crushings and Co-Products Production report indicate that 2.614 billion bushels were used for that purpose during the first half of the marketing year, 1.7 percent more than during the same period last year. In addition, sorghum used for ethanol production during the first half of the year exceeded that of a year ago by about 50 million bushels. Ethanol production in March 2016 exceeded that of a year ago by nearly 4.5 percent.
“With domestic gasoline consumption continuing well above the level of a year ago and with ethanol exports remaining strong, it appears that ethanol production and corn use could exceed the current USDA projection,” Good says. “Even with increased use of sorghum, it appears that corn used for ethanol and co-product production could reach or exceed 5.25 billion bushels. Year-ending stocks of corn might be 25 million bushels less than the current USDA projection of 1.837 billion bushels.”
Corn producers reported intentions to plant 93.6 million acres of corn this year, 5.6 million more than planted last year. Increased corn (and cotton) acreage is planned at the expense of wheat and oilseeds. “The surprising acreage intentions resulted in continued adjustment in corn, soybean, and spring wheat prices following the release of the report,” Good says.
From Feb. 22, when the USDA initiated the month long acreage survey process, through April 1, December 2016 corn futures declined by 21 cents, November 2016 soybean futures increased by 41 cents, and July 2016 spring wheat futures increased by 32 cents. “The changing price relationships suggest that some producers may plant less corn acreage and more acreage of other crops than reported in March,” Good says. “After all, one of the main objectives of the acreage survey is to provide producers with information to re-evaluate their plans.
“In addition to the allocation of acreage to individual crops, the magnitude of total planted acreage in 2016 is still in question,” Good says.
The USDA estimates that acreage planted to principal crops in 2016 will total 317.3 million acres, 1.2 million less than planted last year and 9.1 million less than planted in 2014. (Intentions for proso millet, rye, tobacco, and summer and fall potatoes for 2016 are not surveyed in March and are assumed to be at last year’s level of 3.97 million acres).
“The planned reduction in total planted acreage from that of a year ago is somewhat of a surprise because 6.7 million acres were reported as ‘prevent plant’ in 2015,” Good says. “It would not be a complete surprise if total planted acreage exceeded March intentions.
“With the continued uncertainty about the magnitude of total planted acreage and the mix of crops, expectations for corn acreage and production will remain in a wide range,” Good says. “For example, planted acreage of 93.6 million acres, harvested acreage of 86 million acres, and an average yield near the USDA’s calculated trend of 168 bushels would result in a crop of 14.448 billion bushels and 2016-17 marketing year-ending stocks near 2.4 billion bushels. Alternatively, planted acreage of 92 million, harvested acreage of 84.4 million, and a yield of 162 bushels resulting from stressful summer weather as the current El Niño episode fades would result in a crop of only 13.689 billion bushels and 2016-17 marketing year-ending stocks near 1.7 billion bushels.”
Biofuel producers with poor soil should consider prairie cordgrass
- Salt-affected land is not useful for producing food crops, but biomass producers could take advantage of salt-tolerant perennial grasses to make use of that land.
- In a greenhouse study, germination of prairie cordgrass was greater than switchgrass in high-salt conditions.
- Three prairie cordgrass accessions and one switchgrass cultivar showed tolerance to high salt conditions in terms of dry biomass production.
URBANA, Ill. – Most prime agricultural land is used to produce food crops, leaving biofuel producers to establish crops on marginal land. The soil on marginal land is often salty, making crop production difficult. But University of Illinois researchers have found several varieties of perennial grasses that can withstand high salt concentrations.
“We evaluated germination and plant growth for prairie cordgrass accessions and switchgrass cultivars in a greenhouse study,” says crop scientist D.K. Lee.
In crop production, too much salt in the soil can interfere with the plant’s ability to absorb water. Water moves into plant roots by osmosis, and when solutes inside root cells are more concentrated than in soil, water moves into the root. In salt-affected soil, the difference in solute concentration inside and outside of the root is not as great, meaning that water may not move in. So, even where soil is moist, plants experience drought-like conditions when too much salt is present.
Certain mineral salts are also toxic to plants. When they are taken up along with soil water, plant tissue damage can occur.
“Saline soils are characterized by high concentrations of soluble salts, such as sodium, chloride, calcium chloride, or magnesium sulfate, whereas sodic soils are solely characterized by their high sodium concentrations,” Lee explains. “Many soils are both saline and sodic.”
The researchers subjected six prairie cordgrass accessions and three switchgrass cultivars to different levels of sodicity and salinity over two years of growth. The team conducted a similar experiment in an earlier study, but only looked at one cordgrass (‘Red River’) and one switchgrass (‘Cave-In-Rock’) cultivar, over only one growing season.
“In that study, we found that ‘Cave-In-Rock’ switchgrass was not good at all in terms of salt tolerance. ‘Red River’ cordgrass was far superior,” Lee recalls.
The expanded study showed that prairie cordgrass had, on average, much higher germination rates than switchgrass in saline and sodic conditions. Dry biomass production was not as clearly split between the two species in salty conditions, however.
Three prairie cordgrasses, pc17-102, pc17-109, and ‘Red River’, and one switchgrass, EG-1102, produced equivalent amounts of dry biomass when subjected to high-salt conditions. However, they produced approximately 70 to 80 percent less biomass in salty conditions than they did with no added salt. In contrast, the salt-susceptible switchgrass cultivar, EG-2012, produced approximately 99.5 percent less biomass in high-salt treatments than it did without added salt.
The next step for the researchers is to bring this work out of the greenhouse, where climate is controlled and water is unlimited, to real-world scenarios. Preliminary field research has shown that prairie cordgrass is very successful in salt-affected areas in Illinois and South Dakota.
“Even in highly saline soils, prairie cordgrass can do very well. Unlike switchgrass, it can take up salt dissolved in water without getting sick because it can excrete it out through specialized salt glands. Then, once the plants grow deep roots, they can access less salty water,” Lee explains.
More research and agronomic improvements are needed before prairie cordgrass can be recommended widely as a biomass crop, but Lee sees a lot of potential in this species.
“Prairie cordgrass is an interesting species,” he says. “As a warm season grass, I think it is unique in being able to handle low temperatures, and it is also well adapted to poorly drained soils and lands with frequent flooding. And even in high-salt conditions in the field, we’re getting pretty good yields: up to 8 or 9 tons per acre.”
The article, “Determining effects of sodicity and salinity on switchgrass and prairie cordgrass germination and plant growth,” is published in Industrial Crops and Products. Lee’s co-authors, Eric Anderson, Tom Voigt, and Sumin Kim are also from the U of I. The project was funded by the Energy Biosciences Institute.
The article can be accessed at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0926669014007031.
One crop breeding cycle from starvation
- Global population growth, urbanization, and a changing climate mean staple food crops will need to achieve much higher yields in the near future.
- New research proposes genetic engineering solutions to improve photosynthetic efficiency of food crops, boosting yield under higher temperatures and carbon dioxide levels.
- Because it can take 20 to 30 years of breeding and product development efforts before new crops are available to farmers, those efforts must start now.
URBANA, Ill. – In the race against world hunger, we’re running out of time. By 2050, the global population will have grown and urbanized so much that we will need to produce 87 percent more of the four primary food crops – rice, wheat, soy, and maize – than we do today.
At the same time, the climate is projected to change over the next 30 years, with warmer temperatures and more carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. Crop plants can adapt to change through evolution, but at a much slower rate than the changes we are causing in the atmosphere. Furthermore, the land available for growing crop plants is unlikely to expand to accommodate the predicted rise in demand. In fact, land suited to food crop production is being lost on a global scale.
“We have to start increasing production now, faster than we ever have. Any innovation we make today won’t be ready to go into farmers’ fields for at least 20 years, because we’ll need time for testing, product development, and approval by government agencies. On that basis, 2050 is not so far off. That’s why we say we’re one crop breeding cycle away from starvation,” says University of Illinois crop scientist Stephen P. Long.
Researchers at U of I, along with their large, multi-institution team, say a solution lies in genetically engineering photosynthetic mechanisms to take advantage of the projected rise in global temperatures and CO2, and to achieve much higher yields on the same amount of land.
“The rate of photosynthesis in crops like soy and rice is determined by two factors,” Long explains. “One is the enzyme which traps the CO2: we call that rubisco. Under lower atmospheric CO2 levels and at high temperatures, rubisco can make a mistake and use oxygen instead of CO2. When it uses oxygen, it actually ends up releasing CO2 back into the atmosphere.”
Under higher levels of CO2, such as those projected for future climates, rubisco becomes much more efficient and photosynthesis rates naturally increase as it makes fewer mistakes. The carbon fixed by rubisco is eventually turned into carbohydrates that the plant can use as an energy source for producing grains, fruits, and vegetative structures.
However, rising temperatures are projected to accompany increased CO2. Unfortunately, rubisco’s increased efficiency under high CO2 begins to break down in hot climates. That’s why project partners are looking to improve rubisco so that it will operate efficiently in both high temperature and high CO2 conditions.
“Our partners are looking at a wide range of rubiscos from different organisms to see whether they can find one that will make fewer of these mistakes in hot climates,” Long says.
But the team is not stopping at improving rubisco.
Long adds, “The second factor that can limit photosynthesis is the rate at which everything else in the leaf regenerates the CO2-acceptor molecule, known as RuBP. As we go to higher CO2 levels, instead of being limited by rubisco, we’re limited by this regeneration step. We’re looking at ways to manipulate the speed of that regeneration.”
The researchers developed mathematical models that showed how, by altering the way nitrogen is divided between parts of the photosynthetic apparatus, more carbohydrate could be made under conditions of higher temperature and CO2 without the crop requiring more nitrogen fertilizer.
The models were then taken for a test-run in the field. Using genetic engineering methods, the team tried to speed up the regeneration of RuBP in tobacco plants while subjecting them to high-CO2 environments. The proof of concept worked: photosynthesis rates and yield increased.
The group’s next step will include tests on staple food crops in controlled environments and in field trials. Long stresses that this potential solution won’t be ready for commercial roll-out for many years, but they won’t give up.
“In the face of the extraordinary challenges ahead, we simply do not have the luxury to rule out the use of any technology that may hold promise to improve crop performance,” he notes.
The article, “One crop breeding cycle from starvation? How engineering crop photosynthesis for rising CO2 and temperature could be one important route to alleviation,” is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Lead author Johannes Kromdijk is also at U of I. The project, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The full text of the article can be found at: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/283/1826/20152578
Fewer hogs and higher prices
URBANA, Ill. – The nation’s pork producers have indicated to USDA that they are not expanding the breeding herd and, in fact, intend to reduce farrowings this spring and summer. According to Purdue University Extension economist Chris Hurt, this means pork supplies will be somewhat less than had been anticipated and that hog prices will be somewhat higher.
For the USDA’s March Hogs and Pigs report, pork producers indicated that the size of the nation’s breeding herd was unchanged from the same date one year earlier. The herd had been in an expansion phase from the last half of 2014 through 2015. That expansion was largely because of record-high profits due to baby pig losses from the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PED).
That expansion phase seemingly has now ended.
“There is some unevenness in the change in breeding herd numbers over the past year,” Hurt says. “One constant is that the Southern Plains states have been the most aggressive in adding breeding herd numbers over recent years. For the 16 states that USDA surveys for the March report, the breeding herd is up 9 percent in Oklahoma and 10 percent in Texas.”
Over the past two years, the Southern Plains have led the country in expansion by increasing their breeding herd by 15 percent. Some of the primary Midwestern states reported a decrease in their breeding herds over the past year.
“Generally, record corn yields in most western Corn Belt states were not a sufficient reason to increase the breeding herd,” Hurt says.
Iowa reported its breeding herd as down 5 percent, Missouri was down 4 percent, and Minnesota was down 2 percent. In Indiana, where corn yields were reduced by summer flooding, the breeding herd was down 7 percent.
“The second most important information from this inventory report is that pork producers intend to reduce the number of sows farrowed by 1 percent this spring and by 3 percent this summer,” Hurt says. “If they follow through on these intentions, pork supplies next fall and winter will be smaller than previously anticipated. Smaller anticipated supplies will likely boost price prospects.”
According to Hurt, the inventory numbers in this latest inventory report can be used to forecast pork supplies for the remainder of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017. Market hog inventories indicate that pork supplies may be near unchanged in the second and third quarters of this year. Fourth-quarter supplies are also expected to be near unchanged, reflecting modestly smaller spring farrowings, but somewhat more pigs per litter. For the 2016 calendar year, pork production is expected to be unchanged to up 1 percent. Pork supplies in the first quarter of 2017 will come from the 3 percent smaller summer farrowings. However, with more pigs per litter and heavier weights, pork production is expected to be only about 1 percent smaller.
Live hog prices in 2015 averaged $50.23 per hundredweight for 51 percent to 52 percent lean carcasses, according to USDA.
“My current forecast is that prices will be in a range of $49 to $54 for all of 2016, about $1 higher than last year,” Hurt says. “Live-weight prices averaged about $46 in the first quarter of this year. Prices are expected to rise to the $55 to $58 range for averages in the second and third quarters and finish the year in the mid-to-higher $40s.
“Hog prices stand ready to make their normal seasonal rally into the early summer,” Hurt says. “Current prices in the higher $40s are expected to move to the higher $50s or low $60s by June and July. Strong prices are expected until September when the normal seasonal pattern begins a sharp decline.”
Current prospects are for costs of production to be at the lowest level in nine years due to low feed costs. Those costs are estimated to be near $50 per live hundredweight for the entire year of 2016. “This means that this year’s outlook is for an average profit of about $6 per head compared to an estimated $3 per head of loss for 2015,” Hurt says. “Losses of $9 per head are expected in the first quarter and $6 per head in the final quarter. Profits of $21 per head are anticipated in the second quarter and $18 per head in the third quarter.”
Hurt believes that the pork production industry appears to be headed for a year in which they will cover all costs and with some modest profits left over. “Producers have avoided a bigger buildup in the breeding herd that could have driven the industry back toward losses,” he says. “For right now, the industry seems to have supply in alignment with pork demand such that prices cover the full cost of production. In the future, producers will need to keep expansion of the breeding herd at 1 percent or less per year.
“At this time of year, producers are reminded of the threat of higher feed prices if weather should turn harmful to the growing U.S. crops,” Hurt concludes. “Some coverage of new-crop feed supplies should be considered with current price prospects at the lowest level in nine years.
New Master of Science program educates African students in Africa
URBANA, Ill. – Many African students travel to the United States or Europe to pursue advanced degrees. Many do not return to their home country to practice their profession. This tradition saps African countries of some of their brightest talent. A new Master of Science degree program in West Africa developed by researchers at the University of Illinois will help fill this void with academically trained agricultural professionals.
“Training Africa’s next generation of plant breeders is imperative to improve the continent’s crop yields and crop nutrition towards the ultimate goal of food security,” says Rita Mumm, professor emerita of crop sciences at U of I.
Mumm serves as education and training lead for the Soybean Innovation Lab at U of I, a five-year program developed to establish sustainable production and the utilization of soybean in Africa. The program is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). She led the effort to establish the new master’s degree program together with Eric Danquah, professor and director of the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), and Christiana Amoatey, head of the crop science department at the University of Ghana.
This high-quality Master of Science program complements WACCI’s existing Ph.D. program in plant breeding and promotes the development of the new faculty WACCI has recruited to train future African leaders in crop improvement.
The first five students, four from Ghana and one from Ethiopia, began the master’s program last August. The core courses include statistics, experimental design, population genetics, plant breeding, and genomic applications to crop improvement. Though based in Ghana, the program includes a summer mentoring and internship program in the United States where the students will visit participating universities and work with the private sector, particularly the U.S. seed industry.
“This master’s degree program is for African students in Africa,” says Peter Goldsmith, principal investigator for the Soybean Innovation Lab. “It is important to fill the gap at the master’s or technical level because there are not enough well-trained people managing the research plots at the region’s research stations.” Many of the national programs for crop improvement in Africa hire master’s-level plant breeders to lead plant-breeding programs.
“The initial funding from U of I’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences Office of International Programs served to seed additional funding ($850,000) from the USAID Mission in Ghana, evidencing the value of this new master’s program to train West African scientists,” Goldsmith says.
Microscopic structures of vegetable surfaces contribute to foodborne illness
- Salad vegetables can be vectors of foodborne pathogens, including viruses and bacteria.
- University of Illinois researchers examined the role of vegetable surface morphology and chemistry in adherence of virus particles.
- Vegetables with complex exterior waxy layers harbored fewer virus particles than others.
- Farmers could choose cultivars known to harbor fewer viruses, and breeders could improve leaf surfaces to decrease adherence.
URBANA, Ill. – Foodborne illness outbreaks do more than make us sick. Not only can the U.S. economy suffer as a result of reduced worker productivity, particular sectors of the farming industry can experience negative consumer perception, potentially leading to sustained profit losses. In an effort to understand and eventually reduce the incidence of foodborne illnesses, University of Illinois researchers studied the ability of pathogenic viruses to adhere to fresh produce surfaces.
“We chose 24 of the most common salad vegetables in the U.S. and assayed them to see if there was any relationship between the morphology and chemistry of the leaf or fruit surface and the adherence of viral particles, before and after a washing treatment,” says U of I geneticist Jack Juvik.
The researchers inoculated leafy salad greens and tomatoes with a swine virus that mimics human rotavirus, a common pathogen responsible for diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. After exposing the vegetable surfaces to the virus, the researchers rinsed the vegetables twice with a standard saline solution.
“We correlated virus adherence to roughness of the surface at different scales. We also looked at the chemistry of the proteins and waxes associated with the leaf cuticle – a waxy layer that protects the plant against diseases and reduces water loss,” Juvik explains. “Before this, no one had tested the relationship between chemistry and surface texture on the adherence of virus particles.”
The researchers found a thousand-fold difference in the number of viral particles adhering to different types of leafy greens and tomatoes. Vegetables with three-dimensional crystalline wax structures on the leaf cuticle harbored significantly fewer virus particles after rinsing. This was counterintuitive, as it was expected that small virus particles could “hide” in the rough structures of these cuticles.
“I was surprised, too,” Juvik says. “But normally, viruses adhere to oxygen groups, like OH, which are associated with proteins and carbohydrates on the surface. When the wax completely covers the surface, it becomes totally hydrophobic, which renders the whole leaf surface harder for viruses to attach to. Furthermore, rinsing those leaves with water gives the viruses the OH groups they’re looking for, so they’re easier to wash away.”
Produce is exposed to viruses and other pathogens in a number of ways, including contaminated irrigation water, animal wastes, and handling by sick workers. But because salad vegetables are consumed fresh, pathogens cannot be killed by cooking or most other sterilization methods.
“Viruses are literally everywhere, causing many opportunities for infection. But the information from this study can be used down the road to select or breed for varieties that might have the capacity to reduce adherence of these particles,” Juvik explains.
The researchers have already repeated the study using the bacterium E. coli, but they plan to look at even more vegetable varieties and pathogens in future studies.
The article, “Influence of epicuticular physiochemical properties on porcine rotavirus adsorption to 24 leafy green vegetables and tomatoes” was published in PLOS One. The study was led by Lu Lu, whose co-authors included Juvik, Kang-Mo Ku, Sindy Paola Palma-Salgado, Andrew Page Storm, Hao Feng, and Thanh Nguyen, all from the University of Illinois. The project received funding from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
The article can be viewed here: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0132841