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Make nutrition labels work for you

Published March 15, 2017
Dr. McCaffrey, Dr. Arthur, and Dr. Ellison (left to right) share their knowledge about nutrition labels

URBANA, Ill. – Whether you are trying to lose weight, reduce sodium, or increase your vitamin D intake, you are probably accustomed to studying the nutrition facts labels on the foods you buy. Soon, however, the label will have a new look, as mandated by the Food and Drug Administration. Three nutrition experts from the University of Illinois gathered recently to discuss the changes.

“Many of the changes with the new nutrition facts panel are driven by aesthetics and design,” says assistant professor of agricultural and consumer economics Brenna Ellison. She explains that larger and bolder fonts will be used to place greater emphasis on number of calories per serving and servings per container.

Another big change will be the way that serving sizes are calculated. “In the past, serving sizes were much smaller than what a person would normally eat,” Ellison notes. For example, there are actually four servings in that tiny pint of ice cream in your freezer, according to current labeling standards. Anna Arthur, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, says the new label will reflect more realistic serving sizes.

The new label will also specify the amount of added sugar, whereas current labels lump naturally occurring sugars together with added sugars. “Ice cream contains natural sugar called lactose. In addition, there will be added sugars to enhance the flavor,” Arthur says. 

The discussion was captured in a podcast and a Twitter chat, as part of the #askACES series hosted once a month by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I. During the chat, participants asked the experts a wide range of questions about the new label, and about nutrition labeling in general.

Jennifer McCaffrey, assistant dean of family and consumer science for U of I Extension, fielded a question about teaching kids to pay attention to food labels. McCaffrey suggested getting kids to compare similar products side by side, such as flavored versus unflavored milk.

New labels will roll out by July, 2018, so there is plenty of time to do your research on the new design. For starters, listen to the podcast at and search #askACES on Twitter.

What makes farmers try new practices?

Published March 14, 2017
Perennial grasses can be a source of biofuel
  • A new study from the University of Illinois surveyed farmers to uncover the factors that influence adoption of new types of cropping systems.
  • Farmers were more likely to adopt multifunctional perennial cropping systems if they were young, educated, and interested in improving soil and water quality.

URBANA, Ill. – Change is never easy. But when it comes to adopting new agricultural practices, some farmers are easier to convince than others.

A group of researchers at the University of Illinois wanted to know which farmers are most likely to adopt multifunctional perennial cropping systems—trees, shrubs, or grasses that simultaneously benefit the environment and generate high-value products that can be harvested for a profit.

“We surveyed farmers in the Upper Sangamon River Watershed in Illinois to learn their attitudes about growing MPCs on marginal land. We then looked at their demographic data to classify people into different categories related to their adoption potential,” says University of Illinois agroecologist Sarah Taylor Lovell.

Using statistical clustering techniques, the team discovered that survey respondents fell into six categories. The “educated networkers” and “young innovators” were most likely to adopt MPCs. On the other end of the spectrum, survey respondents classified as “money motivated” and “hands-off” were least likely to adopt the new cropping systems.     

The goal of categorizing farmers was to tailor strategies for each group, given their general attitudes. “If they’re very unlikely to adopt at all, we probably wouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about those groups,” Lovell explains.

However, Lovell thinks some low-likelihood adopters could be swayed. “One of the groups—the one we called “money motivated”—was really connected with GPS in their yield monitoring, so we thought we could target that. We could review high-resolution maps of their farms to point out the areas that are unproductive for corn and soybeans. We’d try to make the case that alternative perennial systems could bring in profits,” Lovell says.

High-likelihood adopters were motivated by environmental concerns, and were especially interested in converting marginal land to bioenergy crop, hay, or nut production systems. “Farmers were probably most familiar with bioenergy grasses and hay,” Lovell explains. But it was important to them that an existing market was in place for MPCs products.

Another major factor was land tenancy. Considering that most MPC crops don’t mature for years after planting, rental contracts would need to account for the long-term investment.

“The person leasing the land might be really interested in agroforestry or perennial cropping systems,” Lovell says. “The lease arrangement has to be long enough that the farmer will get back their investment in that period. For example, some of the nut crops take a long time to mature. But if you integrate some of the fruit shrubs, they’ll become productive in maybe 3-4 years. You could get an earlier return on investment in those cases.”

Lovell’s graduate students—housed in the crop sciences department at U of I—are now following up with several of the farmers who were interested in MPCs and offering custom designs to establish the new cropping systems on their land.

“That was part of the overall goal for this study. We wondered if the barrier to adoption is a lack of information about design options and the economic potential,” Lovell says. “If we overcome that barrier by developing good planting plans, projecting the market economics, and providing them with that information, will that help them implement the change?”

Stay tuned.

The article, “Identifying barriers and motivators for adoption of multifunctional perennial cropping systems by landowners in the Upper Sangamon River Watershed, Illinois,” is published in Agroforestry Systems. Lead author Chloe Mattia and co-author Adam Davis are also in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I. Funding was provided by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Supplemental fat not necessary when canola meal is fed to weanling pigs

Published March 13, 2017
  • When using canola meal in place of soybean meal in diets fed to weanling pigs, it is not necessary to add supplemental fat to avoid reduced growth performance.
  • Inclusion of up to 30 percent conventional or high protein canola meal did not affect growth performance in weanling pigs compared with a corn-soybean meal diet.
  • Inclusion of conventional canola meal resulted in improved growth performance compared with inclusion of high protein canola meal.

URBANA, Ill. – New research from the University of Illinois shows that adding supplemental dietary fat is not necessary to avoid reduced growth performance when replacing soybean meal with canola meal in diets fed to weanling pigs.

Canola meal contains more protein than most plant ingredients, and can be used in place of soybean meal in pig diets. High protein canola meal is produced from canola varieties that have been selectively bred to have thinner seed coats, and contains less fiber than conventional canola meal.

"Recently, it's been reported from several experiments that up to 40 percent canola meal may be used in diets fed to weanling pigs without negatively affecting growth performance," says U of I animal sciences professor Hans Stein. "However, dietary fat was used as a supplement in all of those experiments to maintain constant net energy among diets."

Stein and his team formulated four diets by adding 20 or 30 percent conventional or high protein canola meal to a corn-soybean meal basal diet. The energy content of these diets ranged from 2299 kcal/kg net energy (NE) in the 30 percent canola meal diets to 2402 kcal/kg in the 20 percent high protein canola meal diets.

Four additional diets were identical to the first four diets except that choice white grease was added, so that each diet contained 2452 kcal/kg NE.

Final body weight was not influenced by dietary energy concentration. Pigs fed diets without supplemental fat had greater average daily gain and average daily feed intake than pigs fed the diets with constant net energy. Average daily gain, average daily feed intake, gain to feed ratio, and final body weight were not influenced by concentration of canola meal in the diets.

"The results of this experiment confirmed that it is not necessary to maintain constant NE among diets containing canola meal," Stein says.

Pigs fed diets containing conventional canola meal had greater final body weight, average daily gain, and average daily feed intake than pigs fed diets containing high protein canola meal.

"The high protein canola meal used in this experiment contained 12.6 μmol/g of glucosinolates, compared with only 4.43 μmol/g in the conventional canola meal," Stein says. "Glucosinolates reduce diet palatability, so that may be why the pigs fed high protein canola meal had reduced feed intake and growth performance."

The article, "Effects of diet energy concentration and an exogenous carbohydrase on growth performance of weanling pigs fed diets containing canola meal produced from high protein or conventional canola seeds," was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Animal Science. The co-authors are Trine Pedersen and Yanhong Liu, both formerly of the University of Illinois.

News Source:

Hans Stein, 217-333-0013

News Writer:

Jennifer Roth, 217-202-5105

Large South American corn and soybean crop forecasts place pressure on prices

Published March 13, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Corn and soybean harvest future prices moved sharply lower after the release of the USDA March World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report on March 9.  December corn futures closed on March 10 at $3.87 per bushel, while November soybean futures moved down to close at $10 per bushel. According to a University of Illinois agricultural economist, both prices closed at the lowest levels since late January.

“When combining the production forecasts for South America with projected changes in domestic use, the competition in export markets looks to be particularly tough for the next few months,” says Todd Hubbs. 

World production forecasts for soybeans in the 2016-17 marketing year increased 153 million bushels on a larger Brazilian production forecast, Hubbs says. The Brazilian soybean production forecast increased by 147 million bushels over the February forecast and brings total soybean production in Brazil to 3.97 billion bushels. The USDA Brazilian forecast came in higher than the Brazilian agricultural statistics agency (CONAB) projection released earlier in the day at 3.95 billion bushels, which surprised many market observers. Argentine soybean production stayed at 2.04 billion bushels. Forecasts for South American soybean exports came in at 2.86 billion bushels over the marketing year with a 55-million-bushel increase in projected soybean exports from Brazil. The forecast for Chinese soybean imports increased approximately 36 million bushels to 3.28 billion bushels over the marketing year. While world soybean export and use forecasts increased 36 million bushels and 35 million bushels respectively, the increase in global production raised the stocks-to-use ratio to 25 percent. 

“Domestically, strong soybean crush performance led to an increase in the domestic crush forecast for the 2016-17 marketing year by 10 million bushels to 1.94 billion bushels,” Hubbs says. Forecasts of soybean exports by the United States decreased by 25 million bushels to 2.025 billion bushels for the marketing year. The increase in Brazilian production and exports raised the expectation of lessened export interest in U.S. soybeans for the remainder of the old crop year. Ending stocks forecast in the United States at 435 million bushels, up 15 million from the February forecast. The changes in domestic use and exports increased the stocks-to-use ratio to 10.6 percent.

According to Hubbs, world supply-and-demand projections for corn in the 2016-17 marketing year moved higher due to increased production numbers for Brazil and Argentina. Brazil’s forecast production increased by 197 million bushels to 3.6 billion bushels. The Argentinian production forecast increased by 39.6 million bushels to 1.48 billion bushels.

“For the marketing year, South American production forecasts came in at 5.49 billion bushels, which is a 1.25 billion bushel increase over 2015-16 production estimates,” Hubbs says. “Argentina and Brazil are forecast to export an additional 138 million bushels each above the February WASDE forecast of 2.09 billion bushels. While the South American production and export numbers provide strong downward price signals for the corn market, the outcome for the second crop in Brazil still possesses strong weather risks that could severely influence both the total corn production and exports from the region as the crop is still being planted.”

Domestic use numbers for corn saw some significant changes from the February forecast.  Feed and residual use continued to decline as the forecast placed the use number at 5.55 billion bushels, down 50 million bushels from February. The reduction in feed and residual lowers the forecast 100 million bushels since September on higher numbers of corn used for ethanol and a 10-million-bushel increase in sorghum feed and residual use.

“The continuation of solid domestic demand currently for corn use in ethanol production provided the basis for raising the ethanol corn use forecast during the 2016-17 marketing year by 50 million bushels to 5.4 billion bushels for the marketing year,” Hubbs says. “The forecast for corn exports remained at 2.225 billion bushels despite the large prospective crop in South America.” Ending stocks and total domestic use remained constant at 2.32 and 14.62 billion bushels respectively.

“In assessing the prospects for corn and soybean prices in the current marketing year, the large forecasts for South American production and the ability for the U.S. market to meet export forecasts under this competition provide key indicators for old-crop prices,” Hubbs says. “In soybean markets, the large Brazilian crop’s impact on U.S. export markets during the 2016-17 marketing year looks to weigh down prices despite strong crush performance. Although large corn crops in South America may provide the same dynamic in corn markets, Brazil’s second corn crop is still subject to weather risk and domestic use for ethanol production looks to continue its strong performance despite continued lowering of feed and residual use. The latest USDA reports place even more significance on the March 31 Prospective Planting report. The possible acreage decisions associated can confirm the strong case for lower soybean prices and provides some support for corn prices.”


The marvels of spring ephemerals

Published March 8, 2017
White trout lily

URBANA, Ill. – Spring will be arriving soon, and with the new season comes brand new foliage followed by a burst of flowers. Gardeners poking around the yard may discover plants emerging here and there.

“Some of the earliest of these plants are native spring ephemerals,” notes Nancy Kreith, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator. She says that ephemerals, or short-lived plants, are often misunderstood and refers to them as the mystery plants of the Eastern U.S. deciduous forest. That is because they seem to emerge suddenly and vanish almost as quickly as they came.

“Gardeners find themselves wondering if they did something wrong,” explains Kreith. “Many of these mysterious plants emerge, flower, set seed, and die back within two months.”

Most ephemerals begin growing in very late winter to early spring before trees develop leaves. During this time, they are able to take advantage of the moist conditions and sunlight hitting the forest floor. Once trees begin growing leaves, many ephemerals enter dormancy and remain unseen until the following spring.

Kreith cautions gardeners not to confuse ephemerals with spring flowering bulbs, such as tulips or daffodils, although they may have similar underground structures. Energy reserves are stored in their fleshy roots, corms, and tubers, and allow ephemerals to grow very quickly as warmer temperatures arrive. One major difference is that many spring ephemerals will completely die back to the ground, unlike the leaves of bulbs, which remain well into late spring and summer. That said, if environmental conditions are favorable, attractive foliage will remain on some ephemerals well into summer.

“For example, when planted in moist shaded areas, the leaves of the native fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) tend to remain into early summer,” Kreith says.It also goes the other way around: if warmer temperatures are delayed, ephemerals may remain hidden until conditions are just right, as in the case of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) and celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum).” Kreith notes that celandine poppy can be very aggressive.

The earliest of the ephemerals, emerging in February, is skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). The foul-smelling, tiny yellow flowers held on a spadix generate enough heat to melt surrounding snow and attract flies as pollinators.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is one of the most plentiful of the native ephemerals, forming dense stands from February through May. “It even tolerates mowing,” Kreith says. “The low-growing and grass-like foliage is adorned with bubblegum-pink petals with dark pink stripes.”

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), with their floppy leaves, appear in March. These plants are known for colonizing bottomland soils. The clusters of bell-shaped flowers are nearly erect over the foliage and the plant quickly dies back after blooming.

Prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), which also appears in woodlands, emerges in May and is the most versatile of the three native trilliums. “Prairie trillium has deep burgundy flowers, while leaves are distinguishable by the dappled light and dark green variations,” Kreith notes. 

Typically blooming around June, white trout lily (Erythronium albidum) has leaves that appear two to four weeks before the flower. The lily-like white flowers grow downward, hanging on a bare stalk over the two green or mottled leaves. “Amazingly, it can take trout lilies up to seven years to get their second leaves,” Kreith points out.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of spring ephemerals,” Kreith says. “Be sure to explore the many plant options before incorporating these into the garden.”

A good place to begin is Illinois Extension’s wildflower directory, found at Beyond researching the internet, Kreith encourages gardeners to take a walk in the woods, notice the first signs of spring, and be inspired to learn the varieties of these early blossoms. Remember these beautiful bloomers not only benefit people with their carpet of colors, they also serve as an important and necessary early food source as wildlife become active after a long, cold winter. 

News Source:

Nancy Kreith, 708-679-6889

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Rhubarb’s mysteries revealed

Published March 7, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – As the season warms up, many gardeners begin looking forward to their first rhubarb harvests. Although it was first cultivated in central Asia more than 2,000 years ago for its medicinal properties, rhubarb is best known today as an ingredient in our early-summer pies.

Rhubarb forms thick red, pink, or green stalks—or petioles—with large, extravagant green leaves. It grows best where plants will receive full sun in fertile, well-drained soils that have good organic matter.

“Plant rhubarb in the early spring while plants are dormant,” says University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Jennifer Fishburn. “Avoid harvesting the plants the first year, and only lightly harvest for 1 to 2 weeks during the second year. Full harvest may begin the third or fourth year depending on the plant size. At that point, you can go on to harvest for 8 to 10 weeks.”

Rhubarb’s sour, tart, tangy flavor is sometimes described as mouth-puckering. Fishburn says that most people find it necessary to sweeten rhubarb with sugar, honey, or fruit juice to minimize the tartness. Rhubarb is often combined with strawberries, especially in pies.

“The flavor depends on the cultivar,” Fishburn notes. “Reliable red-stalked cultivars include: Canada Red, Cherry Red, Crimson Red, MacDonald, Ruby, and Valentine. Victoria is a reliable green-stalked cultivar. Generally, the deeper red the stalk, the more flavorful. Medium-size stalks are generally more tender than large ones.”

Fishburn says to harvest 10- to 15-inch stalks by snapping them, rather than cutting them off. “Grab a stalk down where it emerges from the ground, and pull up and slightly to one side. Harvest only one-third of the stalks from a plant at one time. Immediately after harvesting, cut off and discard the leaves. If purchasing rhubarb, look for flat, crisp stalks, and leave any curled or limp ones behind.”

Rhubarb leaves should never be eaten. They contain oxalic acid, a toxin that can cause poisoning when large quantities of raw or cooked leaves are ingested.

Rhubarb can be stored in the refrigerator for two to four weeks, if the refrigerator is set between 32 to 36 degrees Fahrenheit and at 95 percent relative humidity. For best results, Fishburn says, store unwashed stalks in perforated plastic bags in the crisper drawer.

“Rhubarb is 95 percent water, and one cup of diced rhubarb contains about 26 calories, 2 grams dietary fiber, and 351 milligrams of potassium. Due to its acidic nature, avoid cooking rhubarb in reactive metal pots such as aluminum, iron, and copper,” Fishburn says.

Rhubarb can be prepared and served many different ways – pies, tarts, breads, cobblers, cakes, jams, sauces, puddings, and salads.

For more information on growing and using rhubarb, visit the University of Illinois Extension Watch Your Garden Grow website at

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension