College of ACES
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New field crop plant pathologist joins U of I crop sciences department

Published July 25, 2017
Nathan Kleczewski
Nathan Kleczewski

URBANA, Ill. – A new field crop plant pathologist will be joining the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois this fall. Nathan Kleczewski will be working directly with growers to diagnose and mitigate the impact of major crop diseases across Illinois. Although he won’t officially start until November, Kleczewski plans to attend this year’s Agronomy Day – yet another reason to make the trip to the U of I campus on August 17.  

“Applied research and extension in field crop pathology have tremendous value for growers and for our college. Nathan will lead an innovative program that will add to our efforts in providing independent research in plant protection for Illinois growers,” said Germán Bollero, department head for crop sciences.

In an interview last week, Kleczewski discussed his background and his plans for the new position.

ACES Marketing and Communications: Tell us a little about your background.

Kleczewski: I grew up in Wisconsin and spent most of my career in the Midwest before moving out east. My undergraduate degree is from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in ecology and plant biology, and I earned my doctorate in plant pathology at The Ohio State University. I spent some time as a postdoc at Indiana University and Purdue; worked in the fungicide/nematicide group at FMC Corporation; and, in 2013, started as an extension field crop pathologist at the University of Delaware.

ACES: Why Illinois?

Kleczewski: Being close to relatives is huge for me. Being back in the Midwest, it’s what I’m familiar with. I just feel more comfortable here. There is more space and privacy, and it is a great place to raise a family.

I’m excited to be a part of Illinois, a big state with a lot of field crops and many opportunities to do good field crop pathology. It’s pretty exciting to be working in this state that has roughly 10 million acres of soybeans!

ACES: Do you have specific projects in mind yet?

Kleczewski: I’ll continue some of the work I’ve been doing in Delaware, working on fusarium head blight in wheat through the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative. As far as other crops, some of my initial projects may involve soybean cyst nematode, fungicide sensitivity, endophytes, and the impact of cover crops on field crop diseases. There is a great group of pathologists in the region as well, and I hope to work collaboratively on some projects that not only will benefit growers in Illinois, but the region and country as a whole. Because my program is based on grower needs, I’ll need to meet with people this fall and winter, talk to them, and get a handle on what the major issues or concerns are in this area so I can plan accordingly.

ACES: What impact do you hope to have?

Kleczewski: My main goal is to increase overall grower productivity by addressing disease related issues. When push comes to shove, I work for the growers. I want to make sure their needs are being met and they’re ultimately being successful or becoming more successful than they already are. I will help track and monitor emerging or reemerging diseases in the region and develop management programs to address these issues, if warranted. I’m also going to be involved in outreach and will set up a variety of new ways for growers and the agricultural community to access current field crop disease information. I’m big into websites, internet, apps, as well as the more traditional printed materials. I actually love public speaking, so I look forward to delivering talks to growers and industry professionals throughout the state.    

ACES: What else should we know about you?

Kleczewski: This dates me a little bit, but both my wife and I are huge Seinfeld fans. Also, I’m pretty active, so I like to play sports and go to concerts. Some people may not like this, but I grew up in Wisconsin, so I’m a Packers fan, but not one of those foam cheese head-wearing types.

University of Illinois President Emeritus and Dean of ACES to Provide Keynote at Orr 40th Anniversary Event

Published July 24, 2017
Kimberlee Kidwell
Dr. Kimberlee Kidwell

PERRY, Illinois – University of Illinois President Emeritus Bob Easter and Dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) Kimberlee Kidwell will serve as keynote speakers at the 40th anniversary celebration of the University of Illinois Orr Agricultural Center and John Wood Community College Agricultural Education Center on August 2 at 5 p.m.

In 1977, Governor Jim Thompson approved the appropriations that led to the historic agreement between JWCC and the University of Illinois to share educational and research facilities near Perry, Illinois. This partnership is one of very few in the country between a flagship four-year land-grant institution and a local community college. 

“I’ve been privileged to be an observer of and at times engaged in activities at the Orr Center since its very beginning,” Easter said. “The incredible ongoing support of the local founders and advocates, and the strong and positive relationship with John Woods Community College have enabled ACES faculty and staff to do in-depth, locally relevant research and to provide solid public education programs for the citizens of the region.”

The University of Illinois College of ACES conducts agronomic and animal science research at the facility and JWCC provides instruction and training for agricultural certificates and degrees at the same location.

“The connections among the College of ACES, JWCC, and the Orr Center allow us to live into the land-grant mission on the ground in this region of the state of Illinois,” Kidwell said. “This anniversary celebration creates an opportunity for us to honor the journey we have traveled together up to this point, and for us to frame a path forward to expand and strengthen our efforts to build the workforce pipeline for agriculture and allied industries through collaborative education, and to promote a vibrant future for agriculture through applied research and extension.”

Larry Fischer, JWCC Board of Trustees chair shared, “As former and current leaders of the University of Illinois, Drs. Easter and Kidwell understand the value of the research and education made possible by the unique partnership between the two institutions. This collaboration has helped thousands of students and farmers access new technology, practices, ideas, and opportunities to feed and fuel the world. Local research and creative use of public educational dollars support the private agricultural sector, which is the backbone of the economy. We are honored to host them and appreciate their support to continue this partnership well into the future.”

JWCC has educated more than 1,600 ag students since the facility opened. Each year more than 50 agronomic and animal science research and demonstration projects are conducted by University of Illinois campus-based staff and the station superintendent, supported by JWCC ag students and interns. The research includes soil chemistry and fertility, soil management, crop production, animal science, weed science, variety testing, and environmental quality. 

In addition to Easter and Kidwell’s remarks and short program, the center’s agronomy and beef research areas will be available for viewing. To RSVP for the event or to obtain more information, contact or 217-833-2944.

Dr. Robert Easter

Easter, who retired in May 2015, came to the University of Illinois as a graduate student in 1973 and joined the faculty after earning his doctorate in animal science in 1976. He served as a department head, dean, interim provost, interim chancellor, and interim vice chancellor for research at Urbana-Champaign and was appointed president of the University of Illinois in 2012. He was named president emeritus in May 2015 and is also an emeritus professor.

During his distinguished career, Easter mentored thousands of students, collaborated with industry and stakeholder groups, and conducted groundbreaking research in swine production and nutrition. He led cutting-edge swine-related research projects and taught students and others around the world about ways to improve pig production. His research was instrumental in developing a lean growth model in the early 1990s.

Easter also engaged in educational and consultative activities in the swine and feed industries in the United States and around the world. He lectured in the American Soybean Association-sponsored Chinese Animal Management and Production Systems (CHAMPS) program in China and co-authored a textbook on swine management used in that country.

He received the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Medallion in 2015 for his unwavering devotion to the university and the Robert A. Easter Endowment Fund was recently created to recognize his outstanding leadership and service. The endowment fund supports a chair to be held by the dean of the College of ACES.

Dr. Kimberlee Kidwell

Kidwell, a nationally respected scholar of plant breeding and genetics, was appointed as dean of the College of ACES in November 2016 and holds the inaugural Robert A. Easter Chair. She is an award-winning teacher, student mentor, and academic administrator with extensive experience in academic program development, financial management, and engagement.

Kidwell is dedicated to improving student learning; driving sound, innovative research; and cultivating industry partnerships to improve the lives and livelihoods of the residents of Illinois, in support of the land-grant mission of the University of Illinois. 

She is an accomplished spring wheat breeder and geneticist, developing more than 20 wheat varieties for Washington State farmers. Her research has led to multiple patented discoveries, and addressed basic questions involving gene discovery, genetic characterization, and genetic mapping of important traits for wheat improvement.

She has been recognized with numerous honors and awards for her hard work in research, teaching, and leadership. Most recently, she was named a Crop Science Society of America Fellow. She grew up in Danville, Illinois, and earned bachelor’s degrees in both genetics and development and agriculture science from the University of Illinois. She received her master’s and Ph.D. degrees in plant breeding and plant genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

News Source:

Tracy Orne, 217-641-4109
Additional Images:
  • Robert Easter

Nutritional value of soybean meal varies among sources from different countries

Published July 24, 2017
soybean products

URBANA, Ill. – Research from the University of Illinois is helping swine producers know what they're getting when they buy soybean meal from different countries. Genetic differences among varieties of soybeans, as well as differences in growing conditions and processing, may affect the nutritional value of soybean meal produced in different places.

The largest producers of soybean meal in the world are China, Argentina, Brazil, the United States, and India. In many swine-producing countries around the world, soybean meal is imported from one of these five countries and buyers can choose among them. Until now, however, there has been very limited data to compare the compositional and nutritional value to pigs of soybean meal produced in different countries.

Hans H. Stein, professor of nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I, conducted an experiment to compare the nutritional composition and amino acid digestibility by pigs using soybean meal produced in the five major soybean-producing countries.

Stein and Ph. D. student Vanessa Lagos collected five sources of soybean meal each from China, Argentina, Brazil, and the United States, and four sources from India. They then fed diets containing the 24 soybean meal sources to growing barrows.

"Our data indicate that the amount of digestible protein and amino acids was greater in soybean meal from the United States, India, and Brazil than in soybean meal from Argentina or China," Stein reports.

Soybean meal from Brazil and India had the greatest concentration of crude protein and amino acids, he says. However, the standardized ileal digestibility of crude protein and amino acids was greatest in soybean meal from the United States.

Stein says that in the global economy, feed ingredients may be sourced from a number of different sources.

"It's important to know that the nutritional value of soybean meal produced in different countries may be different, and to take those differences into account when making decisions about purchasing and diet formulations. Results of this experiment indicating that the concentration of digestible amino acids is less in soybean meal sourced from Argentina or China than in soybean meal from the United States gives international buyers increased information to base purchasing decisions on.”

U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) chairman Jim Miller says the results of this study echo USSEC’s strategy of building a preference for U.S. soy around the world. “We have boots on the ground in six global regions to educate our customers on the intrinsic and extrinsic advantages of U.S. soy using the latest research and information,” he explains. “U.S farmers have always believed that our product is very consistent, and Dr. Stein’s study proves that soybean meal from the U.S. has less variability in both composition and digestibility.”

The United States Soybean Export Council and the Indiana Soybean Alliance provided funding for the study.

The paper, "Chemical composition and amino acid digestibility of soybean meal produced in the United States, China, Argentina, Brazil, or India," is published in the Journal of Animal Science.

News Source:

Hans Stein, 217-333-0013

News Writer:

Jennifer Roth, 217-202-5105

Search and rescue dogs do their jobs despite travel stress

Published July 20, 2017
Dogs being loaded into helicopter
Dogs being loaded into helicopter

URBANA, Ill. – When disaster strikes, you want the very best tools, functioning at their peak. In the case of catastrophic earthquakes, tornadoes, or even bombings in war zones, those tools are search and rescue dogs. But researchers have found that getting dogs to disaster sites can add to the animals’ stress.

“We’ve spent $16 billion in this country trying to come up with a machine that can sniff better than dogs, and we haven’t done it yet. Search and rescue animals can save lives, protect our soldiers in the field, and locate survivors after a disaster. We want to know how we can manage them so we can protect their performance, because their performance impacts human lives. That’s the reason behind what we do,” says Erin Perry, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science, Food and Nutrition at Southern Illinois University.

Perry, who has also been a canine handler in the Department of Homeland Security for the past 14 years, teamed up with University of Illinois animal scientist Kelly Swanson and others at U of I to learn how stress affects the animals’ performance on the job.

Search and rescue dogs fly on a moment’s notice to the site of a disaster, where they are expected to perform at the top of their game. But, just like for humans, flying can be stressful for dogs. The research team designed two preliminary studies to evaluate the effect of air travel stress on the animals’ physiology and job performance.

“Some dogs are like, ‘I’ve flown before, no big deal,’ but others, even if they’ve flown before, still show stress behaviors, and can have elevated body temperature or diarrhea,” says Swanson, Kraft Foods Human Nutrition Endowed Professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I.

Dog owners may be familiar with the tendency towards loose stools when their animals are stressed. One of the reasons for that may be a stress-induced change in gut physiology and shift in the gut microbiome, the community of microbes that inhabit the mammalian gut. Paired with a more permeable [or leaky] gut lining, also triggered by stress, “bad” microbes can gain an advantage and cause upset stomachs. These symptoms have been observed in search and rescue dogs when traveling to a work site, but no one had ever studied the dogs’ microbiome.

In one of the studies by Perry and Swanson’s team, search and rescue dogs were flown for 2.5 hours in the cabin of a commercial airliner to the job site. In the other, dogs were “hot loaded” into a helicopter – blades whirling – for a quick 30-minute flight to the site. The team looked at slightly different factors in each study, but for both, they examined changes in the makeup of the microbiome and performance on the job.

The helicopter flight caused spikes in body temperature and the stress hormone cortisol, but the researchers didn’t observe changes in the makeup of the dogs’ microbiomes. Dogs that entered an airport, went through security, and flew for a longer period on the commercial flight showed an interesting microbial shift.

“Microbial beta diversity, which is a measure of the presence and abundance of bacterial taxa, was different between dogs that traveled compared to those that did not. Travel led to greater relative abundances of Clostridia and Bacteroidaceae populations, two of the more predominant microbial groups in the gastrointestinal tract,” Swanson explains. He says more research is needed to understand how such changes may impact the long-term health of search and rescue dogs.

But the most impressive finding in both studies was the fact that there was no effect of air travel stress on the dogs’ job performance. “They showed behavioral stress, their gut was completely turned upside down, their bloodwork showed significant effects, and it didn’t matter. They still went to work and performed beautifully,” Perry says. “Even though we see physiological impacts on these dogs, they’re such amazing athletes that they overcome the physical and environmental stress and just do their job.”

Although travel didn’t impact the dogs’ performance in these preliminary studies, the researchers emphasized that stress can occasionally cause search and rescue dogs to miss work. But gaining new insight into canine stress responses, particularly the way stress affects the microbiome, may pave the way towards potential solutions for both working and companion animals. 

“We’ve all owned dogs that were scared of lightning, vacuum cleaners, those innocuous day-to-day experiences,” Perry says. “Having a better understanding of what causes stress and how to compensate for it helps every dog, not just the ones that are out there saving lives.”

Swanson adds, “These small studies are just a starting point. In the future, we hope to apply these findings to larger studies focused on various stressor types and a longer duration of stress, similar to that experienced in the field during times of emergency. Our goals will be to develop and evaluate nutritional interventions and/or management strategies that avoid negative physiologic effects and maintain performance.”

The first article, “Effects of air travel stress on the canine microbiome: A pilot study,” is published in the International Journal of Veterinary Health Science and Research. Perry (formerly Venable) and Swanson’s co-authors are Stephanie Bland from Southern Illinois University and Hannah Holscher, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at U of I. The study was funded by Southern Illinois University.

The second article, “Physiological effects of stress related to helicopter travel in Federal Emergency Management Agency search-and-rescue canines,” is published in the Journal of Nutritional Science. Perry and Swanson’s co-authors are Natalie Gulson, from Southern Illinois University, and Tzu-Wen Liu Cross from the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I. The study was funded by CANIDAE pet food company and the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation.   

Farm-to-Walmart fresh produce in China has unexpected middlemen, provides risk protection for farmers

Published July 20, 2017
label on a watermelon from China Wal-Mart
Photo credit: Robert Thomson

URBANA, Ill. – When Hope Michelson joined a group of economists working to evaluate Walmart’s direct-to-farm sourcing program to its stores in China she believed the research would confirm a straight-forward journey of melons and other produce from point A to point B.

Upon closer examination, Michelson, from the University of Illinois, and her colleagues at the University of California, Davis and the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Sciences learned that the journey from farm to Walmart stores has a few additional stops along the way. Although the trip isn’t as direct as they expected, Walmart’s program may provide economic incentives that afford farmers some benefits.

Michelson traveled to China three times during the course of the project, staying for several weeks each time to visit farms and observe firsthand how Walmart’s program worked.

“In 2010, Walmart announced a commitment to support sustainable agriculture. One of their stated goals was, by 2015, to source from 1 million small and medium farmers. A second goal was to increase the incomes of these small farmers by 10 to 15 percent. They needed evidence as to whether or not they were achieving their goal,” Michelson says. “Walmart thought that they were buying direct from many small farms in China, but we quickly discovered the presence of at least one intermediating layer of private firms sitting between the farm and Walmart. With 416 Walmart stores in China, we found 73 primary and 125 secondary buyers between farmers and the stores. The sales turned out to be a lot less direct than we – or Walmart – originally thought.”

Michelson says that the research team expected to find large contiguous areas called farm bases, functioning like farmer cooperatives and interacting directly with Walmart buyers. “That was the model that we had in mind. What we observed when we arrived and started visiting farms and farmers looked more like company farms with different models of managing labor and land, including a system relying on wage workers. We thought we’d see a village in which, for example, everyone was producing honeydew melon and a Walmart pick up—that level of directness. But for the most part we didn’t see individual plots run by families. We saw large farms.”

Some of the farms had aggregated and then subleased land back to farmers. In others, the owners managed all of the production and hired the same farmers that they had aggregated the land from as workers. With this arrangement, Michelson says there are some advantages for farmers.

“There is some risk-mitigation happening when the company assumes the risk of production and marketing,” she says. “In many cases the company was making big investments, too. They had big storage warehouses, and irrigation systems—serious capital investments to increase productivity. But at the same time, the benefit will depend on exactly how the risks and benefits are shared.”

Michelson explains that farming and land rights are very complicated in China, and although there are more intermediaries than they anticipated, the model in China still has fewer middlemen than the traditional supply chain.

“We interviewed many of the intermediary vendors,” she says. “Some of them seemed like traditional spot-market buyers, just guys who go out and buy. They don’t have a lot of capital. They have a relationship with the Walmart buyer, negotiating the price and handling the communication.”

Because of the many food scares, scandals, and safety concerns in China, Michelson says Walmart believes that shortening the food chain will mean safer foods. Consumers can know where their food comes from as well as the reputation of the farmer. Outbreaks can be traced.

Michelson says understanding how intermediary vendors function in China’s supply chain is important because it affects whether and how farmers might benefit from the relationship. She has also studied Walmart’s fresh fruit and vegetable supply chains in Nicaragua and India.

“These sourcing relationships don’t just drop out of the air,” she says. “There is nearly always an institution determining how the farmers will benefit. In Nicaragua, it was often an NGO; in other locations, farmer cooperatives do the work of aggregating the product and negotiating the sales relationship with the buyer. Who is the intermediary, what are the details, and who is the buyer? All of these components are extremely relevant to the outcomes, to the benefits that small farmers do or do not receive. Yet these details are often absent from other research on the topic of small farmer contracting or small farmer participation in value chains. If we care about the development impacts, we need to understand how these intermediaries determine what those impacts will be.”

Michelson also describes one of the largest apple production enterprises in the world in Shandong province that had an interesting distribution model. “Many individual farmers each have a small plot of land with apple trees. A company managed individual relationships with each of the nearly 1,000 farmers. The company gave them some technical advice and services related to pest management and the farmers sold exclusively to the company. The farmers still seemed to have a fair bit of autonomy and controlled the asset of production.”

The study, “Connecting Supermarkets and Farms: The Role of Intermediaries’ in Walmart China’s Fresh Produce Supply Chains” is published in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. In addition to Michelson, authors are Xinzhe Cheng and Steve Boucher of University of California, Davis; Jikun Huang from the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy; and Xiangping Jia from Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University. The research was supported by a grant from the Walmart Foundation.

Hope Michelson is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. She is also a faculty member in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at U of I.