Category Archives: Research Updates

Inside the ARECs: Precision agriculture takes off at Kentland Farm    

arecUsually the sound of buzzing on a farm is from the flapping of bees’ wings against one another or the continuous hum of a tractor’s engine.

But these days the advent of precision agriculture and all its high tech accouterments mean that buzzing sound is more likely to be from the propellers of a reconnaissance-gathering drone flying a couple hundred feet above a cornfield and gathering information about crops.

Soon drones and other precision farm equipment could become commonplace and  a boon to the bottomline of producers throughout the commonwealth.

One reason the mechanization of precision agriculture makes producers more profitable is that they can distribute feed, fertilizer, and various inputs with much more accuracy when using precision equipment.

Doug Bunn, a cattle producer from Dublin, Virginia, recently attended a precision agriculture demonstration at Kentland Farm along with 115 other people. He uses precision agriculture machinery on his cattle farming operation.

“We use autosteer on our tractors,” said Bunn. “The automation reduces the amount of chemicals we use because it’s a more precise way of delivering inputs when we use our sprayers on the corn we grow to feed our cattle.”

Bunn uses technology for recordkeeping also.

“I also have apps on my smartphone I use to keep track of my sire and dams, the cattle birth dates, and vaccinations.”

Other equipment that was demonstrated during the event were UAVs such as fixed-wing eBee drones look like large boomerangs and help with assessing crop health.  Using cameras and specialized software a producer can see realtime which crops are stressed and need more water and fertilizer using 3-D structure mapping.

“This event was critical in evaluating what farmers are already doing with precision agriculture and what industry has to offer and where we could go in the future,” said Bobby Grisso, Virginia Cooperative Extension associate director of agriculture and natural resources.  “Farmers are innovative people. As the price of technology continues to go down, we’ll see more producers utilizing these methods to remain at the forefront of the industry.”







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Governor McAuliffe Announces new specialty crop grants for Virginia

Governor Terry McAuliffe  announced ten agriculture-related projects in Virginia have been awarded $393,999 in grant funding from the United States Department of Agriculture. The grant will promote and enhance the competitiveness of Virginia’s specialty crops and create more economic development opportunities across the Commonwealth. The project awards resulted from a competitive grant process established by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Specialty Crop Block Grant funds.

“As one of Virginia’s largest industries, agriculture depends on quality research and data to remain competitive in the 21st century economy,” said Governor McAuliffe. “These USDA grants will ensure Virginia farmers continue to yield some of the best crops on the market, with 40 percent of the funding directed toward research in various aspects of food safety and quality. I congratulate these organizations and educational institutions for pursuing innovative research that will help enhance marketing opportunities and food safety for growers across the commonwealth.”

“Today’s announcement is good news for Virginia agriculture and helps bolster the Governor’s work to keep the industry at the forefront of his overall economic development strategic plan,” said Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Basil Gooden. “In addition to food safety, these projects highlight hops; insect, disease and weed control; cider; and our honey and mason bee populations. They illustrate Virginia’s extremely diversified agricultural interests across a broad geographic footprint.”

The Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act of 2004 authorizes the USDA to provide funds to the states to promote specialty crops, including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and nursery crops. When considering grants for the USDA Specialty Crop Program, VDACS gave priority to projects that included the following activities:

  • Assisting farmers transitioning into specialty, high-value agricultural initiatives that address the eligible specialty crops;
  • Increasing net farm income through high-value or value-added enterprises;
  • Finding new ways to market or add value to specialty agricultural products; and/or
  • Developing pilot and demonstration programs in specialty agriculture that have the potential for transferability within rural Virginia.

Specialty crops, including apples, berries, herbs, hops, nursery products, pears, wine grapes and more, will benefit from the grants. Other grants focus on food safety, training, marketing, pollinators and plant diseases, or on production research for specific geographical areas.  Grants range from $30,000 to $44,000 per applicant. VDACS awarded grants totaling $393,999 to the following recipients and projects from Virginia Tech:

  • Building Capacity to Meet Virginia Produce Grower Needs for the Food Safety Modernization Act Water Testing – Amber D. Vallotton, Fresh Produce Food Safety Team Coordinator, Department of Horticulture
  • Internalization of Salmonella in Commercial Cultivars of Tomato and Pepper Plants – Laura Strawn, Assistant Professor and Produce Safety Extension Specialist, Eastern Shore Agriculture Research and Extension Center, Painter; and Co-Principal Investigator: Steve Rideout, Associate Professor and Plant Pathology Extension Specialist, Eastern Shore AREC, Painter
  • Risk of Sand Filtration Systems to Act as a Reservoir and Transmission Vehicle for Pathogens –  Strawn and Rideout
  • Impact of site selection on cultivar performance and flavor profile of hops (Humulus lupulus L.) – Holly Scoggins, Associate Professor, Department of Horticulture
  • Developing and Promoting a Multi-pest Scouting Program for Sweet Corn in Virginia – Thomas P. Kuhar, Professor and Vegetable Entomology Specialist, Department of Entomology
  • Sampling for Trissolcus japonicus, a New Asian Egg Parasitoid of Brown Marmorated Stink Bug – Christopher Bergh, Professor of Entomology
  • New Technology and Techniques for Weed Control in Virginia Vegetable Crops – Charles W. Cahoon and Stephanie Romelczyk, Eastern Shore AREC, Painter and Stephanie Romelczyk, ANR Agent, Virginia Cooperative Extension
  • Cider Production from Virginia-Grown Apples: Research-based Processing and Fermentation Strategies – Amanda Stewart, Assistant Professor, Department of Food Science and Technology
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Fralin researcher finds gene that reduces female mosquitoes

Virginia Tech researchers have found a gene that can reduce female mosquitoes over many generations.

Males are preferred because they do not bite. Female mosquitoes bite to get blood for egg production and are the prime carriers of the pathogens that cause malaria, Zika, and dengue fever.

In this case, Jake Tu and colleagues found that placing a particular Y chromosome gene on the autosomes of Anopheles stephensi mosquitoes — a species responsible for transmitting malaria — killed off 100 percent of all female embryos that inherited this gene.

The extra copy of this gene, which the researchers call Guy1, is passed on to both sexes but only males survive. Furthermore, these male mosquitoes do not appear to have any detectable reproductive disadvantages in the laboratory.

The findings were published Sept. 20 in the journal eLife.

“The Guy1 protein is a strong candidate of the male determining factor in Anopheles stephensi,” said Tu, a professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a member of the Fralin Life Science Institute Vector-borne Disease Research Group. The Guy1 gene is not related to Nix, a male determining factor recently discovered in the Aedes aegypti mosquito by Tu’s lab and collaborators.

“The extra copy of the Guy1 gene is only passed down to half of the progeny, leaving some females among the mosquitoes that did not inherit the gene in the next generation,” said Frank Criscione, who is the first author of the paper and worked on the project when he was a graduate student in the Tu laboratory.

In order to produce all male offspring, all progeny needs to inherit this extra copy of Guy1. This is one of the group’s future objectives and can potentially be achieved by using genome-editing.

Yumin Qi, a research scientist in the department of biochemistry is a co-author of the paper.

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INSIDE the ARECS: Precision Ag Day at Kentland Farm

Virginia Tech will host a Precision Agriculture Day on Oct. 12 at Kentland Farm in Blacksburg from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Participants will have the opportunity to get answers to common questions about the benefits of precision agriculture and learn how they can establish cost-effective technologies on their farms.

Precision agriculture is becoming increasingly utilized — and economical — in recent years as producers use technology such as iPads, GPS, and variable rate equipment to increase yields and inform management decisions.

Registration for the event, which costs $10, can be found here. Kentland Farm is about 8 minutes from the Virginia Tech campus at 5250 Whitethorne Road.

The following topics will discussed at the field day:

  • low-cost technologies that are available now and are practical for your operation;
  • technologies that work on smaller farms;
  • precision agriculture equipment for use on hilly terrain;
  • recommendations for producers who are just beginning to consider a technology investment; and
  • potential return on investment from establishing a precision agriculture system.

Featured demonstrations and presentations will be provided by Hoober Inc. of Ashland, Virginia, James River Equipment of Rappahannock, Virginia, Meade Tractor of Christiansburg, Virginia, and Southern States Cooperative.

The Virginia Tech Department of Mechanical Engineering will also present a drone flying demonstration that will broadcast images on a big screen.

The event is sponsored by Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension. A special thanks to Farm Credit of the Virginias for providing water and refreshments.

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Climate change may benefit Ethiopia and increase the country’s access to water

Despite the many disastrous impacts of climate change, there are some regions of the globe that might benefit from hotter temperatures.

A team of researchers from Virginia Tech predict that  water availability in Blue Nile Basin of Ethiopia may increase in coming decades due to global climate change. It could also lead to increased crop production, spur massive hydroelectric power projects, and foster irrigation development in the region.

“For all the catastrophic impacts of climate change, there are some silver linings, “ said Zach Easton, associate professor of biological systems engineering. “The sad irony is that climate change may be the catalyst Ethiopia needs to become a food exporting country.”

The research team used a suite of climate and hydrologic models to predict the impact of climate change on water availability and sediment transport in the Blue Nile.  Most previous Nile Basin climate impact studies have only focused on water availability, but the study conducted by the team at Virginia Tech was a first of its kind to to assess sediment transport, a big problem in the basin where some of the highest erosion rates in the world have been measured.

The findings of the study were recently published in the journal Climatic Change.

“Ethiopia could experience increased water accessibility making growing seasons longer, and potentially allowing for two crops to be grown per year,” said Moges Wagena, from Assosa, Ethiopia. Wagena is first author on the paper and also associated with the Abay Basin Authority, a water resource management entity for one of Ethiopia’s 12 water basins. Wagena is one of Easton’s doctoral candidates in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, housed in both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering. The team also included Andrew Sommerlot, another of Easton’s doctoral candidates; Daniel Fuka a post-doctoral student working with Easton; researchers from the University of Maryland; and the International Water Management Institute, Nile Basin Office. The work was funded by the World Bank and the International Water Management Institute.

The team coupled  hydrologic models with bias corrected and downscaled Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 models, known as CMIP5 for the project. Previously studies that only looked at temperature and precipitation from the climate models found an increased rate of water availability of just 10 percent, where Easton and Wagena found potentially 20 – 30 percent more streamflow available in the region in the coming decades.

One potential problem that the analysis identified was increased sediment transport in the rivers due to increased water flow. The increased sediment has the potential to reduce the capacity of reservoirs and dams, making massive hydroelectric projects like Ethiopia’s largest dam currently under construction, the Grand Renascence Dam, less efficient in storing the 65 billion cubic meters of water that could potentially turn its turbines.

“Greater water availability is certainly a positive outcome, but  this is countered by more sediment. One way to combat that is through installing conservation practices  on farms, for instance using cover crops and low- and no-till planting methods to make the soil healthier, more stable, and reduce erosion,” said Easton.

While climate change is and will continue to cause untold problems, nuances in climate-induced weather events could benefit the Blue Nile Basin with increased rainfall in the area.

“It’s interesting because much of the Blue Nile Basin is well above 5,000 feet in elevation, giving it pretty much an ideal climate for agriculture with low humidity, low disease and pest pressure, and potentially great water availability, which could spur development,” said Easton.

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Virginia Tech research team’s discovery aims to reduce deaths caused by African sleeping sickness

A Virginia Tech research team has discovered an innovative way to inhibit the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness.

The breakthrough came when the team, led by Fralin Life Science Institute researcher Zac Mackey, discovered that the parasite Trypanosoma brucei uses a distinct method to perform a biochemical process known as phosphorylation.

This finding will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Cell Cycle, where it is also highlighted in the News and Views section by George-Lucian Moldovan, an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University.

“Our findings will allow us to take advantage of a key biochemical difference that can be used to cure this deadly parasitic disease,” said Mackey, an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The parasite causes thousands of deaths per year in sub-Saharan Africa, where about 70 million people are at risk, and has a devastating effect on the agricultural economy of 36 countries in this region.”

“The most important finding of this exciting paper is the fact that the newly discovered mechanism regulating Trypanosoma proliferation is unique to the parasite,” said Moldovan, who was not involved in the research.  “This will allow the discovery of drugs that can inhibit Trypanosoma without affecting human cells.”

By screening compound libraries at the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery, Mackey’s team was also able to identify a molecule known as AZ960 (typically used for anticancer therapies) that can block the unique process and shut down the parasite. The findings were published in the journal Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry.

“These studies really put us in a position to start testing AZ960 in mouse models to cure Trypanosoma brucei infections and to begin chemical modifications to maximize the molecule’s potency,” said Mackey, a member of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s Vector-borne Disease Research group.

Mackey partnered with Webster Santos, an associate professor of chemistry in the College of Science for the molecule screening.  Other co-authors include Mackey’s former graduate students Ana Lisa Valenciano and Aaron Ramsey.

“It is amazing how a potential anticancer drug can be repurposed to kill these parasites,” said Santos. “The hard work now begins — we need to make them more selective for Trypanosoma brucei over human cells. This is a task that we can achieve at the Virginia Tech Center for Drug Discovery.”

Trypanosoma brucei is carried by the tsetse fly, which is found only in rural Africa, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When the parasite infects a human host, it causes sleeping sickness, which progresses to a lethal and pathological brain disease if left untreated.

Previous drugs aimed at killing the parasite have caused undesirable side effects in the human host, including death, fever, rash, and vomiting depending on the drug.

There is a dire need for drugs that are less toxic to patients and more effective at curing this lethal disease.

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Small grains board approves funding for 23 projects across the commonwealth

The Virginia Small Grains Board recently met and approved $374,012 in funding for a total of 23 projects from across the commonwealth that are aimed at improving the production, science, marketing, and public opinion of Virginia small grains. Projects such as these drive the innovation necessary to ensure America continues to have the most reliable and affordable food supply in the world.

Below is a list of the projects the Small Grains Board approved for Virginia Tech for FY 2016-17. At the end of this fiscal year, the funding recipients will provide the results and findings of their projects to the Small Grains Board for their review.

  • Herbicide Sensitivity, Herbicide Resistant Mouse-Ear Cress and Intercropping Wheat with Forage Radish – Michel Flessner
  • Residual Herbicides for Season-Long Management of Italian Ryegrass – Charlie Cahoon
  • Small Grains Research Program Support – Bob Pitman
  • Improving Efficiency of Cultivar Development Through Aerial Remote Selection – Maria Balota
  • Integrated Management of Scab & Foliar Diseases of Wheat – Hillary Mehl
  • Accelerated Breeding for Scab Resistance in Soft Red Winter Wheat – C.A. Griffey
  • Improvement and Development of Barley for Use in Feed, Malt & Fuel – C.A. Griffey
  • Development of Specialty Wheat Varieties with High Value End-Use Properties – C.A. Griffey
  • Characterization and Mapping Native Scab Resistance in Virginia Tech Barley Varieties – C.A. Griffey
  • Marker Assisted Breeding to Enhance Cultivar Development in Small Grains – C.A. Griffey
  • Identification of Diagnostic DNA Markers for Genes Governing Quality Trains in Soft Red Winter Wheat to Aid in Breeding Cultivars Having Improved End-Use Quality – C.A. Griffey
  • Determination of Earlier Planting Date and Potential Cultuvars for Fall Planted Winter Wheat to Optimize the Soybean/Winter Wheat Double Crop Rotation for Increased Yields in Virginia – C.A. Griffey
  • Breeding Wheat for Improved Nitrogen Use Efficiency – C.A. Griffey
  • Development of Doubled Haploid Wheat Lines to Accelerate Cultivar Development – C.A. Griffey
  • FY2016 Mycotoxin Testing Services for Virginia Wheat & Barley- David Schmale
  • Detoxification of Mycotoxin in Virginia Wheat & Barley – David Schmale
  • Virginia FFA Foundation – Brian Walsh
  • Improving Nitrogen Use Efficiency in Wheat: Time-Course Observation of Flag Leaf Physiology – Takeshi Fukao
  • Small Grains Extension Program, Variety Testing and Market Development – Wade Thomason

The Virginia Small Grains Board manages and approves the allocation of small grain check-off funds to eligible programs throughout the state & nation on an annual basis. The funds the Board allocates are provided through a checkoff of one-half of one percent of the net selling price per bushel, collected by the buyer at the first point of sale and then remitted on a quarterly basis to the Virginia Department of Taxation. The check-off assessment is collected only on small grains that are sold by the producer.


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Get to know the new proposal development system, SUMMIT

As you may have already heard, starting Aug.15, the Office of Sponsored Programs began rolling out the new proposal development system called Summit which will replace the current STL proposal approval system and the Sponsored Programs Approval Form.

There will be a transition period where principal investigators can still use the current process, however we encourage you to try to use the Summit system for your submissions as soon as possible since the Office of Sponsored Programs will not accept any type of SPAF (including the pdf from the STL routing system) after Sept. 15. Access the Summit Application here. View the Summit Help You Tube Channel to get an overview of the application process and get help with questions you may have.

Please feel free to contact Lesley Mitchell or your appropriate pre-award administrator with further questions.

Lesley Mitchell
Grants Specialist
104 Hutcheson Hall
Campus mail address – 0402

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Inside the ARECS: Seafood AREC

Inside the ARECs: Seafood AREC, Spanish publicationThe Agricultural Research and Extension Centers are a network of 11 centers located throughout the state that emphasize the close working relationship between the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Inside the ARECs” highlights the work and accomplishments of these 11 centers and will appear in every Insights.

Virginia’s seafood industry is characterized by succulent and diverse fruits de mer. But behind the gastronomic delicacies is also a nimble industry that meets the demands of consumers in not only production, but also safety. Core research and extension programs at the Virginia Seafood AREC focus on seafood safety; seafood quality of wild caught and cultured animals and products; business and marketing support for the commercial and aquaculture industries, engineering, thermal processing, intensive saltwater recirculating aquaculture; and education/outreach for industry and consumers.

The Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center is an important partner in ensuring that seafood is processed safely in the commonwealth. The AREC offers food safety training to employees of commercial seafood processors. The training follows the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points guidelines, recognized through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which are a worldwide standard for commercial food processing. Employee training is critical to make certain that standards are met.

The center also offers a unique service to the industry in Spanish language training, which helps ensure that employees are able to understand the importance of food safety in the processing operations.

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