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U of I Extension receives grant to reduce nutrient loss in waterways

Published January 23, 2018
aerial of farm on Embarras River

URBANA, Ill. - University of Illinois Extension has received a five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to help farmers and landowners reduce nutrient loss into Illinois waterways.

Extension will use the award to hire two watershed coordinators, who will work in high priority areas and help producers implement best management practices identified in the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.

“Creating a strategy that addressed the concerns of everyone affected was a tremendous effort,” says Extension Director George Czapar. “What’s exciting about this grant is that now Extension has more capacity to help with implementation and making that vision happen on the ground.”

The watershed coordinators will focus on four high priority Illinois watersheds beginning in early 2018. A coordinator in the Embarras River and Little Wabash River watersheds will work closely with farmers to reduce nutrient loss, with an emphasis on phosphorus. In the Lower Rock River and Mississippi North Central River watersheds of northwestern Illinois, a coordinator will work to reduce nutrient loss, with an emphasis on nitrogen.

“We are excited to partner with University of Illinois Extension on this project.  The watershed coordinators will play a key role in implementing the Illinois Nutrient Reduction Strategy by providing outreach and technical assistance to farmers and stakeholders in select priority watersheds,” says Illinois EPA Director Alec Messina. “This is yet another example of our Agency’s commitment to assist the agricultural community in reducing nutrient loss and improving water quality through voluntary efforts.”

Members of the agricultural community have already been heavily involved in nutrient loss education, reaching nearly 39,000 people at agricultural outreach events in 2016. According to the USDA, 70 percent of Illinois farmers were aware of NLRS conservation practices in 2016.

The grant to Extension also provides funding for an agricultural water quality science team composed of researchers from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. The team will provide technical support and serve as a university resource to help develop new approaches for protecting water quality, and include faculty Laura Christianson, Reid Christianson, Cameron Pittelkow, and Maria Villamil in the Department of Crop Sciences; Jonathan Coppess in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Paul Davidson in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering; and Suzanne Bissonnette, assistant dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Extension.

Illinois EPA’s NLRS Coordinator, Trevor Sample, says, “Being connected to the scientists on this team is important. We want the watershed coordinators to not only provide outreach and education, but also serve as technical advisors on practices like cover crops and bioreactors.”

News Source:

George Czapar, 217-333-5900

News Writer:

Deborah Seiler

Can corn prices get above the current range?

Published January 22, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – March corn futures prices continue to hover in a range between $3.48 and $3.60 since the release of the November World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report. The March corn futures price closed at $3.52 on Jan.19.  According to University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs, despite the overall bearish information contained in the USDA reports on Jan.12, corn prices continue to stay in relatively narrow range, and that pattern may remain for the next several weeks.

“Numerous issues look to keep corn prices in this range,” Hubbs says. “The key contributing factor is the large 2017 U.S. crop. The forecast of the size of the crop increased in each month of the forecast sequence that began in August. The January estimate of the crop size was 451 million bushels larger than the August forecast. At 14.604 billion bushels, the final crop estimate added to the already large ending stocks in the 2017-18 marketing year.  The USDA ending stocks projection was at 2.335 billion bushels in September and at 2.477 billion in January.”

In addition to the larger crop estimate, Hubbs says weak export performance hampered any strengthening in corn prices. “The poor performance is yet to be reflected in USDA's forecast for marketing year exports.”

The forecast sat at 1.85 billion bushels in August 2017 and increased to 1.925 billion bushels in November. The January 2017 forecast for corn exports maintained the 1.925 billion bushel projection despite a slow start to the marketing year. Exports during the first quarter of the marketing year totaled 349 million bushels, 199 million bushels less than during the same quarter last year. Current weekly export inspections are running 36 percent behind last year’s pace as of Jan. 22.  Unshipped sales for the current marketing year as of Jan. 11 were reported at 641 million bushels compared to 718 million on the same date last year.

To reach the USDA projection for the marketing year, Hubbs says exports need to pick up substantially during the remainder of the marketing year.

Food and industrial use for corn were estimated at 1.745 billion during the first quarter driven by excellent corn use for ethanol. During the first quarter, corn use for ethanol came in at 1.391 billion bushels, up from the 1.343 billion bushels used last year over the same period.

“The Energy Information Administration’s short-term energy outlook projects gasoline consumption as basically flat in 2018 from 2017 levels,” Hubbs says. “Any growth in corn use for ethanol may require ethanol export levels to repeat the strong performance seen in the 2017-18 marketing year. Ethanol exports lagged last year’s level by 18 percent in the first quarter, driven mostly by a reduction in exports to Brazil due to a 20 percent tariff rate quota implemented in September. A jump in gasoline consumption in 2018 or boost in ethanol exports could provide support for additional corn use for ethanol, but the USDA projection of 5.525 billion bushels is reasonable under the current consumption levels.”  

According to Hubbs, the rate of feed and residual use of corn during the first quarter of the marketing year were somewhat disappointing.  Based on the USDA's estimate of Dec.1 corn inventories, 4.39 billion bushels of corn were used for all purposes during that quarter. The residual, assumed to have been fed, totaled 2.298 billion, only 21 million bushels (0.9 percent) more than used during the same quarter last year despite larger livestock inventories. The USDA currently projects feed and residual use of corn for the entire marketing year at 5.55 billion bushels, 1.5 percent larger than last year's use and 25 million bushels less than the previous forecast.

“The percentage of annual use varies in the first quarter by several percentage points from year to year,” Hubbs says. “Over the last decade, first quarter feed and residual use averaged 42 percent of the marketing year total. First quarter use this marketing year comes in at 41.4 percent of the current projection. The estimate of March 1 inventories to be released on March 29 needs to show a slightly larger use during the second quarter of the year to stay on pace.”

Despite the large crop and growth of ending stocks, Hubbs says a development that could help corn prices break out of the current range is decreased corn area in the U.S. in 2018. Planted acreage in 2017 was 3.837 million acres less than the planted area in 2016.

“Another decrease in planted area in 2018 is possible due to the higher profitability of soybeans relative to corn production in many areas,” Hubbs says. “Also, the USDA's Winter Wheat Seedings report indicated that seedings for 2018 harvest were down only slightly from last year at 32.608 million acres, down 0.3 percent from the previous year.” In the Corn Belt, only Nebraska (-90,000 acres) and South Dakota (-60,000 acres) reduced winter wheat acreage from last year. “There appears to be a limited area for additional acres of spring-planted crops, including corn, associated with acreage related to winter wheat,” Hubbs adds. “Strong cotton and spring wheat prices may see additional acreage allocated to those crops in some areas as well during the spring. A significant corn acreage reduction from last year in the March 29 prospective planting report would boost the probability of corn prices breaking out of the current range given current consumption levels.”

Hubbs says the present outlook projects ample corn supplies in 2018 which will likely keep corn prices in the current range until information on spring planting is released. “Planting decisions and spring weather conditions will determine if a price breakout is possible this spring. A typical price pattern suggests a price rally in late spring or early summer associated with weather issue. Summer weather and the impact it has on corn production will eventually determine 2018 corn price.”



Study offers new tools to improve strategies for reducing nutrient runoff into Mississippi River

Published January 22, 2018
Laura Christianson with bioreactor
Laura Christianson with bioreactor. Credit: Debra Levy Larson.

URBANA, Ill. – Every summer, the Gulf of Mexico is flooded with excess nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater treatment plants and farm fields along the Mississippi River basin. And every summer, those nutrients create a “dead zone” in the Gulf. To address the issue, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formed a task force and required 12 states to develop strategies to reduce agricultural runoff.

According to researchers at the University of Illinois, the strategies show promise, and leave room for the addition of certain practical elements that could help decision makers choose specific conservation practices to adopt or avoid. In a new study, the researchers examine nutrient loss reduction strategies from three upper Midwestern states to help fill the gap.

The three state strategies analyzed in the study, Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota, included science-based assessments of various conservation practices: things like cover crops, conservation tillage, bioreactors, modifications to nitrogen application rate, and more.

“We assessed the ability of each conservation practice to be stacked or layered with others and the ability to track the implementation of each practice. This gave us some very practical information that could be used to increase adoption by focusing on those activities that are affordable, easily tracked, and effective at reducing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. Being able to track our efforts will also aid state and federal efforts in monitoring progress towards Gulf of Mexico hypoxia goals,” says Reid Christianson, lead author on the study and research assistant professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I.

The researchers first compared how the three states rated the same practices in terms of their effectiveness, to come up with a consensus figure. For the most part, the ratings were similar across states. But a couple of practices stood out.

“Iowa and Illinois have very similar numbers on the cover crop front. But it’s much colder in Minnesota, and they have a hard time getting cover crop seeds to germinate after corn and soybeans have been harvested,” Reid says.  

Woodchip bioreactors, an edge-of-field practice, were also ranked differently in the three states. The large trenches are typically filled with woodchips, housing microbes that consume excess nitrogen from drainage water. In this case, the differences were in sizing and design methodology in the three states.

Laura Christianson, co-author on the study and assistant professor in crop sciences, says, “Some practices, like cover crops, actually work differently north to south, but the other reason numbers varied is because the research was done differently in the three strategies. That represents a human decision process – critical to the state specific strategy effort.”

Although the comparison between state strategies was itself novel, the researchers believe their assessment of “trackability” and “stackability” of conservation practices will be even more useful to decision makers. They drew on expert opinions to assign a trackability score to each practice. For example, conversion of land from an annual row cropping system to a woody buffer strip is highly trackable using satellite imagery. But others? Not so much.

“Thinking of an in-field practice like how much nitrogen a farmer applies; there’s no reliable way to track that,” Reid notes. There are ways to estimate it, but not directly track,” Reid says.

“Because a farmer just decides it and does it,” Laura adds. “And we have x number of farmers across Illinois and the whole Mississippi watershed. How can we track that?”   

The researchers say it’s important to know how trackable these practices are, because stakeholders investing in nutrient loss reduction need to be able to pinpoint what’s working and what’s not and be able to tell a story of improvement with the resources invested.

“We’re working towards developing a framework to keep track of what all 12 states are doing, and how many practices they’re adopting. It’s a big undertaking,” Laura says. “It’s not just research for us. We’re working towards coming up with something states could use for the next 20 years.”

The researchers also considered how easily the practices could be paired up, or stacked.

“For example, land use change doesn’t really pair with anything because you’re completely changing the way business is being done. For example, if you’re growing switchgrass, you don’t need a cover crop or conservation tillage. It just doesn’t stack well with anything. But cover crops, bioreactors, and others pair with many practices well,” Laura says.

Although the researchers assessed the feasibility of stacking, they still don’t know the potential effects of pairing the conservation practices. “You may have multiple practices on the same acre, but what is the resulting impact on water quality? We don’t know yet - that’s where we need more field research,” Reid says.

The study also touched on cost effectiveness of the various practices. For example, nitrogen management – changing the amount of fertilizer applied – is one of the least expensive practices. It is also relatively easy for farmers, and is highly stackable with other practices. But Laura says it’s important to consider its effectiveness and trackability, too.

“So even though it’s relatively cheap, is this something we should be telling states to invest a lot of money in? It’s not as effective as other practices and harder to track. With this study, we wanted to get a handle on how well the practices work, then take it a step further and ask whether the best practices are easiest or hardest to track. And, ultimately, what are farmers going to be interested in?”

The article, “Beyond the nutrient strategies: Common ground to accelerate agricultural water quality improvement in the upper Midwest,” is published in the Journal of Environmental Management. Reid and Laura’s co-authors include Gregory McIsaac, from U of I’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, and Carol Wong, Matthew Helmers, David Mulla, and Moira McDonald. The work was supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

Lessons in nature boost classroom engagement afterward, researchers report

Published January 18, 2018
Ming Kuo

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Third-graders who spend a class session in a natural outdoor setting are more engaged and less distracted in their regular classroom afterward than when they remain indoors, scientists found in a new study.

This effect, reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, was large and occurred week after week, regardless of teacher expectations.

The study carefully matched lessons presented indoors and outdoors and controlled for teacher expectations, teaching style, time of day, week of semester and other factors that might have contributed to the differences observed.

“Teachers hoping to offer lessons in nature may hesitate for fear that the experience will leave kids bouncing off the walls and unable to concentrate afterward,” said University of Illinois natural resources and environmental sciences professor Ming Kuo, who conducted the study with Matt Browning, a U. of I. professor of recreation, sport and tourism; and Milbert Penner, of the Cold Spring Environmental Studies Magnet School in Indianapolis, where the study was conducted. “We found just the opposite, however: Classroom engagement was significantly better for students after lessons in nature than after lessons in the classroom.”

 The study relied on teacher ratings and outside observer reports of student attention in the classroom. Independent observers tallied the number of times a teacher had to interrupt a lesson to redirect students’ attention to the task at hand. Other observers who did not know whether students had been indoors or outdoors in a previous class evaluated student engagement based on photos taken in the classroom during classes. Students’ own reports were not useful because the students ranked their own classroom engagement as high, regardless of the condition.

Previous studies have shown that students in a variety of contexts benefit from exposure to green space. For example, a study conducted in Massachusetts public schools found that standardized test scores were higher among students in classrooms in areas with more vegetation nearby. The correlations held when controlling for income and other factors that might influence test scores. Kuo collaborated on a study led by U. of I. crop sciences professor Andrea Faber Taylor that found that children with ADHD perform substantially better on neurocognitive tests of attention after taking a walk in a natural area than after walking in an outdoor setting with few natural features.

One theory proposes that experiencing nature induces “a state of ‘soft fascination’ that allows the mental muscle underlying our ability to deliberately direct attention to rest,” the researchers wrote. This may enhance a person’s ability to focus again later.

Being in nature or viewing it from a window also is associated with lower heart rates and stress hormones in children and adults, other studies have found. Since stress can interfere with learning, factors that reduce stress likely also enhance the educational experience, Kuo said.

“We found the teachers in our study were able to teach uninterrupted for almost twice as long after the outdoor lesson than after an indoor lesson,” Kuo said. “The students simply paid better attention after being in the outdoor class.”

Kuo said she hopes the new findings will encourage teachers to experiment with outdoor lessons.

“They should try it a few times to get the hang of it and see what they notice. If it works like it did in our study, the benefits will be pretty obvious,” she said. “If it still doesn’t work after you’ve tried it a few times, I’d give up; teachers can tell what’s not working for them.”

News Source:

Ming Kuo, 217-244-0393

News Writer:

Diana Yates, 217-333-5802

Celebrity chef and food science alum brings new book to campus

Published January 17, 2018
Chef Judson Todd Allen

URBANA, Ill. – University of Illinois alum and celebrity chef, Judson Todd Allen, also known as the Architect of Flavor®, will return to the Urbana campus for book signings, a hot sauce tasting, and cooking demonstration Jan. 30 and 31.

Allen, who has appeared on the Food Network, earned a degree in food science and human nutrition from the U of I College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. He is the CEO and Executive Chef of Healthy Infused Cuisine, LLC, a premier cuisine company. His passion for childhood obesity and other health-related causes has positioned him in roles of advisory and endorsements.

Allen’s mission is to design powerhouse flavors sourcing seasonal, local, and sustainable ingredients that change the way people think and feel about healthier foods. Allen struggled with weight for a significant part of his life and now maintains a weight loss of over 160 lbs. His current book The Spice Diet shares his personal story of being addicted to food, encourages weight loss, and shows how to pair the perfect spices and ingredients—excluding salt, sugar and processed foods—to yield simple and flavorful meals that happen to be healthy.

Activities included in Allen’s campus visit are:

  • Tuesday, Jan 30, 11:30 a.m. -1 p.m. – Book signing and meet and greet, Bevier Café (The Spice Diet cookbooks will be available for purchase); Bevier Café menu will also feature a recipe from the book.
  • Wednesday, Jan. 31, noon-1:30 p.m. – Cooking demonstration, Activities and Recreation Center (ARC) instructional kitchen
  • Wednesday, Jan. 31, 3 p.m. – Hot sauce tasting and book signing, Illini Union Bookstore

For the ARC cooking demonstration, approximately 40 samples will be available from each of the three recipes Allen prepares; an appetizer, a main dish, and a dessert. The auditorium can seat up to 150 people and seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis.

In 2013, Allen introduced his signature All Purpose and All Natural CHEF BLEND Hot Sauce.  The low-sodium product offers a “Less Hot More Flavor” taste. With a mission to eradicate childhood obesity, Allen launched CHEF BLEND Weekend, an annual event designed to celebrate the inspiration of flavor through healthier, locally sourced foods and the chefs/purveyors behind the art.

With an MBA in Entrepreneurship from DePaul University’s Graduate School of Business, Allen is a current advisory board member of the DePaul University School of Hospitality. For more information on Allen, visit

News Source:

Matt Smith