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Agricultural research pays big dividends

Agricultural research by a government entity had its beginning in 1862 with the establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture. Today, research by USDA, Agricultural Research Service scientists is continuing at more than 100 locations.

The Cropping Systems Research Laboratory at Lubbock, Texas, opened in 1999 with 10 scientists on staff. Presently there are approximately 118 people on staff including 25 scientists, 24 technicians, 39 part-time students, and 12 personnel from cooperative institutions.

"The overall mission of our Laboratory is to organize and carry out research within four fundamental, long-range programs, and to disseminate the results," said Laboratory Director John Burke. "Research units include: Wind Erosion and Water Conservation, Cotton Production and Processing, Livestock Issues, and Plant Stress and Germplasm Development."

Each unit has its own research leader and specific objectives. "However, depending on the scope of the objective, the unit may be linked to research projects at other USDA locations, or other agencies such as universities," Burke said.

Scientists in the Wind Erosion and Water Conservation unit research the causes and consequences of wind-induced soil erosion, and develop wind erosion and water management strategies that alleviate, delay, or moderate the impact of drought and thermal stress on crop production.

"To this end, the scientists used forecast information based on the development of the El Nino Southern Oscillation to develop a management technique that will maximize the potential yield of cold-season forage crops in the Southern High Plains," Burke said.

"Using simulation models and landscape-scale field experiments, unit scientists have developed management practices that will improve crop yields under limited and dryland cropping systems," Burke said. "These management practices are very important because available irrigation water is steadily declining, and the number of dryland acres is increasing."

Scientists in the Cotton Production and Processing unit develop production and processing systems for stripper- and picker-harvested cotton that will maximize producer returns, minimize processing costs, preserve fiber quality, and minimize air-pollution from the ginning process.

These scientists determined the type and configuration of stripper-harvester rolls that maximize harvesting efficiency and the quality of stripper-harvested cotton. "Adoption of these configurations by stripper-harvester manufacturers has had a significant positive impact on producers' income." Burke said. "Unit scientists also developed new techniques for high speed sensors that improve processing control and enhance fiber quality and ginning rate. Specific sensors include a high-speed machine vision sensor that facilitates maximum efficiency in the removal of lint trash and an accurate microwave moisture sensor that facilitates the preservation of fiber quality."

The unit scientists also developed a value-added process that transforms cotton gin waste into valuable erosion-control products and building materials. The first cotton gin byproduct developed by a unit scientist was hydromulch — now being sold and distributed worldwide. Also, a unit scientist quantified errors associated with ambient air samplers used by regulatory agencies to determine particulate emissions from cotton gins. He found errors from EPA reference method ambient samplers were four to 300 times greater than the actual particulate emissions emitted from agricultural sources.

Scientists in the Livestock Issues unit determine how stress affects the physiology, behavior, productivity, and health of cattle and swine. They also develop management practices that reduce stress and disease problems, improve the overall well-being of the animals, and maximize the safety and quality of animal products.

"In the course of their research the scientists found that E. coli in livestock under stress have a greater ability to survive, mutate, and thrive," Burke said. "Thus producers should implement improved management systems to reduce stress on their livestock to enhance the overall productivity of their animals and the safety of food products obtained from them."

Additionally, in collaboration with other ARS locations and university partners, unit scientists have developed an indwelling rectal probe to monitor the body temperature of cattle. The device can record body temperatures every two minutes for up to 30 days. Equipping cattle with the rectal probe is a rather simple process that can be conducted within the most modest working chutes.

Scientists are utilizing this new device to monitor the body temperatures of cattle exposed to various stressors such as transportation and immune challenges. Also, by using this device scientists are able to capture previously unattainable information pertaining to the body temperature of cattle in numerous situations. “We anticipate utilization of this device will continue to expand our understanding and knowledge of animal stress in various production environments,” Burke said.

The primary objective of scientists in the Plant Stress and Germplasm Development unit is to determine the response of plants to thermal and water stress, and to develop ways to mitigate the adverse responses to these stresses. To do this they develop, through traditional and molecular approaches, appropriate germplasm that can be incorporated into stress-resistant crop varieties that will produce higher yields and better quality. They also develop techniques to measure plant responses to these stresses.

Scientists in this unit developed a wireless infrared thermometry system. When installed in the producer's field, it monitors the thermal/water stress of the cotton plants and sends a signal to the producer when they need irrigation. This enables producers to maximize lint yields for their particular irrigation potential. The system has been patented and is commercially available.

The scientists also developed breeding lines of grain sorghum that germinate and emerge under lower soil temperatures than present hybrids. This germplasm is being used in the development of commercial hybrids that can be planted earlier in the spring. "Earlier plantings can minimize the likelihood of damage from sorghum midge, a pest that can drastically reduce grain yields," Burke said. "The scientists are also developing superior germplasm for corn and peanuts.

"Research results are disseminated in scientific journals, appropriate public media, in field days, and in personal contacts." Burke said. "Additional information about our programs can be found at"

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