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Herbicide Resistant Grape Could Revitalize Midwest Wine Industry

Published October 14, 2008
URBANA - An herbicide that is effective at killing broadleaf weeds, but also annihilated most of the grapes in Illinois and other Midwestern states, may finally have a worthy contender.

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a new grape called Improved Chancellor which is resistant to the popular herbicide 2, 4-D.

"In 1946, 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic or 2, 4-D was introduced. It was a wonder herbicide," said Robert Skirvin, plant biologist in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. "It works really well in corn and wheat and grass crops because it kills the broadleaves, so the grasses are resistant to it, but grapes are incredibly sensitive to it."

Skirvin said that 1/100th of the amount of 2, 4-D commonly used on corn to kill broadleaves, will kill grapes. Today, more than 50 years after it was introduced, it's still the third most widely used herbicide in the United States.

The discovery of the gene that makes Improved Chancellor resistant to 2, 4-D came about by accident. "The USDA found a soil bacterium that had a gene that breaks down 2, 4-D. Someone noticed that after spilling 2, 4-D on the ground, something in the soil broke it up — metabolized it. They were looking for something to control pollution and discovered this soil bacterium instead," said Robert Skirvin, plant biologist in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Skirvin received permission to use the bacterial gene and began in 2002 to transfer it to a grape that would ultimately be resistant to 2, 4-D. He and his graduate student Richard Mulwa followed standard genetic engineering techniques in order to transfer the gene to grape cells.

"Selecting the transformed cells is the most delicate stage of the process because out of hundreds of thousands of cells, there may be only 25 cells that actually contain the gene," said Skirvin.

He explained that in order to locate the cells that have the gene, another gene that's an antibiotic to Kanamycin is inserted as a marker. The cells are then placed onto a medium that's very high in Kanamycin. All of the normal cells die. The only ones that will live are the ones with the antibiotic marker — which are also the cells that contain the 2, 4-D resistant gene.

Stephen Farrand, a U of I microbiologist, assisted in all aspects of the gene transfer and Margaret Norton oversaw all of the tissue culture operation.

"Then we have to take the cells and regenerate them into plants. We use a tissue culture media and start the cells growing. After about two years in the lab, we had tiny seed-like shoots that developed from the transgenic grape cells. These were grown until they were big enough to be transferred to a limited access greenhouse where they were allowed to mature and produce fruit."

From these experiments, eight Chancellor plants were obtained; it was determined through DNA testing that only three of them had the herbicide resistant gene. Cuttings were taken of those three and planted. The plants were then sprayed with 2, 4-D. Each of the three Chancellor plants was tested at the equivalent amount of .5 kilograms per hectare of 2, 4-D, 5 kilograms per hectare and 10 kilograms per hectare, along with one of the original Chancellor plants as a control.

"It was quite an accomplishment to get the gene into the plant," said Skirvin. "This grape could help salvage the wine and grape industry in the Midwest." If all goes well, Skirvin hopes that in about five years they'll be able to work with a grape grower to produce wine using their new patented cultivar that they have named 'Improved Chancellor.'

Because the new grape is genetically modified it hasn't been tested outside of the greenhouse yet. Skirvin hopes to get permission to grow them in an isolation plot outdoors by spring 2009.

"We have to do tests to make sure that there aren't any poisonous compounds that would get into the grape or the wine. We'll test the grapes and after spraying with 2, 4-D check the break down products to find out where the 2, 4-D goes and what happens to the 2, 4-D after it enters the plant. The Improved Chancellor is resistant to 2, 4-D, but the herbicide must be going somewhere, so we need to make sure there are no harmful compounds in the fruit.

"After the grapes have been tested and found safe to eat, I think it's going to be beneficial to Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois and other Midwestern states -- anywhere grain is grown and 2, 4-D is sprayed on the crops," said Skirvin.

"A grape resistant to 2, 4-D would be a huge plus to our industry," said Kansas grower Rebecca Storey. "As a vineyard and winery owner we have suffered losses from this chemical that runs in the tens of thousands of dollars -- not to mention the time and effort to identify the sprayer and prove the damage in a court of law. This grape would be a gift to our industry."

The research for this project has been funded internally by the University of Illinois and holds the patent for Improved Chancellor. Skirvin is looking for outside funding sources to take it the research to the next level.


Keeping Your Geriatric Cat Healthy

Published October 13, 2008
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 Mandy Barth,

Cats, like their human counterparts, are prone to the aches, pains, and health issues that seem to come hand in hand with advancing age. Unfortunately, as the average lifespan of our cats increases so does the chance that owners will see age-related issues arise in their senior cats.

As your cat begins to age your veterinarian will likely start to recommend doing some tests to make sure your cat's internal organs are functioning as they should. Cats have evolved to hide signs that they are feeling under the weather and these tests can let your veterinarian know that something is wrong with your cat long before your cat displays outward signs of illness.

"I recommend that owners have yearly blood work done on their pets if the animal is healthy, and increase that frequency if any clinical signs present themselves or if abnormalities are seen in the blood work," says Dr. Julie Byron, a small animal internist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

According to Dr. Byron, geriatric cat owners should also increase their awareness of how their cat is acting and feeling. It is important to be able to recognize what is normal for your cat so that when there is a change you can recognize it. She explains that a trip to the veterinarian is warranted if your cat is displaying any of the following signs or symptoms:

  • Increased or decreased water intake and urination
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased appetite
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Failure to groom
  • Appearance of a growth or mass
  • Any changes in activity level or normal daily habits

Two of the most important tools that a veterinarian uses to start narrowing down the list of possible problems are an accurate history from the owner and a thorough physical exam. Bringing your pet in to the veterinarian is only the first step; it is important to share with your veterinarian any changes and symptoms your cat is displaying.

There are certain conditions that are more common in our elderly cats including renal (kidney) disease, gastrointestinal diseases, arthritis, hyperthyroidism, and neoplasia. With these conditions come certain signs and symptoms that, when seen by the owner or veterinarian, can lead to a quick diagnosis of the problem.

Renal disease is a common issue with senior cats. Subtle changes in your cat's kidney function can be picked up on the recommended yearly blood work before any outward symptoms have presented themselves. Since kidney problems often cause symptoms like increased water consumption and increased urination, if blood work is not done or if the problem develops rapidly before it can be caught on a routine blood panel, owners may notice they need to fill the water bowl more frequently or that the litter box needs to be emptied more often.

"Owners should understand that while kidney disease is usually a degenerative disease it is not necessarily a death sentence for the pet," advises Dr. Byron. "There are medications and treatments on the market that can greatly increase the cat's quality of life and delay the progression of the disease."

An overactive thyroid gland, or hyperthyroidism, is another common problem in the aging cat population. If your cat has an overactive thyroid you may notice that your cat is losing weight, even though the animal's appetite may have increased dramatically, or that your cat's sleep-wake cycle has changed. Hyperthyroidism in cats is both easy to diagnose and treat. Unfortunately, if the disease is left untreated or undiagnosed it can lead to cardiac disease, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, blindness, and even death.

The one disease that every cat owner dreads hearing about is neoplasia. Unfortunately, it is a common problem in geriatric cats and is also one that can be incredibly difficult for your veterinarian to diagnose. According to Dr. Byron it is the ability of cancer to mimic other diseases and include multiple organ systems that makes it so difficult to pinpoint on a diagnostic work-up. In order to diagnose neoplasia your veterinarian may ask for extensive diagnostic testing, which is necessary in order to rule out and narrow down the list of possible differentials your pet's symptoms and signs may point to.

While the necessary diagnostic tests can be expensive, if you are interested in pursuing further treatment for your pet these tests are essential. Your animal's prognosis and treatment strategy will vary greatly based on the results of these tests and whether a final diagnosis can be made.

Another common disease in aging pets is arthritis. According to Dr. Byron arthritis in cats is under diagnosed due to their ability to hide any signs of pain or discomfort. Signs of arthritis in cats can manifest in a variety of ways including decreases in activity level or ability/desire to jump, limping, weakness, and decrease in appetite. If you notice any of these signs do not medicate your pet with human over-the-counter drugs as these can be very hard for your cat to metabolize and actually may damage their internal organs. There are newer veterinary medications that can be used safely in cats as a long term arthritis treatment that your veterinarian can prescribe.

"Above all, owners need to understand that age itself is not a disease," explains Dr. Julie Byron "It just means that your pet has an increased likelihood of experiencing certain problems and illnesses. As veterinarians we work to combat these problems and ensure that your pet has the best quality of life possible."

For more information on issues that geriatric cats may encounter 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 Mandy Barth,

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

Weekly Outlook: Corn and Soybean Prices

Published October 13, 2008

URBANA - With the supply side of the corn and soybean price equation becoming more settled, price direction will now come primarily from the demand side, where there are some positive developments, said a University of Illinois Extension marketing specialist.

"Export sales for the week ended October 2 were relatively large and well above the weekly pace needed to reach the USDA projections for the year," said Darrel Good. "Feed prices are now low enough that livestock feeding margins are generally profitable, ethanol production margins exceed operating costs, and low prices will not encourage a large supply response in the southern hemisphere.

"It appears that value now exceeds the price of corn and soybeans. For those prices to stabilize and/or rebound, confidence in the financial markets will have to be demonstrated."

Good's comments came as he reviewed corn and soybean prices which have been pummeled by negative fundamental news since early September. In addition to larger production forecasts, corn and soybean prices have continued to be pressured by declining stock prices and energy prices that threaten demand prospects.

"In late June, we were asking if the highs were near, now the question is whether the lows are near," he observed.

The latest round of negative information was provided by the USDA's October Crop Production report. For soybeans, that report contained a 2008 production forecast of 2.983 billion bushels, 49 million larger than the September forecast and 63 million larger than the average pre-report guess.

"Despite a three bushel increase in the forecast of the Illinois average yield, the forecast of the U.S. average yield, at 39.5 bushels, was 0.5 bushels below the September forecast," he said. "That forecast is 2.2 bushels below the 2007 average and would be the lowest average yield in five years.

"The larger crop forecast was the result of a larger acreage estimate. At 76.983 million, planted acreage is 2.2 million above the previous estimate. The harvested acreage forecast of 75.479 is 2.138 million above the September forecast."

In the USDA's revised supply and demand projections, the larger crop forecast was partially offset with a 36 million bushel increase in projected use during the current marketing year. Year ending stocks are now projected at 220 million bushels. Based on current projections, an increase in U.S. soybean acreage will not be required in 2009. If the 2009 yield is near 42.5 bushels, harvested acreage at this year's level would result in a crop of 3.208 billion bushels.

"If year ending stocks can be reduced to about 125 million bushels, then 3.31 billion bushels would be available for consumption during the 2009-10 marketing year," said Good. "That would be 335 million above projected use for the current year and 237 million above the record consumption of 2006-07. If the 2009 South American crop lives up to current expectations, world supplies would likely be sufficient with a two to three million acre reduction in U.S. acreage in 2009."

For corn, the 2008 U.S. crop is now projected at 12.2 billion bushels, 128 million bushels larger than the September forecast. Planted acreage of corn is now estimated at 86.909, 68,000 less than the previous estimate, while area harvested for grain is estimated at 79,197 million acres, 93,000 below the September forecast.

The U.S. average yield is forecast at 154 bushels, 1.7 bushels above the September forecast, reflecting higher yield prospects in the major producing states of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Yield prospects declined in Indiana, Ohio, and South Dakota.

On the consumption side of the equation, the USDA increased projected use during the current marketing year by 40 million bushels. The projection of feed use was increased by 150 million bushels and the forecast of processing uses of corn was reduced by 110 million.

"Most of that reduction, 100 million bushels, was in the ethanol category," he said. "Year-ending stocks are projected at 1.154 billion bushels, 136 million above the September forecast. The projected level of year ending stocks is relatively small and would force a reduction in use during the 2009-10 marketing year unless production is increased in 2009."

With a 2009 yield near trend value of about 153 bushels, it appears that corn acreage needs to expand by 3 to 4 million acres in 2009.

"Most of that can come from a reduction in soybean acreage," he said. "In addition, reduced acreage of soft red winter wheat may free some acreage for corn planting in 2009.

"The major implication, then, of the October corn and soybean production forecasts is that there may not need to be much of an acreage battle in 2009. However, corn prices will have to be high enough in relation to soybean prices to motivate a modest acreage shift."

Fall-Related Extension Websites

Published October 10, 2008

URBANA - Nothing says "fall" more than pumpkins and turning leaves. University of Illinois Extension has websites that can help enhance the autumn experience for individuals and families.

"At our website, 'Pumpkins & More' ( there is just about everything you'd want to know about the vegetable," said Jane Scherer, U of I Extension urban programs specialist and director of websites. "Pumpkin varieties, nutrition information,recipes, and the locations of pumpkin farms can all be found.

"The site also can also help you grow pumpkins on your own. And if you want to check out pumpkin festivals, the website can direct you to the closest ones."

Along the way to the pumpkin festival, you might want to take in some fall color. But first, visit "The Miracle of Fall" (

"One interesting feature on the website is a live foliage cam that provides view of what the popular fall color sites are displaying," said Scherer.

Young people can also learn why the leaves change color in the fall and the family can check out good driving and hiking routes to view the turning leaves.

And there is also information on fall festivals and events.

If you want to plant a seed for spring between enjoying pumpkins and the turning leaves, fall is a good time to plant a tree. "Selecting Trees for Your Home" ( has everything you need to know to make the right tree choice.

"This site will help you make knowledgeable decisions when selecting a tree for your landscape," said Scherer. "If you already know the name of a tree you are considering and need more information, type the name in on the "Search Trees" page and additional information, and a photo will appear."

If you don't know any tree names, the "Search Trees" page allows you to specify items such as size and special needs (i.e. a tree that tolerates a dry site or one that will grow in alkaline soil). After you have chosen all the criteria that you want your tree to meet, click on the submit button and a list of trees meeting those criteria will be displayed.

"You can also search by size, light exposure, use, and tolerance of various conditions," she explained. "For instance if you know you need a small tree because you have limited space, click on the tab for 'Trees by Size' then click on 'Small Trees.' This will provide a list of smaller trees. Then click on the name of a particular tree and learn more about it."


Grain Drying, Storage Costs Up

Published October 9, 2008

URBANA - Corn producers face a double-whammy this harvest season, said a University of Illinois Extension farm financial management specialist.

"Commercial drying and storage charges for grain will be higher in 2008 than in recent years," said Gary Schnitkey. "Moreover, corn will likely be harvested at higher moisture levels, further increasing drying costs this season."

Schnitkey's full report, "Drying and Storage Costs in 2008: Comparing Alternatives with the Grain Delivery Model" ( is available on U of I Extension's farmdoc website.

For corn, Schnitkey believes commercial drying costs could approach 50 cents per bushel for corn harvested at 25 percent moisture. Drying costs for 20 percent moisture corn will range from 15 to 25 cents per bushel. Commercial costs for storing corn for January sale can range from 15 to 30 cents per bushel.

"As usual, each elevator uses different factors, storage moisture levels, drying charges, and storage charges, thereby causing net revenues farmers receive for grain to vary across elevators," he said. "Given higher costs, differences across elevators could widen this year relative to previous years."

To help producers, a FAST Microsoft Excel spreadsheet called Grain Delivery Model has been developed.

"It compares net revenues across delivery points," he explained. "This program is demonstrated for three elevators typical of charges in central Illinois. Also, storage economics given higher costs are discussed."

For producers, Schnitkey said it is important to note that increased costs for storage in 2008 mean that it will take higher commodity prices to warrant storage.

"While it is possible that grain may increase by these amounts, current futures prices and forward bids do not indicate price increases of the magnitude needed to cover storage costs," he said. "This presents a dilemma. Current prices are low in the $3.70 range for corn. Price may increase after some settling of concerns about the economy. At this point, it is too early to say.

"Storing grain while speculating on price increases has become more costly this year."


Dairy Carbon Footprint Dropping

Published October 9, 2008
URBANA - Improved efficiency in the production of milk has resulted in a huge reduction in the dairy industry's carbon footprint, making it very "green," said a University of Illinois Extension dairy specialist.

"Using 1944 as the base year of comparison--and also the year of the largest number of dairy cows in the United States, the number of dairy cows has dropped from 25.6 million to 9.2 million cows while milk production has increased from 117 billion pounds to 186 billion pounds," said Mike Hutjens.

"Using pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of milk as the carbon footprint value, the dairy industry's footprint has dropped from 31 pounds in 1944 to 12 pounds per gallon in 2007."

Dairy cattle's environmental impact continues in the news as global warming concerns are raised due to methane production and carbon dioxide relationships involved in the industry, he said.

"Dairy cows produce methane when digesting feed in the rumen. Methane has 25 times the impact of carbon dioxide," he said. "While a wide range of claims have been made, 6 percent of the total carbon footprint is from agriculture with dairy responsible for 11 percent of the total 6 percent, or 0.7 percent of the total."

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Science published a paper that addressed the improvement of milk production efficiency and the impact of organic dairy production compared to conventional production.

"The paper showed that if one million of the total nine million U.S. dairy cows produced 10 pounds more milk per day due to the adoption of technology, a number of positive impacts could be expected," said Hutjens.

"It would reduce by 157,000 the number of cows needed to produce the same level of milk. It would reduce by 219,000 hectares the land needed for feed production. It would reduce the emission of methane by 41 million kilograms annually. And it would reduce manure excretion by 2.8 million tons each year."

Switching to organic milk production would require 25 percent more cows than now used, 30 percent more land for feed production, 39 percent more nitrogen excretion, and a 13 percent increase in global warming potential.

What does this mean to consumers?

"For consumers, it means a careful analysis is required to determine if carbon footprint and global warming applications are more important than denying technology applications, especially when that technology does not change nutrient content of food or impact animal health," he said.

"For dairy managers, increasing milk production efficiency will reduce carbon footprint, improve nitrogen efficiency, and reduce global warming. Dairy managers who do this are increasingly more 'green.'"

The bottom line, Hutjens said, is that when it comes to the environment, using fewer resources to produce more food will improve the carbon footprint.


Grant Conference Set

Published October 8, 2008

URBANA - Grant writing doesn't have to be overwhelming for non-profits or local governments, said a University of Illinois Extension community and economic development educator.

"The Illinois ResourceNet (IRN) is holding a conference that focuses on connecting Illinois communities to federal grant opportunities through partnerships," said Terry Feinberg.

The conference will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Northfield Inn and Suites Hotel in Springfield. Registration is $25 and can be completed ( online. Registration is limited.

"Some of the breakout sessions will include topics such as housing, workforce development, disaster mitigation, and economic development," she said.

Illinois ResourceNet is a partnership between the University of Illinois-Chicago Great Cities Institute/Neighborhoods Initiative and U of I Extension.


U.S. Dairy Supply Safe

Published October 8, 2008

URBANA - Problems such as those experienced with China's milk supplies are not likely to occur in the United States, said a University of Illinois Extension dairy specialist.

"China is back in the news with the recall of milk products due to the addition of melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics and fertilizer production," said Mike Hutjens. "This contamination of milk has led to a crisis in China leading to the death of babies, 340 children hospitalized with kidney disorders, and 54,000 infants exposed to the dangerous compound."

Milk has been pulled from stores and formal apologies extended by the Chinese government and the firm responsible.

"The take-home message for U.S. consumers is that the U.S. dairy supply is safe due to the constant testing and regulation for food safety," he said. "No antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides, or other chemicals can be added to U.S. milk. And all milk is monitored, regardless of type--organic, natural, and conventional."

Melamine, the additive that caused problems in China's milk, contains nitrogen which increases the protein content in milk when tested. By adding this compound, milk appears to have a higher protein content and nutrient value. The addition was an attempt by some Chinese dairy operations to artificially provide their product with a higher nutrient level.

Because Chinese milk products can be found in numerous food products sold in the world, including the United States, such as candies, cakes, and baked goods, these products have been recalled, he noted.

"U.S. dairy managers know the importance of guarding milk quality and following safe practices when feeding and managing dairy cows," Hutjens said.

"Consumers should continue to monitor where their food sources are coming from as these problems continue to occur in the food chain, including products such as vegetables, spinach, and lettuce."


Weekly Outlook: Crop Demand

Published October 6, 2008

URBANA - There is substantial concern about the implications of the current meltdown in U.S. credit markets on the potential for economic growth in the United States and the rest of the world, said a University of Illinois Extension marketing specialist.

"That concern is reinforced by the sharp decline in stock prices and underlying economic indicators such as unemployment rates and housing starts," said Darrel Good. "Prospects of an economic slowdown threaten the robust domestic and export demand for U.S. agricultural commodities enjoyed over the past two years.

"A widespread economic slowdown could result in weaker demand for meat and for livestock feed. In addition, an economic slowdown might contribute to a weaker demand for crude oil and further declines in the prices of unleaded gasoline. Lower gasoline prices imply lower ethanol prices which imply lower breakeven corn prices for ethanol producers."

Good's comments came as he reviewed corn and soybean prices, which have dropped sharply over the past two weeks, continuing the slide from the early summer peaks. The decline in December 2008 corn futures now exceeds $3.60 and the drop in November 2008 soybean futures is nearly $7.

"Some of the recent decline reflects the larger supplies revealed in the USDA's September Grain Stocks report," he said. "That report revealed Sept. 1 inventories of soybeans of 205 million bushels. That is about 55 million more than expected after the release of the Census Bureau estimate showing August 2008 crush about 15 million bushels lower than expected."

The year-ending inventory resulted in a 91 million bushels increase in the estimated size of the 2007 crop. The increase reflected more acres and higher yields than earlier estimated. It has been clear since January 2008 that the size of the crop had been underestimated as "residual" use of soybeans revealed in the quarterly stock estimates has been extremely small, he noted.

"It was generally believed that the crop estimate would be increased enough to bring residual use up to a normal level," he said. "The large year-ending stocks were a definite surprise."

Sept. 1 inventories of corn were estimated at 1.624 billion bushels, 48 million bushels larger than projected in USDA's September supply and demand report. Summer corn feeding may have been less than expected due to feeding of low-priced wheat.

In addition to larger year-ending stocks, larger corn and soybean production estimates by some private forecasters and an accelerating pace of harvest have added supply-side pressures to prices. The USDA will release new production forecasts on Oct. 10.

"While supply issues are at play, much of the recent decline in prices reflects concerns about the current and future demand for corn and soybeans," said Good. "The current pace of exports and export sales of corn, for example, is especially slow.

"The USDA projects a 17.5 percent year-over-year decline in exports, but current export commitments are 37 percent less than those of a year ago. The pace of soybean export commitments exceeds that of a year ago by 4 percent, even though USDA projects a 13.4 percent decline for the year. The pace of new sales, however, has declined relative to that of a year ago every week since the middle of August. The smaller-than-expected domestic soybean crush in August also suggests that demand for soybean meal is softening."

Even with the legitimate concerns about demand, prices may well get overdone on the low side as traders adjust to the new developments. Just as prices went to a level that could not be sustained with fears of crop loss this spring and summer, prices may now go too low, Good noted.

"The problem, of course, is that the extent and magnitude of any economic slowdown and demand weakness for agricultural commodities is not known," he said. "The overreaction of prices to the high side this spring was confirmed when weather patterns changed and the extent of crop losses became clearer. That happened in a relatively short period of time.

"The U.S. and world economic situation may take much longer to sort out."

Current corn and soybean prices project to very tight margins for producers for the 2009 crop, particularly for those with high land costs.

"Prices are not likely high enough to generate any increase in acreage in 2009, but if demand weakens sufficiently, an increase may not be needed," said Good. "For the 2008 crop, the lower prices now being experienced may be partially offset by insurance payments, particularly for soybeans, for those who have revenue insurance products.

"For those who decide to hold inventory in anticipation of an eventual price recovery, the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) loan program can be a source of some cash flow."


Straight to the Horse's Mouth

Published October 6, 2008
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 Mandy Barth,

Although equine dentists cannot have their patients lie down in a reclining chair for easy access to those hard to reach molars, the field has progressed greatly in the past 20 years. It is now possible to perform a root canal or a tooth extraction on a horse, just as in humans.

In 1988, the American Veterinary Dental College was formed, allowing veterinarians who have already completed their degree to train further to become a board certified veterinary dentist. Dr. Carol Akers is a dentistry resident at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana. She explains that in contrast to human teeth :the majority of a horse's 40 or so teeth are hypsodont, meaning they erupt throughout most of the horse's life, or up until age 30 or 35."

Because of this and the fact that horses do more grinding with their teeth than cats and dogs, it is imperative they receive routine dental care. In addition, horse teeth do not neatly line up as do human teeth. Their maxilla, or upper part of their skull, is wider than their mandible. This anatomical arrangement causes horses to form razor sharp points on some of their teeth that can lead to significant problems such as ulcers on their tongue and inside cheek.

Dr. Akers mentions that signs owners might see indicating a horse may have a dental problem are:

  • Large fibers and whole pieces of grain in the horse's manure
  • Weight loss
  • Reaction to the bit
  • Tilting of the head while eating
  • Quidding (dropping large clumps of food on the ground while eating)

Unlike in the wild, today's horses spend less time grinding very fibrous substances because many are fed pelleted feeds and softer roughages such as hay," explains Dr. Akers. This makes horses much more prone to dental overgrowths and developing points.

A point refers to the common problem of sharp edges developing on the cheek side of upper molars and the tongue side of lower molars because horses chew side to side and not up and down as humans do. To correct this problem, horses need to have their teeth "floated." To float a horse means to take a rasp, much like a nail file, to shave off some of the overgrown tooth.

"Every horse should receive a thorough dental exam annually," mentions Dr. Akers. "It is necessary that the veterinarian sedate the horse and use a full mouth speculum to examine and palpate each and every tooth in the horse's mouth."

She goes on to explain that without a speculum, which is the metal device used to keep a horse's mouth open during a dental exam, a bright light, and sedation, it is impossible to do a complete and safe dental exam.

But Dr. Akers has one word of caution regarding the newer electric rasps that some people use to float horses: they can do more harm than good. Because the tools are electric, it is quite easy for a novice to overfloat and take off more tooth than necessary.

"We have seen horses with rotting teeth come in because whoever floated their teeth ten years ago with an electric rasp filed away too much of the tooth and exposed the pulp," says Dr. Akers.

To prevent your horse from developing painful dental conditions have your veterinarian do a thorough oral exam every year.

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 Mandy Barth,

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