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New study maps evidence of conservation impacts on human well-being

Published December 9, 2015
geographic map
Graphic provided by McKinnon, Cheng, Garside, Masuda, and Miller.


  • Questions about conservation policy may have already been answered through research that no one has read.
  • Health concerns and cultural values are among the least-explored aspects of nature conservation.
  • There is a need for a tool to help access valuable information that links nature conservation and well-being.

URBANA, Ill. – Thousands of reports are produced every year assessing the effects of different conservation policies and programs, but much of this valuable information is never read. Researchers from the University of Illinois and five other institutions collaborated to highlight the merits of a new technique—creation of evidence maps— to ensure research findings are more visible and accessible. The article appears in Nature.

“Evidence maps are emerging as a powerful new tool to visually distill a huge amount of information on what works and what doesn’t in a particular field,  says Daniel Miller, assistant professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at U of I.  “We believe the evidence map we’ve created on the effects of nature conservation on human well-beings is the first application of this tool to conservation and sustainable development issues.”

The team of experts from the Science for Nature and People (SNAP) partnership, Conservation International, UCLA, the University of Exeter Medical School, The Nature Conservancy, and the University of Illinois worked together to develop the evidence map. It compiles information on policy impacts within existing studies, synthesizes key trends, and highlights areas in need of further work.

The researchers found that human health concerns and cultural values are among the least-studied impacts of conservation on people. They located and categorized more than 1,000 primary research studies that document relationships between nature conservation policies and programs and human well-being including economic and material outcomes, health, education, culture and social relations. They used this information to create an interactive tool that easily aggregates these data, confirms well-studied linkages, and highlights prominent gaps.

The team found that although over 25 percent of studies examined the link between protected areas and economic well-being, fewer than 2 percent evaluated impacts on human health.

“Evidence maps like the one we’ve created can provide vital input to help guide research and policy by showing both well-studied areas where knowledge synthesis is warranted and gaps where primary research is needed,” Miller says. His research at Illinois focuses on understanding the links between different natural resource governance strategies like national parks and socio-economic and ecological outcomes, particularly in forest environments across the developing world. “Demonstrating this tool is especially timely as the international community grapples with how best to achieve the recently launched sustainable development goals.”

Organizations like the World Bank, where Miller used to work before joining the faculty at Illinois, are already seeing the value of the information synthesized in this study. The Bank is planning to use the evidence on forest biomes and poverty links to better inform its investment decisions. 

Making this evidence map available to other researchers and decision makers opens the door to a better understanding of the effects of conservation impacts on other areas of sustainability such as renewable energy and food security. The SNAP working group that produced this map has received funding to continue this effort in a second phase that will explore these and other potential issues.

The full article entitled “Map the Evidence” is published in Nature. It was written by Madeleine C. McKinnon, Samantha H. Cheng, Ruth Garside, Yuta J. Masuda, and Daniel C. Miller.


Forcing winter branches

Published December 8, 2015

URBANA, Ill. – Forcing branches allows us to enjoy a burst of color and brighten up our homes in the middle of winter with materials from our own garden, said Kim Ellson, a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

“We all keenly await the arrival of spring in those cold and dark winter months, and although we cannot change the seasons, we can enjoy a taste of spring in our homes. Forcing branches is very simple, requires little input, and is very rewarding,” she said.

There is something most exciting and rewarding about watching branches come to life, gradually unfold and display their hidden beauty, Ellson said. Every branch has its own unique beauty and appeal.

Early-blooming deciduous trees and shrubs are used for forcing as the buds on these plants have already developed prior to the onset of winter. When trying to distinguish between buds, note flower buds are larger and plumper than leaf buds. Fruit trees have their flower buds on spurs, which resemble short knobby branches.  

“It does not have to be solely flowers that are forced; leaves, buds, and catkins are equally attractive,” Ellson pointed out. “Some species might have more than one desirable trait.”

Red maple offers a vibrant display of leaves and flowers. Hazelnut delights with little catkins. Honeysuckle and lilac offer fragrant flowers. Birch has graceful weeping branches and pussywillow has soft fuzzy buds.

“There is a wide range of plants that are suitable; however, some will break dormancy more readily than others,” Ellson said. “If you are new to forcing, I would recommend starting with some reliable favorites like forsythia, Cornelian dogwood, red maple, or pussywillow. All these experience bud break in a short period of one to three weeks.”

As a general rule, the later in the season, the more developed the buds, and the shorter the forcing period as buds are nearing their natural bloom time, Ellson explained. Plant species also affect this time period, with some species taking four to five weeks to break, including crabapple, quince, cherry, and buckeye.

“Always be informed of each plant species’ dormancy requirement to avoid disappointment,” Ellson advised. “This will dictate which plants can be collected in January and which need until February or March to ensure successful forcing.”

Always seek out healthy material with the most developed buds. “Be aware, you are now pruning your shrub, so be mindful not to damage the structure or health of that plant. You do not want an unpleasant surprise once your plants leaf out again,” she said.

The ideal day to collect branches is when temperatures are above freezing. Bring cut branches indoors and submerge these in warm water. If collecting in freezing temperatures, submerge branches in cold water for a day to avoid shock prior to the warm water.

Warm water has less oxygen in it than cold water, and it is crucial to ensure no air pockets enter the stems. Air pockets within stems will disrupt the uptake of water and therefore the success of the blooms. 

Make a fresh, clean, slanted cut on the stems, an inch above the original cut, while the stems are still underwater. Split the base of the stem to further aid water uptake and mist branches regularly thereafter to avoid buds drying.

“You can make your arrangement and have it indoors immediately to enjoy from day one, or you can keep the materials in a cool area until the buds break,” Ellson explained. “Always ensure that branches have ample water and are kept out of direct sunlight. Indoor arrangements can be placed somewhere cool at night to extend their life span.”

Changing the water regularly will avoid any buildup of bacteria. Ensure that stems stay wet during water changes to avoid air uptake. Preservatives serve to further prolong the longevity of the branches, and these can be purchased or homemade.

“So sit back, relax in the comfort of your warm home, and await the beautiful display of color, reassuring us that spring is indeed on its way,” she added.

News Source:

Kim Ellson, 847-818-2901

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Ethanol production and corn consumption prospects for 2016

Published December 7, 2015

URBANA, Ill. – Estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) indicate that U.S. production of fuel ethanol totaled 14.313 billion gallons during the 2014 calendar year. That quantity is 1.02 billion gallons more than produced in 2013 and about 384 million gallons more than the previous record production in 2011.

University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good provided the analysis of ethanol production and corn consumption prospects for 2016 that follows.

For the first nine months of 2015, EIA monthly estimates indicate that domestic ethanol production was 3.6 percent larger than during the same period in 2014.  Weekly EIA estimates indicate that ethanol production in October and November this year exceeded that of a year ago by 3.1 percent. Production in December is expected to be slightly smaller than the record monthly production of 1.295 billion gallons in December 2014.

For the year, ethanol production will likely be at least 3 percent larger than in 2014, reaching about 14.745 billion gallons. Production at that level will require about 5.25 billion bushels of feedstock, mostly corn, for conventional ethanol production in 2015.

Estimates of domestic ethanol consumption are based on EIA estimates of the volume of fuel ethanol production, imports, exports, and changes in domestic stock levels.  Consumption was a record 13.444 billion gallons in 2014. Of that total, about 13.353 billion gallons was conventional ethanol made almost entirely from corn. Consumption during the first nine months of 2015 was 4 percent larger than during the same period last year. Consumption for the year is on pace to reach 13.982 billion gallons, with about 13.897 billion gallons being conventional ethanol.  

Domestic ethanol consumption during the year ahead will be influenced by two related factors. The first follows from the biofuels volume requirements in the EPA final rulemaking for 2014-2016 RFS standards released on Nov. 30. Those standards require 18.11 billion gallons of biofuels consumption in 2016, 1.18 billion more than required in 2015 and 710 million gallons more than in the preliminary rulemaking released in May.

The requirement for advanced biofuels was set at 3.61 billion gallons, 730 million more than the 2015 requirement and 380 million more than was required in the preliminary rulemaking. The difference between the total and the advanced requirement is the implied requirement for conventional biofuel (ethanol).  The conventional requirement is referred to as an implied requirement because it can also be satisfied with discretionary blending of advanced biofuels. That implied requirement is at 14.5 billion gallons for 2016, up from 14.05 billion gallons in 2015 and 14.0 billion gallons in the preliminary rulemaking for 2016.

The second and related factor that will influence domestic ethanol consumption is the expected level of domestic gasoline consumption because the blending requirements are actually enforced as a fraction of gasoline consumption. Based on EIA projections, consumption is expected to increase from 139.38 billion gallons in 2015 to 139.96 billion gallons in 2016. That expected increase of 580 million gallons follows an expected increase of 2.9 billion gallons in 2015. The conventional ethanol mandate of 14.5 billion gallons reflects an expected small increase in the E-10 blend wall and a “push” to include larger quantities of higher ethanol blends (E-15 and E-85) in the domestic fuel supply.

If the 2016 gasoline consumption forecast is correct, the E-10 blend wall will be 13.996 billion gallons. Because some gasoline is consumed without ethanol and some with higher ethanol blends, the effective E-10 blend wall is thought to be 13.856 billion gallons (9.9 percent of gasoline consumption). A portion of the 13.856 billion gallons will be provided in the form of advanced ethanol, including cellulosic, but mostly imported Brazilian ethanol.

The EPA projects consumption of advanced ethanol in 2015 at only 85 million gallons. We estimate that about 70 million gallons of that total will be Brazilian ethanol. That consumption is projected to increase to 249 million gallons in 2016 based on much larger imports of Brazilian ethanol in response to changing fuel standards in California. That would leave the conventional ethanol E-10 blend wall at 13.607 billion gallons.

In addition to E-10, however, some ethanol will be consumed in higher blends, mostly E-85. The EPA has projected E-85 consumption in 2016 at 400 million gallons.  That would be equivalent to 296 million gallons of ethanol, assuming an average blend of 74 percent ethanol. Total consumption of conventional ethanol would be projected at 13.903 billion gallons, essentially the same as consumed in 2015. The difference between the RFS requirement of 14.5 billion gallons and the projected consumption of 13.903 billion gallons (597 million gallons) would have to be met with some combination of retirement of RINs stocks, additional quantities of E-85, or blending of additional quantities of advanced biofuels.

If ethanol exports in 2016 are near the level of 2015 and there is no change in the level of ethanol stocks in 2016, the projected level of domestic consumption of conventional ethanol in 2016 points to about the same requirement for conventional ethanol feedstock (mostly corn) in 2016 as in 2015. This outcome is very different from the initial reaction that an increase in the implied conventional ethanol requirement from the preliminary to final rulemaking for 2016 of 500 million gallons would result in a measurable increase in feedstock consumption.

The projected level of domestic conventional ethanol consumption in 2016 developed here could be conservative for two reasons. First, the projection of domestic gasoline consumption appears conservative. A more plausible scenario with continued low gasoline prices might be for gasoline consumption to be about two billion gallons larger than the current EIA projection. Second, the projection of ethanol imports may be too aggressive, depending on how California fuel policy unfolds. On the other hand, the EPA projection of E-85 consumption in 2016 may be a bit too high.

Domestic conventional ethanol consumption in 2016 could be about 200 million gallons larger than projected, requiring an additional 70 million bushels of feedstock.  Still, feedstock consumption would be only slightly larger than in 2015.  A larger increase in feedstock consumption will require some combination of a larger increase in domestic gasoline consumption, larger consumption of higher ethanol blends, and an increase in ethanol exports.


Study: Finer-ground feed may mean better digestibility of starch, energy in swine diets

Published December 7, 2015

URBANA, Ill. – Current recommendations for feeding corn to pigs state that the grain should be milled to an average
particle size of 640 to 650 microns. However, research at the University of Illinois indicates that milling to a smaller particle size may increase the digestibility of starch and energy in corn, and therefore, improve the nutritional value of corn.

"Feed ground to a smaller particle size has more surface area than coarser-ground feed, which provides more access for digestive enzymes to work," said Hans H. Stein, professor of animal sciences at U of I. "Therefore, we would expect nutrients in finely ground feed to be better digested by pigs than nutrients in coarsely ground feed."

Stein, along with former graduate student Oscar Rojas, conducted two studies to determine the effect of particle size on nutrient and energy digestibility. They fed corn that had been ground to an average particle size of 865, 677, 485, and 339 microns, respectively, to growing pigs.

As the particle size of corn decreased, the digestibility of starch increased, from 89 percent in corn ground to 865 microns to 96.6 percent in corn ground to 339 microns.

"Starch is the main form of energy storage in grains so improved starch digestibility is expected to result in greater energy digestibility," Stein said.

True to the researchers' hypothesis, the digestibility of gross energy in corn increased as particle size decreased, from 88.7 percent in the coarsest corn to 91.6 percent in the corn with the smallest particle size. Corn ground to 865 microns contained 3,932 kcal digestible energy and 3,826 kcal metabolizable energy per kg dry matter, compared with 4,097 and 3,964 kcal per kg dry matter in corn ground to 339 microns.

Decreasing particle size did not make all nutrients more digestible, however. Rojas and Stein observed that particle size did not affect the digestibility of crude protein, amino acids, or phosphorus.

According to Stein, the results indicated that the optimal particle size for corn may be smaller than what is currently recommended.

"There are issues to consider when feeding ingredients ground to a very small particle size,” he said. “There can be flowability problems in feeders, and there may be an increased risk of pigs developing gastric ulcers.

“However, these problems may be offset by the increase in feed value. The results from this research give producers more information with which they can make that decision,” he added.

The research was supported by funding from the National Pork Board, Des Moines, Iowa, and the corn used in this research was donated by Pioneer Hi-Bred, Johnston, Iowa. 

"Effects of reducing the particle size of corn grain on the concentration of digestible and metabolizable energy and on the digestibility of energy and nutrients in corn grain fed to growing pigs," was published in a recent edition of Livestock Science. The full text can be found online at

Integrating ecology and agriculture: Students come together to produce sustainable agriculture model

Published December 3, 2015
Diagram by Amy Koester

URBANA, Ill. - Just south of the main University of Illinois campus sits the Woody Perennial Polyculture project—the WPP. While together the research plots constitute a food-producing farm, it doesn’t look like the row crops seen in much of central Illinois.

Interest in alternative ways of farming is growing among U of I students as researchers seek ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase biodiversity while still using land to produce food.

When two U of I biology undergraduates, with little experience in agriculture, crossed paths with a Wisconsin farmer who was experimenting with woody perennial and polyculture systems that produce food, the two were eager to research its feasibility in Illinois.

The initial project was the brainchild of Ron Revord and Kevin Wolz, who at the time were exploring graduate research areas related to sustainability and ecology. Revord was finishing a degree in molecular and cellular biology and Wolz in integrative biology and environmental engineering.

The two were intrigued by Mark Shepard’s model of producing food for human consumption from woody perennial crops (food-producing trees, shrubs, and others) on land that modeled native ecosystems. Shepard had been growing these systems for several years, but little research existed to support his approach.

“Ron and I were trying to figure out how to get all these cool things that Shepard and others were exploring into the academic world,” Wolz says. “A lot of claims and ideas out there had not necessarily been supported by scientific research.”

So with support from the NRES Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program (ASAP), the two invited Shepard to campus to present his ideas on Earth Day in 2012. Revord says the presentation refocused research paths for both him and Wolz. (Both are now doctoral students, Revord in NRES and Wolz in the Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology.)

“We didn’t want to follow the paradigms that existed—corn and soy, or even perennial grasses,” Revord says. “We wanted to work on ag systems that would mix food production and environmental benefits.

“The tinder in the fire pile was already there, but the presentation was the match that lit it,” he adds.

NRES professor Michelle Wander remembers that the two were eager to get trees in the ground and their research underway. She encouraged them to do their experiment at the U of I. Bruce Branham, a crop sciences professor who works with the Sustainable Student Farm, provided trees for planting, and the campus Student Sustainability Committee and ASAP provided additional funding. 

Later in 2012, the team installed 3,300 plants, including chestnut, hazelnut, apple, grape, currant, and raspberry, to establish the Woody Perennial Polyculture research project, the first of its kind in the Midwest.

But those first 5 acres would only mark the beginning of support and interest from across campus for the research’s potential.

Ultimately Revord and Wolz hope to demonstrate a sustainable and economically viable alternative to the corn and soybean rotation used on most midwestern farms.

Concerns about monocrop agriculture’s low food and environmental diversity have helped drive the research. Using pairings of woody plant species, the project aims to mimic the structure and function of natural ecosystems and to sustainably produce an agricultural yield while also restoring ecosystem “services,” the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being.

“If we can develop a multifunctional woody polyculture system that has commercial viability in the food it produces, then we can bring back some of the ecological function, which has benefits both locally and globally,” Revord says.

The savanna-based WPP has a grassy understory, scattered canopy trees, and a variety of shrub layers. Most species in this system have long or indefinite productive lives.

Revord and Wolz, who bring complementary skill sets to their project, designed the WPP site based on some of the innovative pairings Shepard experimented with.

Wolz’s engineering background defines his work on the project. “Agriculture in my mind is an engineered ecosystem,” he says. “It has to be designed by humans. Even if we’re designing ecological systems, you’ve got to know how to think like an engineer.

“Ron’s focus is creating the tools—well-developed, well-bred plants adapted to do the things we want them to do. He comes up with the awesome tools, and I study how to best put them together into systems—polycultures.”

Revord’s research has focused on the genetics and breeding aspects of the hazelnut. No cultivars exist at this time for hazelnut in the Midwest.  Revord would like to see this change.

Wander calls the growing polyculture work “an odyssey,” the result of two students’ enthusiasm.

Sarah Taylor Lovell, an assistant professor in crop sciences, saw an opportunity to scale up the WPP research with the help of a multidisciplinary team.

In 2014, the team was awarded more than $400,000 in seed money from the U of I Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) to expand their research on a new site—the Multifunctional Woody Polyculture project (MWP). In addition to Revord, Wolz, and Lovell, the team includes Wander and Branham; Nick Paulson, associate professor of agricultural and consumer economics; Wendy Yang, assistant professor of plant biology; and Jeremy Guest, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

In May, the researchers planted over 12,000 trees and shrubs on 20-plus acres near the U of I Energy Farm. Different from the WPP, where one treatment was replicated four times, the MWP will include multiple combinations of plantings, or treatments. Treatments will include single species or combinations of species such as hazelnut, chestnut, and apple trees; currants; and elderberries

Wolz says that they will be exploring the best way to combine species and the benefits of combining species versus growing monocultures, especially in regard to yield.

 “The WPP was simple and was not able to answer all the questions we had,” Wolz says. “The new project will allow us to explore multiple things, such as if you have just a layer of nut trees, how does that compare to having an orchard of nut trees with another crop underneath.”

Lovell explains that the systems they are researching could replace portions of agriculture lands, implemented on a scale with enough production capability to provide profit for landowners.

“We’re not expecting that large growers will transition huge acreage, but there is potential on smaller fields or marginal land, such as areas of farms that are wet or have high erosion potential or exist next to a river, where a buffer area is appropriate.

“Polyculture systems can provide agricultural products along with environmental benefits, unlike many current conservation programs which separate production and ecological functions,” she adds.

The benefits include reducing greenhouse gas emissions; woody biomass stores carbon and keeps it from going into the atmosphere. Also, fewer agricultural inputs are needed in woody systems because of better nutrient use and water use efficiency in the species that are grown. Providing habitat for wildlife and drawing in pollinators are other benefits.

 “We have a pretty brittle food system,” Wander says, citing the threat to the nut crop in California during its recent drought crisis. “If a crop is concentrated in one place, we are vulnerable. This is a permaculture principle and core tenet of sustainable agriculture: we want to diversify.”

Through the polyculture work, “we are showing that all these crops are in our geographic potential,” she adds. “It may seem audacious to say we can grow nuts in Illinois. But hopefully this research will inspire people to see that we can do more.”

Currently the MWP is a three-year funded project, but the team’s goal is to bring in support from other sources. “Ultimately the goal is for this project to be long term—10, 20, or more years,” Lovell says. 

“It’s a good model of multidisciplinary work bringing a lot of people to the table to look at a complex problem. It could make an important contribution to the problem of food security, particularly in a changing climate.”

2016 Small Farms Winter Webinar Series

Published December 2, 2015

URBANA, Ill. - University of Illinois Extension will present a weekly educational series for the small farm community. This series will provide practical knowledge on emerging topics that advance local food production in Illinois.

Online presentations will give small farm producers a look at how leading practices in production, management, and marketing enable operations to improve profitability and sustainability. This year's series includes new topics such as farm pond ecology, producing Shiitake mushrooms, the emerging local grain economy in Illinois, raising meat birds on pasture, and growing great blackberries

The free webinars will be held from noon to 1 p.m. on Thursdays during January through March.

Topics include:

  • Jan. 14 - Lean Farming: Cutting Waste and Maximizing Efficiency on Small Farms, Zack Grant, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Jan. 21 - Soils and Soil Fertility for Small Farms, Mike Roegge, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Jan. 28 - Farm Pond Ecology: Managing for Desirable Plants and Fish, David Shiley, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Feb. 4 - Producing Shiitake Mushrooms, Grant McCarty, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Feb. 11 - Managing Horse Pastures on Small Farms and Acreages, Jamie Washburn, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Feb. 18 - The Emerging Local Grain Economy in Illinois, Bill Davison, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Feb. 25 - Food Safety Modernization Act: Changes for Small Scale Producers, Laurie George, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Mar. 3 - Getting Your Beehives Ready for Spring, Doug Gucker, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Mar. 10 - Raising Meat Birds on Pasture, Andy Larson, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Mar. 17 - Using Cover Crops on Small Farms, Nathan Johanning, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Mar. 24 - Growing Great Blackberries, Bronwyn Aly, U of I Extension local food systems and small farms educator
  • Mar. 31 - Setting Up a Grazing System on a Small Farm, Jay Solomon, U of I Extension energy and environmental stewardship educator

Register at The webinars can be accessed online from any computer. Participants can also register to view an archived, recorded version of each webinar. Information will be provided via email the Monday after airing for viewing.

The webinars can also be accessed at

For more information, contact Andy Larson at 815-732-2191 or