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Secret of safe sprout production is very clean seeds, expert says

Published October 10, 2011
URBANA- A University of Illinois study that uses new technology to assess and compare the safety of radish, broccoli, and alfalfa sprouts concludes that the secret to keeping sprouts free of foodborne pathogens lies in industry's intense attention to cleanliness of seeds.

"Once seeds have germinated, it's too late. Sprouts are extremely complex structures with a forest-like root system that conceals microorganisms. Just a few E. coli cells can grow to a substantial population during germination and sprouting, and it's very difficult to get rid of them all," said Hao Feng, a U of I associate professor of food and bioprocess engineering.

Feng's study is the cover story of the August 2011 issue of the Journal of Food Science. Two other papers that detail his work with sprouts will appear in upcoming issue of that journal and in the Journal of Food Protection.

In his experiments, Feng used both the FDA-recommended dose of chlorine to kill microorganisms and a new sanitizer that was a combination of surfactant and organic acid. He used a laser-scanning confocal microscope to look at micro-slices of seeds, then employed computer software to get a three-dimensional view of their surface structure. This allowed him to calculate each seed's surface roughness.

Although E. coli could be eliminated on the alfalfa seeds because of their relatively smooth surface, broccoli and radish seeds have rough surfaces. Their texture renders these rougher seeds more susceptible to the attachment of pathogens and makes these microorganisms very difficult to remove, he said.

Low doses of irradiation can be successfully used on broccoli and radish seeds, but that treatment runs the risk of losing sprouts' quality and nutritional value. And sprouts do have immense nutritional value. Broccoli sprouts have been linked to cancer prevention; radish sprouts have lots of vitamins A and C, he noted.

He also found that better results were achieved with broccoli sprouts when the sanitizer is used on small batches rather than large ones.

Feng assured consumers that sprouts are carefully tested for the presence of pathogens. "When there is one positive result, the entire batch is thrown out," he said.

He suggested some ways these sprouts could be more safely incorporated into your diet.

"In Asian cultures, sprouts are used in stir-fry recipes. Again, it's a trade-off. Heat kills the pathogens, but you lose some of the sprouts' nutritional punch," he said.

Asian cooks also use sprouts in dishes that use natural antimicrobials, such as vinegar, garlic, green onion, and spices, he said. "These ingredients can inhibit the growth of E. coli, even kill pathogens, but there is still some risk involved," he said.

Feng said this research demonstrates the importance of eliminating all pathogens on seeds before sprouting.

"The food industry must maintain very strict control in the sprout production process, focusing on the cleanliness of seeds and expending money and effort on prevention. Then consumers can be assured that these nutritious food products are safe to eat," Feng said.

Scientists in the Feng lab are always working on developing new, more effective sanitizers.

The paper was co-authored by the U of I's Lilia Fransisca, Bin Zhou, and Hee Kyung Park. Funding was provided by the USDA and the Illinois Agricultural Research Station.

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Those Mangy Dogs!

Published October 9, 2011
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, beuoy@illinois.edu.

The term "mangy dog" has been applied to dirty dogs, dogs that look unkempt, and even dogs that are misbehaving. But what exactly does "mangy" mean?

Dr. Domenico Santoro, a board-certified dermatologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, explains that dogs can become "mangy" when they contract a disease called mange, or "scabies."

There are two kinds of mange: sarcoptic mange and demodectic mange. Both diseases are caused by mites, but the two manifest in very different ways.

Sarcoptic mange is a highly contagious disease. It can quickly spread to all your pets. This disease is caused by a Sarcoptes mite. Infected animals have intense itching on the skin of the face, legs, and abdomen. It is thought the mite by-products cause the intense itching. The scratching can cause crusts to form on the abdomen, elbows, and floppy portion of the ears. The crusting can often cause thickened skin.

The sudden development of intense itchiness generally leads to the diagnosis of sarcoptic mange. The mites themselves are often very hard to find on skin scraping. Veterinarians may use other tests, such as repeated extensive skin scrapings and fecal flotations, to confirm the diagnosis by finding mites and their eggs. Veterinarians may treat a pet for this disease based on a strong suspicion of scabies, and confirm the diagnosis if the condition responds to treatment.

Sarcoptic mange is typically treated with an acaricide, dip such as a lime-sulfur dip, to kill the mites. Often dips are performed three or four times seven days apart. There are sprays or other topical products that may also help eliminate the mites.

Demodectic mange is entirely different, according to Dr. Santoro. Demodex mites live inside the hair follicles, not on the skin surface. Small numbers of these mites are part of the normal flora of your pet, but large numbers can cause redness, flaking, crusting, and hair loss. Like sarcoptic mange, demodectic mange also occurs on the face, legs and abdomen, but can be much more generalized and severe than sarcoptic mange.

Demodectic mange in puppies is the result of a very specific defect in the immune system. It usually produces little to no itching and mainly hair loss. In adult animals, demodex can arise in conjunction with immunosuppressive disease or administration of immunosuppressive drugs. Many times in the adult form there is an underlying disease that must also be treated to help treat the demodectic mange. Finding this underlying, immunosuppressive disease is often very difficult, which makes the mange difficult to treat.

Diagnosis can be made from deep scraping the hair follicles and finding mites, eggs, or larvae. Further diagnostics must be done to identify the underlying disease in adult dogs.

The two forms of demodectic mange require different treatment approaches. Puppy demodex often resolves spontaneously and doesn't need treatment unless is generalized. Adult demodex can be treated with bathing in benzoyl peroxide and clipping of the affected areas, if localized. However, anti-parasitic drugs need to be used in treatment of generalized demodectic mange. Amitraz body dips every two weeks or other topical or oral medication may be prescribed until your pet has two negative skin scrapes at one-month intervals.

If you suspect your animal is becoming a "mangy dog," it's time to check in with your local veterinarian.

An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, beuoy@illinois.edu.

Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine
217/333-2907

Teacher-scholar to share effective teaching strategies

Published October 7, 2011
This article appears courtesy of the University of Illinois News Bureau. It was written by Mike Helenthal.

URBANA - Tough times call for tough measures, or at least more effective ones.

That's the message of this year's Distinguished Teacher-Scholar, Kelly A. Tappenden, a professor of food science and human nutrition in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

"It's never been easy, but in recent years effective teaching has just become so much more of a challenge," she said. "We find ourselves in an era where we're asked to do much more with less and it doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon. We've got increasing teaching loads and reduced or eliminated teaching assistant support."

So how can a teacher effectively teach in this new era?

Tappenden is hoping to answer that question this academic year through a series of workshops sponsored by the Office of the Provost that she designed to provide new strategies to achieve one age-old goal of all successful teachers--engaging students in the classroom.

"This is going to be an eye-opener and a shift for those who need to use their class more wisely," she said. "This is for anybody who takes teaching seriously. I hope to continue the dialogue and highlight the kinds of strategies that are being used successfully in the classroom."

One of those strategies will be shared by the College of Medicine's Stephanie Ceman, who has found success in breaking up large lecture classes into smaller problem-solving "teams."

Tappenden said this approach has led to greater engagement because students are expected to participate in and, in some cases, drive the learning process. The progress has been quantifiable.

"They can show how it affects outcomes," she said.

"The belief has always kind of been that a teacher could do fun things in a small class but in a large one you're just stuck lecturing," she said. "That's not necessarily the case."

But alternative teaching methods are not always self-evident.

New teachers receive some basic instruction on classroom technique when they begin their careers, but aren't always able to turn that into effective classroom technique. And veterans may recognize that it's time for a change but not know where to turn for new ideas.

Tappenden said those limitations are magnified in times of limited resources, but the goal of "getting to" students never changes.

"I didn't receive any formal training, but I've learned a lot through the Illinois Teaching Academies," she said. "Every time I come out feeling more prepared and energized. I learn something new every time. I figured I was not alone and I hope the workshops keep building on that community approach. I want to enrich the discussion."

Her series, "Enhancing Teaching: Achieving More with Less," will feature Illinois faculty members who use innovative teaching methods to provide significant learning experiences to students in large-enrollment courses.

The first in the series starts at noon Oct. 20 in Illini Union Rooms A and B. Tappenden will offer an overview of multiple ways Illinois faculty members are achieving more with less in their courses. Ceman will discuss "Team-based Learning: Big Classes with Small Teams Yield More Learning." She will highlight a team-based learning project under way in the College of Medicine, where accreditors demanded more hands-on learning experiences for medical students in large classes, without providing additional resources. Ceman will offer preliminary data on the students' learning outcomes for discussion.

The next in the series, "Time-Saving Assignments and Peer Projects That Inspire Learning," will be led by Mary-Ann Winkelmes, campus coordinator for Programs on Teaching and Learning, on Dec. 9.

March 1 is the final workshop, "How 21st-Century Learners Change Teaching," led by Tappenden and the UI Teaching Academies.

"This is a chance to learn from our peers what is working," she said.

Start planning for winter feeding

Published October 6, 2011
Looking for a more cost-effective way to feed your cattle this winter? As the demand for hay continues to increase and prices continue to rise, many Midwest cattle producers are searching for cheaper alternatives to winter feeding.

"With more acres going toward corn and soybean production, acres in hay production are lower than normal," said Dan Shike, University of Illinois beef cattle nutritionist and professor in the Department of Animal Sciences. "The wet spring followed by an extremely hot and dry summer reduced hay production even further. Not only will hay be in high demand in the Midwest and Illinois, but extreme drought in the Southwest will also increase the national demand for hay."

U of I animal scientists have conducted many research studies on alternatives to feeding hay. Shike said one of the best alternatives available to Illinois cattle producers is the use of cornstalks and co-products such as distillers grains, corn gluten feed and soyhulls.

"Grazing cornstalks and supplementing co-products is likely the most economical option in Illinois," he said. "But there are several things to consider when contemplating this decision."

Grazing cornstalks

First, you need to identify a water source. Portable water tanks will work, but if you plan to graze into the winter, then you will want to consider a heating source for the water. In addition, producers must consider fencing options. Shike said temporary electric fence is relatively inexpensive and takes minimal time and labor to put up.

Two options exist for grazing cornstalks — continuous grazing or strip-grazing. Continuous grazing allows cows access to the entire corn field. Strip grazing divides the field up into strips and allows the cows access to a new strip every two weeks.

"Cows will select the residue in the order of corn grain, husks, leaves, and finally, stalks," Shike said. "If you allow the cows access to the entire field, they will eat all of the grain first. There are two potential problems with this scenario. First, the cows can actually eat too much grain. Second, in the process of searching out all of the grain, they can trample in the husks and leaves, which is more of a problem in wet years."

To determine stocking rates, Shike recommends factoring in stage of production and cow size to determine the cows' requirements.

"Corn yield will determine how much residue is available," he said. "When corn yield is high, the amount of residue available is high. If it is dry while you are grazing, the cows' harvesting efficiency is higher than during wet years when more residue will be trampled into the ground."

With so many factors, stocking rates can vary greatly. The final consideration is the length of grazing time. With poorer projected corn yields this year, there will likely not be fewer grazing days available. However, Shike said it is still likely that with one cow per acre, a field could be grazed for 45 to 60 days.

If it's not possible to access cornstalks to graze, producers can also utilized baled cornstalks. Providing ad libitum access to cornstalk bales and offering a co-product supplement is also a good option. Of course, it's cheaper to let the cows harvest the cornstalks, Shike said. But that isn't always an option.

Supplementing with co-products

Again, the amount and type of supplement depends on stage of production and cow size. Spring-calving cows have the lowest nutritional needs in the fall and early winter, Shike said. Full-feeding hay often exceeds their nutritional requirements.

"Unfortunately, cows aren't very good at eating only what they need," he said. "If you offer a high-quality hay, they will actually eat more than if they are fed a lower-quality hay or a crop residue such as cornstalks, soybean stubble or wheat straw."

When it comes to supplementing cornstalks, it's important to consider protein and phosphorous levels. Distillers grains and corn gluten feed are both high in protein and phosphorous. Soyhulls are a good energy source, but they are not as high in protein or phosphorous. As the cows advance in gestation, their requirements go up.

Cornstalk residue and co-products can also meet the needs of lactating cows, Shike said.

"Much of the work we have done at Illinois has focused on lactating cows in late winter and early spring before we can go to grass," he said. "Obviously, the energy and protein requirements are much higher for lactating cows, but this can still be met by co-products."

The requirements of gestating cows can often be met by 5 to 8 pounds of distillers grains or corn gluten feed in addition to ad libitum access to cornstalk bales. However, lactating cows may need as much as 12 to 15 pounds of co-product. The exact amount depends on cow size, milk production levels and the analysis of the cornstalks (or soybean stubble, wheat straw, poor quality hay).

"With hay in short supply and feed costs at record highs, producers need to have a plan in place," he said. "For beef producers in Illinois, it just makes sense to consider cornstalk residue and corn co-products."

Strip-tillage recommendations

Published October 6, 2011
As harvest comes to an end, some growers will shift their focus to strip-tillage. Fabian Fernandez, University of Illinois Extension specialist in plant nutrition and soil fertility, offers a few thoughts on applying nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium with strip-till this season.

Nitrogen applications with strip-till

Although nitrogen applications with strip-till can be done, Fernandez normally doesn't suggest this process for two reasons. First, when soil conditions are adequate for strip-till operations, soil temperatures are typically too warm to apply nitrogen. He said combining these activities can save time, but it's important to wait until soil temperatures four inches below the surface are 50 degrees Fahrenheit and falling.

"Doing the application earlier represents too large of a risk of nitrogen loss to make it worth it," Fernandez said. "The use of strip-till does not justify changing the current recommendations for fall nitrogen application. A potential drawback of combining anhydrous ammonia application with strip-till is that by the time conditions are adequate for fall nitrogen applications, the soil might be getting too wet for strip-till."

The second reason he does not recommend combining strip-till and nitrogen application is because of the potential for seedling injury from free ammonia. He said this concern is greatest when anhydrous ammonia is spring-applied in the strips. Although injury may not occur every year, he considers this practice riskier than applying nitrogen in the row middles or some other way to increase the distance between the seedlings and concentrated nitrogen band.

Phosphorus and potassium applications with strip-till

Under no-till systems, slowly mobile nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium are typically broadcast-applied in the surface, Fernandez said. This application technique creates a vertical stratification of these nutrients with higher concentrations in the surface compared to the subsurface.

"This stratification can have negative effects if the high-nutrient surface becomes too dry or if the roots of the crop are not actively growing in that fraction of the soil volume," he said. "Strip-tillage offers more flexibility than no-till since it is easy to combine deep placement of nutrients with the tillage operation to make the soil berms."

Combining these activities helps spread the work load and can result in fewer trips across the field. However, just because fertilizers can be placed deep with this tillage system, it does not mean that deep placement is required.

In fact, Fernandez said studies currently under way in Illinois, and in other places, have shown that deep placement of phosphorus and potassium typically does not improve grain yield or pay for the added costs of the operation. Also, band application of fertilizers can make it more difficult than broadcast placement to obtain a representative soil sample to determine fertilization needs.

"Shallower placement of dry phosphorus and potassium fertilizers in the strip can have a starter fertilizer effect that can be more cost-efficient than application of liquid starter fertilizers," he added. "In wet springs, better growing conditions in the strip can also reduce the need for starter fertilizers."

For more information on the pros and cons of strip-tillage, read The Bulletin online at bulletin.ipm.illinois.edu/.

Controlling weeds after harvest

Published October 6, 2011
Have you struggled with winter annual weeds getting in the way of spring planting? Many farmers are fighting off these weeds with fall herbicide applications. Applying a herbicide now may help you save time next spring, said Aaron Hager, University of Illinois Extension weed specialist.

Before making a fall herbicide application, Hager offers a few reminders:

1. Scout fields before making any application to determine what weeds are present and if their densities are high enough to warrant treatment.

2. Many herbicides used prior to or after crop planting/emergence can be applied in the fall, but not all herbicides are labeled for fall application. Atrazine, for example, is widely used before and after corn emergence, but is not labeled for fall application. Check the label to determine if fall application is allowed.

3. Some herbicides approved for fall application have application timing restrictions on their labels. If you are considering applying a treatment (such as glyphosate) that does not possess much soil-residual activity, the application should be timed to occur after the majority of winter annual species have emerged. Instead of applying such a treatment in early-October, a mid- to late October application timing might provide better results. If your fall application will include a herbicide with soil-residual activity, then the application could be made sooner, but check the product label.

4. Combinations of one or more herbicides can broaden the weed control spectrum. This can be very important if winter annuals have already emerged before the application is made. Combining 2,4-D and/or glyphosate with soil-residual products can improve control of emerged species and help control biennial or perennial species. Include the appropriate spray additives with all applications.

5. Location in the state can influence fall herbicide applications. Fall herbicide applications seem to "fit" better in areas of central and southern Illinois. Labels may indicate fall applications that can be made only in certain geographical regions of the state.

6. Fall applications that include soil-residual herbicides may not always result in a clean field by planting time next spring. Delays in spring fieldwork may allow the fields to green up before the crop can be planted. Occasionally, if the suite of winter annual weed species is adequately controlled, the emergence of summer annual weed species may occur sooner than if winter annuals were still present.

7. Do not utilize a fall herbicide application as an avenue to provide residual control of summer annual weed species. Control of summer annual species, such as waterhemp, is often improved when applications of soil-residual herbicides are made closer to planting compared with several weeks (or months) prior to planting. If a soil-residual herbicide will be part of a fall herbicide application, select an application rate that will provide control of winter annuals throughout the remainder of 2011, and do not increase the application rate in hopes of obtaining control of summer annual species next spring.

8. With the increasing prevalence of horseweed, including glyphosate-resistant populations, fall herbicide applications may prove more efficacious than spring applications. Glyphosate alone may not provide adequate control when applied in either fall or spring, but a fall application timing provides an opportunity to utilize higher application rates of products (such as 2,4-D) than are feasible to use in spring.

Apart from winter annual weed species, fall months may offer a good opportunity to apply herbicides for improved control of certain biennial and perennial weed species. These species often become established in reduced or no-tillage fields and can be difficult to control with herbicides once the populations are established.

For more information on controlling weeds after fall harvest, read The Bulletin online at bulletin.ipm.illinois.edu/.

Koonin highlights Biomass and Energy Crops IV conference at U of I

Published October 6, 2011
When it comes to energy, the United States can do better, said Steven Koonin, Undersecretary for Science in the U.S. Department of Energy, at the 2011 Biomass and Energy Crops IV Conference in Champaign last week.

"Scientists play an important role in advocating for basic research to help solve our energy challenges," Koonin said during the conference co-hosted by the Association of Applied Biologists (AAB), University of Illinois, and the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) on Sept. 21 to 23. "We need scientists to understand the bigger problems — both as citizens and as scientists. We also need their help to advocate for sensible policies and to become more involved from a technical standpoint to make sure the science can be applied commercially."

He defined three major U.S. energy challenges and painted a six-picture strategy to provide a framework to overcome these challenges.

"We are focusing on six strategies to help solve these energy problems," Koonin said. "Each strategy involves a mix of policies, economics and technologies."

The transport strategies include deploying alternative fuels, progressively electrifying the fleet, and increasing vehicle efficiency. The three stationary strategies include deploying clean electricity, modernizing the grid, and increasing building and use efficiency.

Koonin also encouraged more research into the cost of energy crop production.

"In order to bring energy crops to scale on unused land, two things have to happen," Koonin said. "You have to drive the cost of production down to be competitive with fossil fuel. And second, land mandates are necessary. No one will do it if they can't make money. Once you demonstrate that it's competitive, it will take off. Miracles are already happening — you just have to make it cheaper."

Koonin formerly served as the chief scientist at BP and helped develop their long-range technology strategy for alternative and renewable energy sources.

Tom Voigt, associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences and EBI researcher, said Koonin played an instrumental role in helping biomass and energy crops research increase in the United States through his former role at BP. Koonin helped establish the EBI at the University of California Berkeley, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois.

In addition to his address on energy, attendees enjoyed a 3-day conference filled with presentations about the latest in biomass and energy crops research throughout the United States and Europe. Miscanthus and willow generated the most discussion time from both sides of the Atlantic, Voigt said.

"The Association of Applied Biologists is primarily a UK-based group," Voigt said. "They are interested in growing membership worldwide and sharing information on a much broader basis. We decided to co-host the meeting this year to help build relationships."

In addition to fostering future collaborations, Voigt said the conference provided attendees from across the world the opportunity to tour EBI's Energy Farm on the U of I campus. Tour hosts included EBI researchers Tim Mies, D.K. Lee, Gary Kling, Pat Brown, Erik Sacks and Voigt.

"I was really impressed with the Energy Farm," said Richard Weightman of ADAS in the United Kingdom. "I admire the way they have integrated the environmental monitoring with biodiversity and conservation aspects, as well as energy crop production. The Energy Farm is a fantastic and unique facility that I hope will continue for a long time."

Trevor Hocking, AAB president, said the input from EBI researchers was extremely beneficial for participants.

"We hope to organize another meeting in the United States in the foreseeable future to build on the base that we have established and to bring in other major players in applied biology and plant agriculture," Hocking said.

For more information about the EBI, visit www.energybiosciencesinstitute.org. For more information about the AAB, visit www.aab.org.uk.

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New firewood website helps buyers avoid "troubles by the truckload"

Published October 5, 2011
You see the ads in the newspaper, along roadsides and just about everywhere else at this time of year: FIREWOOD FOR SALE.

Knowing where your firewood comes from can keep you from making some costly mistakes, according to Duane Friend, a University of Illinois Extension Educator in environmental and energy stewardship. Friend is the co-author of University of Illinois Extension's new "Firewood in Illinois" website, web.extension.illinois.edu/firewood/.

"With the Emerald ash borer (EAB) showing up in more Illinois counties, it's best to buy your firewood from trusted local sources if you possibly can," Friend said. "If it's not locally sourced, or from a reputable seller, you could end up buying troubles by the truckload."

The Illinois Department of Agriculture urges that firewood be produced, distributed, sold and burned locally to prevent the spread of EAB, an insect pest that kills ash trees.

Friend offers a few additional tips for people who are in the market for firewood:

• Ask the seller where the wood came from and what kind of wood it is. Oak, hickory and ash are some of the best firewood. All woods produce the same amount of heat per pound of weight, but some woods are denser than others. The denser woods provide more heat by volume.

• Find out how long the wood has been seasoned (allowed to dry). Firewood should be seasoned for six to nine months prior to burning to remove moisture that sacrifices energy and produces smoke. Small cracks in the ends of the wood pieces are a sign that the wood has been seasoned.

• Be sure the length of the wood pieces will fit your fireplace or stove.

• Check the diameter of the logs. Splitting larger-diameter pieces may be necessary, and many homeowners do not have the tools they would need to split larger pieces of wood.

• When storing firewood, keep the pile covered and off the ground and avoid direct contact with buildings. Friend noted that it is easier to start a fire with some types of wood than others, and some woods produce more sparks than others. For example, Osage orange wood creates many sparks as it burns, so it may not be the best choice for use in a home fireplace. The website includes a chart that shows which woods ignite more readily and which ones tend to produce a lot of sparks.

It is not always easy for people to tell how much wood they are actually buying or selling, said Dave Shiley, local food systems and small farms educator with U of I Extension. Shiley co-authored the website with Friend. Most firewood is sold by the cord, but Shiley says few people know exactly what that means. A standard cord contains 128 cubic feet of wood, but buyers may be getting closer to 80 to 90 cubic feet due to the space between pieces.

"Both buyers and sellers sometimes use the words 'rick' or 'facecord' interchangeably with 'cord.' Sometimes we find that people who buy a rick or a facecord don't actually get a full cord of wood."

Some buyers — and even some sellers — find it difficult to visualize how much wood is in a cord. Shiley said the website includes information that firewood sellers will find useful, too.

A standard-size pickup truck with wood randomly thrown into the top of the bed will equal about one-third of a cord, Shiley said. If the wood is neatly stacked, the amount of wood will be closer to half of a cord. Buyers can determine the volume by multiplying the wood pile's length by width by height.

"But that only gives you an accurate measure if the wood is neatly stacked without a lot of excess space between pieces," Shiley said. "That doesn't necessarily mean people should avoid buying a truckload of locally sourced wood that isn't neatly stacked. They just need to understand what they're buying."

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Cash rent with bonus leasing arrangement

Published October 5, 2011
When signing a cash rent lease, landlords who are willing to accept more risk may be rewarded when resulting crop revenues are higher than expected, according to a new cash rent with bonus arrangement.

University of Illinois agricultural economist Gary Schnitkey explained that it is a type of variable cash rent in which a minimum base cash rent is established. There can be a bonus or a higher rent if revenue exceeds a predetermined target.

"What this lease is designed to do is to provide some flexibility in these uncertain economic times," Schnitkey said. "If revenue turns out to be good in the fall, or after the lease is signed, there will be a bonus. If the lease and economic times turn out to be not so good, there won't be a bonus."

Schnitkey said the cash rent with bonus lease is regarded by Farm Service Agency (FSA) as a cash lease if the minimum cash rent is a meaningful one.

"Under a cash lease, all of the farm programs, the direct payments, and any counter-cyclical or ACRE payments flow to the farmer, which is what most people want so that the landlord doesn't have to deal with that," he said.

Details including examples and spreadsheets are available online at farmdoc.illinois.edu.

In an example on the website, the base is $200 cash rent. A bonus can be added based on the crop revenue above a target. Visitors to the website can set a minimum cash rent as well as a maximum cash rent.

"You have to set different trigger revenues for different crops because corn typically has more revenue than soybeans," Schnitkey said. "So let's say we're going to share revenue above $720 per acre. You have to determine how much of that the landlord gets. If revenue turns out to be $1,020 per acre with a $300 overage, we have to decide whether 30 percent or 40 percent of that overage goes to the landlord."

The difficult part of the equation is deciding what percentage will go to the landlord.

"What we would suggest is that the lower the base cash rent is, the higher the percentage because in that case the landlord is taking more of the risk," Schnitkey said. "We typically see percent shares in the 35 to 40 percent range for corn."

Schnitkey said the base cash rent is usually calculated below the going cash rent in the area, with the share of the bonus above that.

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Pork outlook brightens

Published October 3, 2011
Finally pork producers have some positive news that has increased optimism for greater profitability in the coming year, said a Purdue University agricultural economist.

"That good news came from USDA in two forms. The first was the September Hogs and Pigs report which indicated little change in the size of the breeding herd. The second was the feed-price lowering impacts of higher-than-expected corn inventories revealed in the September Grain Stocks report," said Chris Hurt.

The combination of stronger hog prices and lower feed prices has put the pork outlook back into solid black for the coming year, he said.

Pork producers have largely settled for the status quo because of the uncertainty over feed prices. As a result, USDA says the breeding herd has expanded only slightly as producers awaited the corn and soybean yield and price outcomes of the troubled 2011 growing season, he said.

"USDA indicated that the breeding herd has increased just 0.6 percent over the past year. The expansion is occurring in the traditional hog production states of the Midwest. The breeding herd was up 4 percent in Missouri and 3 percent each in Ohio, Indiana, and Nebraska. Iowa's herd was up 1 percent," Hurt said.

While the breeding herd only increased fractionally, pork production will be up by a larger percentage due to the surging sow productivity. This summer, the number of pigs per litter set a new quarterly record at a bit over 10 pigs. This establishes the possibility that the yearly average will be at 10 pigs or higher for the first time, he said.

"In contrast, the weaning rate was at just nine pigs per litter in 2005. This represents an annual productivity growth of about 2 percent," he added.

Pork production for the coming year will be up 2 to 3 percent. This will be led by the higher sow productivity and by somewhat higher market weights with lower feed prices, Hurt noted.

"While pork production will be higher in the next 12 months, hog prices are expected to be higher, led by strong demand. The stronger demand will come from very low levels of beef available in the domestic market and from continued growth in pork exports," he said.

In the last 12 months, live hog prices averaged about $62 per hundred pounds with a forecast of $66 for the next 12-month period. Feed costs are expected to be lower over these two periods as well, with lower corn and soybean meal prices. Total feed costs are forecast to be about $1.75 per hundred lower in the coming 12 months, he said.

"The pork profit outlook has improved sharply in recent weeks," he added. "Producers had been targeting $7.00 cash corn prices as the profit fulcrum. Corn prices above $7.00 would throw many into losses, and prices below $7.00 could mean profits. U.S. corn prices are expected to average about $5.75 per bushel over the next 12 months, according to cash price forecasts from corn futures markets on Oct. 3," he said.

Of course, these corn prices are well below the $7.00 fulcrum and turn the profit outlook positive. In the past 12 months, estimated profits were about $5 per head. In the next 12 months, that turns to expected profits above $20 per head, which would be the highest estimated returns since 2006 when corn prices were still low, he noted.

"Given the profit outlook, will producers shift their thoughts toward expansion? The answer is that their thoughts may be moving in that direction but not their actions," he said.

The reason is because uncertainties remain so large. Those uncertainties include concerns about world economic growth and the impacts on pork demand as well as feed prices. When corn prices can change 40 cents in one day, pork producers know the profit outlook can be altered quickly, as was just witnessed in the month of September, he said.

If the current profit outlook holds over the next six months, then further expansion can be expected by the March or June reports in 2012, he noted.

According to Hurt, prospects for a return to normal yields in 2012 provide the likelihood for further moderation in corn prices in the fall of 2012. This would also be considered as a positive prospect that would encourage further expansion by mid- and late 2012.

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