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Illinois pork producers help achieve national goal

Published November 17, 2010
The National Pork Board is celebrating. They just reached their goal of certifying more than 50,000 people in the Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) Plus® program. And Illinois is one of the forefront states that helped them reach this milestone.

"It's time we share great stories like this one," said Rob Knox, University of Illinois Extension swine specialist. "We want to show the public how our pork producers are meeting the industry's challenge to provide a safe, healthy food product that is raised with the utmost care."

Three years ago, the National Pork Board unveiled PQA Plus®, a program dedicated to reflect increasing customer and consumer interest in the way food animals are raised. PQA Plus® was designed to assure the public that U.S. pork products are not only of the highest quality, but also produced safely in environments that are measured, tracked and focused on animal well-being.

"PQA Plus® gives producers another tool to demonstrate their social responsibility," Knox said. "We want to help our clients achieve confidence in what we are doing as pork producers."

Producers, farm workers, and anyone who handles swine are trained by a certified PQA Plus® advisor every three years to receive proper certification to sell hogs to market. Certified PQA Plus® advisors must meet specific qualifications and include veterinarians, Extension staff, and agricultural educators among others.

Every three years, people must re-certify in the PQA Plus® program and complete training with a certified advisor. It's already time for many Illinois pork producers to re-certify, Knox said.

For individuals wanting to become PQA Plus® advisors or for those needing to re-certify, training sessions will be held on Dec. 2, March 10 and May 19 at the Illinois Pork Producers Association office in Springfield.

"We expect our advisors to adhere to strict ethical principles," Knox said. "The industry is constantly changing and evolving to improve pork production practices. Our advisors must be extremely knowledgeable about these advancements. They serve an important role to help our industry improve and maintain its high standards."

In 2009 alone, Illinois certified 2,569 adults, 1,933 youth, and 199 pork production farm sites. That number continues to grow, Knox said.

After producers receive PQA Plus® certification, they may obtain PQA Plus® site status for a pork production site after finishing an assessment of animal well-being practices at that production site. Producers can self-assess with an endorsement from a certified advisor or they can have an advisor complete the assessment.

While on-farm site assessments aren't required yet, Knox believes it could be required someday. Since Nov. 1, 2007, 11,632 sites have been assessed nationally through this program.

"Illinois plays a valuable role in PQA Plus® and together, we can help the industry show the country we are doing the right thing by our animals," Knox said.

For more information on upcoming advisor training and re-certification opportunities, contact Rob Knox at 217-244-5177 or


Ferns freshen interiors

Published November 17, 2010
Ferns bring life into a room any time of year, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"In airtight winter homes, they also can be champions at filtering the air," said Nancy Pollard. "Of 86 plants tested, ferns topped the list at formaldehyde removal. In fact, seven of the top nine excellent performers were ferns."

The other great filterers of formaldehyde were (#7) lavender and (#9) geraniums (Pelargonium sp.) These findings were reported by Kwang Jin Kim and associates in an article published in the October 2010 issue of HortScience.

Other researchers also found ferns ranked in the top 15 percent at air purification compared to woody plants and other herbaceous plants.

"Researchers learned, for instance, that a fern can be 50 times more effective indoors at removing formaldehyde than some other common houseplants tested, though all had a positive effect," Pollard noted. "Formaldehyde, a volatile organic compound (VOC), can build up in well-insulated modern homes.

"VOCs may originate from a variety of indoor sources such as particle board, plywood, carpet, paper products, tobacco smoke, and adhesives." Formaldehyde removal by plants was five times faster in light than in dark, according to other researchers, so artificial lights in winter could help your plants work longer and harder at cleaning the air.

"In addition to the plants removing formaldehyde, soil microorganisms inhabiting healthy potting soil also clean up the air," she said. "The bottom line is, ferns and other houseplants that freshen the air we breathe. Get some plants, give them some light, and take in a deep breath of fresh air."


Christmas websites

Published November 16, 2010
Two University of Illinois Extension websites provide helpful information for holiday season favorites -- poinsettias and Christmas trees.

"The Poinsettia Pages and Christmas Trees and More sites have information on everything from selection to care and, in the case of Christmas trees, disposal options," explained Jane Scherer, U of I Extension urban programs specialist and director of its websites.

At the Poinsettia Pages (, you will find tips on selecting the right plant.

"Poinsettias are traditional Christmas plants that will last through the Christmas season and beyond. It is important to select the best plant for your home environment," said Scherer. "The tips will help you select the best plant."

There are also sections on the plant's history, its care, and frequently asked questions about poinsettias.

"At Christmas Trees and More (, you'll find a listing of tree farms if you wish to select and cut your own family Christmas tree," said Scherer. "Information on tree types, selection factors, and how to care for your tree can also be found on that site."

The website has a section on the history of the Christmas tree tradition and Christmas tree-related events and festivals. Under the "Selection and Care" section, you will find information on how to protect your outdoor trees from thieves and vandals, as well as plans for the tree's eventual departure.

"Recycle your tree after Christmas," said Scherer. "Many communities will pick up trees and turn them into chips. You might put the tree in your backyard and place bread and suet among the branches for the birds."


No Chocolate for Your Pets

Published November 15, 2010
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy,

For people, a chocolate bar can send our taste buds to heaven. But for dogs and cats, consuming even a little bit of chocolate could send them to the emergency room.

Dr. Sandra Yi, a veterinarian and assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, warns that chocolate can cause serious illness in pets because it contains theobromine and caffeine. Theobromine and caffeine are chemicals called methylated xanthine alkaloids. While not harmful in small amounts in humans, these compounds can be deadly in dogs and cats.

The compounds in chocolate are harmful to pets because they stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as the "fight or flight" branch of the nervous system. Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system causes the body to release a chemical called epinephrine (also commonly known as adrenaline), allowing humans and animals to have the ability to react in potentially harmful or emergency situations.

However, toxic doses of methylxanthines lead to the over-stimulation of this system, says Dr. Yi. As a result, a pet that ingests a harmful amount of methylxanthines may breathe rapidly and become very restless and overheated. A pet's heart rate and blood pressure may increase drastically, possibly culminating in cardiac arrhythmias (an abnormal heartbeat). They may also vomit, have diarrhea, and drink and urinate more than usual. Ingesting chocolate could ultimately lead to seizures or even death without appropriate veterinary care.

The symptoms that will occur in your pet will depend on several factors: the type of chocolate ingested, the amount ingested, the weight of your pet, and your pet's health history. The concentration of methylxanthines vary by the type of chocolate, ranging from the least in white chocolate up to the most in cocoa powder:

  • White chocolate
  • Milk chocolate
  • Dark chocolate
  • Instant cocoa mix
  • Semi-sweet chocolate
  • Baking chocolate
  • Cocoa beans (Note: cocoa bean mulch, a commercial product for gardens, is very harmful if ingested by pets.)
  • Cocoa powder

Of course, the more chocolate your pet ingests, the more likely you are to see significant symptoms. Also, the less your pet weighs, the more likely exposure will bring severe effects.

If your pet has ingested a toxic dose of chocolate, your veterinarian will recommend treatment options that take into consideration the amount and type of chocolate ingested as well as the health history of your pet. One option is to induce vomiting to remove some of the chocolate from your pet's stomach before it is digested; however, this can cause more problems for your pet if not done correctly, so it should not be done without instruction from a veterinarian.

If inducing vomiting is not an option or if it does not result in the recovery of enough chocolate, the veterinarian may also need to treat your animal with a substance called activated charcoal, which prevents the intestines from absorbing the methylxanthines. Treatment with intravenous fluids and medication to prevent seizures and the adverse effects on the heart may also be needed.

If you suspect that your pet may have ingested chocolate or another product that contains methylxanthines, it is better to err on the side of caution and treat the situation as if it were a worst-case scenario. Be aware that other foods toxic to pets—raisins, macadamia nuts, and coffee beans, for example—may have been ingested along with the chocolate. Even if you do not see any changes in your pet's behavior, you should contact your local veterinarian to determine whether any type of treatment is necessary.

For further information on chocolate toxicity, please contact your local veterinarian.

An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy,

Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Uptrend in crop prices stalls

Published November 15, 2010
URBANA - Except for a brief retreat in early October, corn, soybean, and wheat prices were in a steady uptrend from June 30 through November 9. December 2010 corn futures increased about 70 percent, whereas January 2011 soybean futures and July 2011 wheat futures increased about 50 percent. But the uptrend in crop prices has stalled, said University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good.

"The fundamental reasons for the large price increases have been well chronicled. The factors include smaller-than-expected corn acreage in the United States, declining U.S. corn yield prospects, a rapid rate of corn use for ethanol, a torrid pace of U.S. soybean exports, rising world vegetable oil demand, a significant decline in wheat production in Russia and Kazakhstan, and a very poor start for the U.S. winter wheat crop," he said.

La Nina weather conditions also raised some concern about southern hemisphere crops. In addition, overall demand prospects for U.S. commodities were supported by the declining value of the U.S. dollar and rising energy prices, he said.

"Corn prices experienced the sharpest rally due to the magnitude of the decline in U.S. production prospects and expectations of a sharp drawdown in inventories of U.S. corn by the end of the 2010-11 marketing year. The USDA currently projects those stocks at a 15-year low of 827 million bushels," he said.

Soybean prices have been supported by the rapid pace of exports and export sales. The USDA now expects 2010-11 marketing year U.S. soybean exports to reach 1.57 billion bushels, 4.6 percent above the record exports of a year ago, he said.

"Through the first 10 weeks of the marketing year, export inspections exceeded those of a year earlier by 25 percent. Shipments to China were up 49 percent, and China accounts for 68 percent of all U.S. exports to date. Unshipped export sales as of Nov. 4 were 12 percent larger than sales of a year ago. China accounted for 58 percent of those outstanding sales," he said.

Even with large exports, expectations were for generally adequate stocks of U.S. soybeans at the end of the 2010-11 marketing year. The projection of those stocks dropped sharply early last week, however, as the USDA lowered the expected size of the 2010 U.S. harvest and increased the forecast of exports, he noted.

"Soybean oil prices have been supported by the projection of a second consecutive year of a 5 percent increase in world vegetable oil consumption and a further decline in world vegetable oil stocks," he said.

Domestically, soybean oil consumption for food is expected to be near that of last year, while exports are expected to decline by 20 percent. The USDA projects a 1.2-billion-pound (72 percent) increase in soybean oil use for the production of biodiesel. Use declined sharply last year due to the expiration of the blender's tax credit, he said.

"To reach the USDA projection of 2.9 billion pounds, use will have to average 242 million pounds per month. Use during the last month of the 2009-10 marketing year (Sept. 2010) totaled 98 million pounds," he said.

Wheat prices have been supported by a nearly 6 percent decline in world wheat production and the expected decline in U.S. and world stocks. Those inventories, however, are expected to be at generally adequate levels. More recent concerns center on the poor condition of the U.S. winter wheat crop and whether Russian wheat production will rebound in 2011, he noted.

"Prices of all three commodities declined sharply last week. The turn to lower prices was attributed to China's move to increase interest rates and presumably slow the rate of domestic economic growth. Such a slowdown might reduce the rate of growth in Chinese demand for commodities of all types," he said.

Price weakness may have also reflected some moderation in supply concerns. The U.S. hard red winter wheat crop received some beneficial precipitation, and the USDA increased its projections of some crops outside the United States. Projections were increased for corn in China, soybeans in South America, and wheat in Argentina and Australia, he said.

"There may also be growing concern about the ethanol blender's tax credit. If that credit is not extended, the pace of ethanol production could drop back to the mandated level," he said.

Finally, a private forecast that U.S. corn producers will increase plantings by nearly 5 million acres in 2011 reminded the market that high crop prices will induce a worldwide supply response next year, he added.

Although the uptrend in prices stalled last week, there is still a lot of uncertainty about crop supply and demand conditions. Uncertainty about Chinese corn demand, ethanol policy, energy prices, weather, and acreage may result in large price swings but should provide good support for prices into the end of the year, he said.


Winter care of potted perennials

Published November 15, 2010
Taking care of your potted perennial plants over the winter will ensure they are around next season to provide another year of enjoyment, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Container gardening is a form of gardening everyone can enjoy no matter how large or small their garden may be," said Greg Stack. "Those with only a balcony or patio can enjoy the pleasures of gardening just as those with areas of space. Containers can become quite elaborate, and the types of plant material can be quite varied. "When it comes to what gardeners are putting into containers, the trend is leaning toward just about anything."

At one time annuals were the majority, if not the only type, of plant material being used in containers. Now everything from perennials to small trees and shrubs are commonly being used. And while these perennials can be treated like annuals and replaced the next season, many gardeners can't bear the thought of having something die that has the potential of coming back. Because of this, gardeners now have to consider the best way to overwinter these pots so they can have these plants survive the winter and come back next spring.

"Perennials in pots need protection because their root system is basically above ground in a container," he explained. "This poses problems because the root system is now subject to extreme cold injury.

"If these same perennials were planted in the ground, the roots would have the benefit of the soil to help insulate and protect the roots from potential cold injury that can kill roots leading to a good number of the plants not coming back in the spring. Above ground, that protective root insulation disappears, making the roots vulnerable to extreme winter temperatures."

So what can a gardener do to protect that investment in perennial plant material? There are several ways to provide needed protection.

"With any container that you are considering to use, make sure the plant material in the container is dormant,"said Stack. "Wait for temperatures to drop to the twenties for several nights and make sure the soil in the container is moist. Plants in moist soil tend to overwinter better that those where the soil is dry. Now you can bed them down for the winter."

If the pots are small, and if you have garden space, dig a hole in the garden large enough to accommodate the pot up to the rim. Place the pot in the hole and backfill the hole with soil.

Cover the pot with a thick layer of mulch such as straw or hardwood leaves.

If you don't want to dig holes, gather up your pots and group them together on an inside corner of a building, preferably on the east or north side. Once grouped, mulch them with straw or hardwood leaves.

"The last way to help protect your containers is to move them into an unheated building such as a garage or shed where temperatures are slightly above freezing all winter," he said.

"This inside storage will protect them. When using inside storage make sure to check on the pots occasionally as they may dry out. If so, apply just a little bit of water to moisten the soil slightly.

"Whichever method you choose, leave the plants protected until spring weather conditions moderate and they can be safely moved back into the garden."


Too little, too late: Not enough food in Great Lakes to support Asian carp?

Published November 15, 2010
URBANA - The threat of Asian carp invading the Great Lakes may not be as dire as some fear. According to an Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant study, the lakes' open waters do not provide sufficient food for the fish to grow.

Asian carp species—for example, bighead and silver carp—are filter feeders. They eat microscopic plankton that provides the base of the food chain. Since these fish grow quite large, they potentially pose a threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem if they thrive in these waters.

With funding from NOAA-National Sea Grant College Program, Sandra Cooke and Walter Hill, Illinois Natural History Survey ecologists, sought to answer the question of whether Asian carp can survive and thrive in the nutrient-poor Great Lakes. They estimated the energy required for the carp to survive and grow, taking into account varying body sizes, swimming speeds and reproductive stages. These numbers were analyzed in light of available food sources in the Great Lakes.

According to their modeling results, there may be sufficient plankton in some harbors and other near shore areas, but not in open waters. "Flourishing populations of filter-feeding Asian carp are historically associated with conditions that feature abundant phytoplankton and zooplankton," said Hill. "Most areas of the Great Lakes feature relatively low abundances of these plankton."

Ironically, the carp may just be late to the Great Lakes plankton buffet because other invasive species have already depleted the supply. "Prior invasions of the Great Lakes by zebra and quagga mussels have reduced the potential for the carp to establish populations because these mussels have reduced plankton biomass," said Hill. "They are filter feeders too."

But don't write the carp off in the Great Lakes altogether. Cooke and Hill speculate that bighead and silver carp may still have significant impact on fish communities in areas where there is sufficient plankton—in harbors and nearshore areas, as well as other productive locations such as Green Bay and western Lake Erie. "Many nearshore habitats can serve as important nurseries for larval fish, including walleye and alewives," said Cooke.

The situation is also subject to change. For example, climate change may lead to conditions in which plankton are more abundant. An increase in nutrient levels can have the same effect. As plankton numbers increase, so does the potential for carp to grow and thrive.

Hill does not see these results as a reason to relent on efforts to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. "Given the potential consequences to Great Lakes ecosystems if these filter feeders do prove capable of establishing reproducing populations, efforts to keep Asian carp out the Great Lakes must not be lessened," he said. Rather, this work can provide insight for resource managers to direct their monitoring and prevention efforts to areas that are most at risk.

Results from this research are published in the October 2010 issue of Freshwater Biology (55)

Website offers Thanksgiving turkey tips

Published November 12, 2010
University of Illinois Extension has a one-stop website to answer questions on selecting, preparing, serving, and storing a Thanksgiving turkey.

"Turkey for the Holidays" ( covers topics such as the location of turkey farms, cooking the bird, great side dishes, and what to do with the leftovers.

"This is one of our most popular seasonal websites," said Jane Scherer, U of I Extension urban programs specialist and director of its websites.

"The average American ate 16 pounds of turkey in 2009 and 88 percent of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey to celebrate Thanksgiving. "Overall, turkey consumption has doubled over the past 25 years."

A handy feature for the day after Thanksgiving is a listing on the website of recipes for leftovers along with information on proper storage temperatures and refrigerator shelf life.

There are also tips for carving the turkey prior to serving.

"Allow the turkey to rest 20 minutes after cooking," Scherer noted. "This lets juices saturate the bird evenly for better slicing. And you must cut the bird apart at the joint. Hacking though the bone is not an option."


U of I Extension launches kids and dogs website

Published November 12, 2010
Knowing the questions to ask before bringing adding a dog a household is one of the purposes of a new University of Illinois Extension website. "Best of Friends: Kids and Dogs" ( is designed for classroom use with fourth to sixth graders.

"However, it can also be used by anyone who is thinking about getting a dog," explained Jane Scherer, U of I Extension urban programs specialist and director of its websites. "Before making the final decision about getting a dog, there are many questions that need to be asked and answered."

Owning a pet helps to instill caring and responsible behaviors that children will carry into their adult life.

Research shows that having a pet enhances a child's self-esteem, and teaches responsibility and respect toward other living beings.

Children with a pet are more likely to be involved in activities such as sports, clubs, hobbies, and household chores. Research also indicates that children suffering from ailments show significant improvement in their treatment procedures when an animal is involved.

"Another goal of the website is for young people to understand the role dogs play as lifetime companions and valuable members of the working world," Scherer added.

The website includes learning activities, a teacher's guide, links to other informative sites, information about the costs of owning a dog, and health guidelines.

Authors of the website include: Amy Fischer, Extension Specialist, Companion Animals; Greg Stack, Extension Educator, Horticulture; Sarah Albert, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Companion Animals; and Scherer.


This faster-growing E. coli strain's a good thing!

Published November 11, 2010
URBANA — A University of Illinois metabolic engineer has improved a strain of E. coli, making it grow faster. Don't worry, he believes his efforts will benefit human health, not decimate it.

"The average person hears E. coli and thinks of E. coli 0157:H7, a microorganism that causes horrific food poisoning, but we've developed a strain of E. coli that is suitable for mass production of high-quality DNA that could be used in vaccines or gene therapy," said Yong-Su Jin, a U of I assistant professor of microbial genomics and a faculty member in its Institute for Genomic Biology.

According to Jin, industrial strains of E. coli have already been used to produce such diverse products as insulin for diabetics, enzymes used in laundry detergent, and polymer substitutes in carpets and plastic.

"E. coli bacteria have contributed vastly to our scientific understanding of genes, proteins, and the genome as a model system of biology research," he added.

Jin worked with E. coli DH5-alpha, a laboratory strain that had excellent potential but grew very slowly.

When scientists began to use E. coli DH5-alpha in biotechnological research years ago, they handicapped it, causing some of the genes to mutate so it would meet the requirements of molecular biology experiments. There was a trade-off, though--the strain's slow growth in minimal media, commonly used in laboratory and industrial fermentations.

"E. coli DH5-alpha has been so popular that scientists have used it to perform most recombinant DNA techniques. But its slow growth has been a critical weakness," Jin noted.

Because scientists had used random mutagenesis, they weren't sure where the mutation that caused the slow growth had occurred. Jin and his colleagues were able to locate and fix the problem.

"We learned that the scientists had unintentionally weakened a key enzyme in a gene in the nucleotide biosynthesis pathway. When we reversed this mutation, the modified strain grew as quickly as other types of E. coli used in industry while retaining the traits that make it useful in scientific experiments," he said.

The beauty of the new strain lies in the purity and abundance of the DNA that it contains, which makes it a candidate for use in important biotechnological applications, he said.

"For example, to make DNA vaccines and perform gene therapy, we need DNA that is extremely clean and pure. The E. coli strain we have developed is an excellent candidate to deliver this high-quality genetic material in large quantities," he said.

The research was published in the Sept. 15 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Co-authors are Suk-Chae Jung, Ki-Sung Lee, Min-Eui Hong, and Dae Hyuk Kweon of Korea's Sungkyunkwan University; and Chris L. Smith and Gregory Stephanopoulos of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.