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  • Writer's pictureClaire Benjamin

Agronomy Day highlights latest crop sciences research at Illinois

Close to 1,000 agronomists, farmers, and others attended the 57th annual Agronomy Day at the University of Illinois to learn about crop health and management firsthand from top crop scientists, including three researchers from the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) at Illinois.


“NitroGenes” – coming to a field near you?

Crop breeders have already optimized the corn’s ability to take up nitrogen (N), but not necessarily its ability to use that N (called NUtE), said Stephen Moose, a Professor of Crop Sciences at Illinois and member of the EBI. NUtE remains a virtually untapped opportunity to improve corn.

Moose’s laboratory has identified nine “NitroGenes”—genes that seem to be involved with improving NUtE—that impact the N content in corn stover, grain N concentration, and kernel number.

In field trials, breeding lines with more NitroGenes utilized more N than lines with fewer Nitrogenes. An 8.8 percent increase in NUtE may not sound like much, but researchers found a corresponding yield increase of 6.9 percent.

“If you have an area with high N, there's no penalty,” Moose said. “But if you have a low N area of your field, where you didn't apply N or it was washed out, you will have insurance for a little bit higher productivity.”

The NitroGenes project was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture within the United States Department of Agriculture.


Is your wheat field in over its “head”?

Partially-bleached wheat heads are a telltale sign that your field may be taking a yield hit from Fusarium head blight (FHB), said Carl Bradley, an Associate Professor of Crop Sciences at Illinois and an EBI faculty member.

If you look closely, you may see the salmon-colored fungus that produces vomitoxin, which can contaminate grain and cause pigs to throw up. Illinois grain elevators will only accept below 2 parts per million of the toxin without docking pay or rejecting the entire load of infected grain.

“Wheat is only susceptible when it begins to flower—if the heads aren’t out yet, it’s not susceptible,” Bradley said. “If you have prolonged periods of high humidity, rainfall, and moderate temperatures throughout flowering and grain development, you have conditions favorable for this disease.”

To discourage the fungus, plant FHB-resistant wheat varieties into soybean stubble, as corn stubble can harbor the fungus. Avoid planting varieties with the same maturity to spread the risk that conditions will be right for the fungus. When the plants are beginning to flower, apply a triazole class fungicide, such as Caramba or Prosaro.

Check out wheat variety ratings for FHB resistance.


Western corn rootworm beetles: Down and out?

Western corn rootworm (WCR) populations may be down, but they’re not out of the corn-munching game, yet—especially now that this pest is starting to overcome our greatest defense: Bt corn.

Since 2003, farmers have relied on transgenic Bt corn that has been engineered to produce Cry proteins that kill WCR larvae that try to feast on Bt corn roots, said Michael Gray, a Professor of Entomology in the Department of Crop Sciences at Illinois and an EBI faculty member.

Without these proteins, larvae injure root systems. Severe root pruning can invite pathogens, make the plant fall over reducing the photosynthetic efficiency of a corn canopy, and also limit the transport of water and nutrients up the stalk.

“Bt corn is very commonly used throughout Illinois and in many areas of the Corn Belt,” Gray said. “But because of their heavy use, WCR have developed resistance to at least to one of the proteins (Cry3Bb1) that some Bt corn hybrids make.”

Today, the main priority is to limit the selection pressure—the idea that Bt corn kills off most WCR beetles leaving only resistant WCR beetles to survive, breed and spread to a corn field near you.

Gray suggested farmers rotate out of continuous corn to another crop, like soybeans. If crop rotation is not an option, consider using another type of Bt hybrid that makes a different Cry protein. Implementing a sound integrated pest management (IPM) program will reduce the likelihood of resistance development to Bt proteins.


The Energy Biosciences Institute, supported by a 500-million, 10-year award from energy company BP, pursues solutions to the global energy challenge through collaborative research between the University of California, Berkeley; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The EBI’s efforts at Illinois take place at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), an interdisciplinary research institute. This article originally appeared in the EBI Bulletin.

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