Crop Sciences

Eastern Russian plant collection could improve cold hardiness in miscanthus

Published January 10, 2017
Miscanthus sinensis on Russky Island
Miscanthus sinensis on Russky Island
  • Plant collections from around the world can be used to improve domestic crop performance.
  • A large collection of Miscanthus sacchariflorus from eastern Russia could be used to increase cold hardiness of miscanthus grown for biomass in the United States.
  • Because miscanthus is related to important food crops including sugarcane and corn, there is potential for the collection to help breeders improve cold-hardiness in those crops as well.

URBANA, Ill. – Winters in eastern Russia are intensely cold, with air temperatures regularly reaching -30 degrees Fahrenheit in some locations. It is a seemingly inhospitable climate, but native plants have found ways to thrive there. University of Illinois plant geneticist Erik Sacks suspected one of these plants may hold the key to breeding cold-tolerant food and biomass crops. To find out, the modern-day botanical explorer set off across eastern Russia with colleagues from the N. I. Vavilov All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources (VIR) to collect specimens of the perennial grass Miscanthus sacchariflorus.

“Miscanthus is part of a tribe of grasses, the Andropogoneae, that includes sorghum, sugarcane, and corn,” Sacks explains. “Because it is found so far north, this population of Miscanthus sacchariflorus is likely the most cold-hardy of that group. If we want to improve cold hardiness in this very important group of plants, this is going to be the best population to study.”

Sacks and his colleagues collected miscanthus from 47 locations across eastern Russia, including at least one location where Sacks wasn’t expecting to find it; in that case, he used his bare hands to pull it from the ground. Live rhizome fragments were sent back to U of I to be genetically analyzed and to USDA’s National Plant Germplasm System to be maintained and distributed to scientists worldwide for use in breeding and research. Samples were also provided to the VIR genebank. 

While in the field, Sacks’ team also measured traits that can be used to predict biomass production: height, number of stems, and stem diameter. When plant geneticist and the report’s lead author Lindsay Clark analyzed the plant material at U of I, she found several genetic markers associated with the traits measured in the field.

“Normally, breeders have to grow up plants from these collections and evaluate them in a replicated field trial,” Sacks says. “That’s very expensive and takes a lot of time. In the future when people go collecting, if there are heritable traits of value that can be measured quickly in the field, our results suggest it may be worthwhile to do so. It may not be as perfect as a replicated field trial in multiple sites, but it gives you a place to start.”

The analysis also showed that plants in the collection were genetically diverse, a fact that could potentially be exploited by breeders to express desirable traits in new miscanthus varieties or to add greater cold hardiness to its relatives, sugarcane and maize.

Furthermore, most of the plants were diploid—with each cell containing two copies of each chromosome—but 2 percent were tetraploid, with four copies. The most widely grown miscanthus variety in the United States, M. × giganteus, is a sterile hybrid derived from tetraploid M. sacchariflorus and diploid M. sinensis.

“We have this one genotype of M. × giganteus that’s grown for biomass right now. When we have cold winters like we had at the beginning of 2014 here in Illinois, it doesn’t do well. That’s because it’s from a subtropical area in Japan,” Clark explains.

“If we used the tetraploids from this collection to make new sterile M. × giganteus varieties, they would have a lot more cold hardiness than the current variety,” Sacks adds.

The research team has a lot more work to do before new miscanthus varieties are commercially available, but Sacks sees the exploration as a success. “Genetic diversity is the basis for all crop improvement, and germplasm collections play a key role. Without them, plant breeders can’t make great improvements in our crops in terms of yield, hardiness, and a variety of different abiotic and biotic stresses,” he says.

The article, “Ecological characteristics and in situ genetic associations for yield-component traits of wild Miscanthus from eastern Russia,” is published in the Annals of Botany. The study was supported by grants from the USDA-ARS National Plant Germplasm System’s Plant Exploration Program and the DOE Office of Biological and Environmental Research. 



News Source:

Erik Sacks, 217- 333-9327

Biomass producers can bring in cash while establishing switchgrass

Published December 15, 2016
Switchgrass growing with corn
Switchgrass (foreground) growing with corn

URBANA, Ill. – Farmers looking to cash in on the growing biomass market may be scared off by profit losses during long establishment periods. But a new study from the University of Illinois provides a workaround.

“We have shown that farmers can grow corn as a companion crop with switchgrass to generate revenue in the establishment year,” says U of I agronomist D.K. Lee.

The idea is simple: farmers plant corn as usual, but also sow switchgrass seed in the same field approximately one week earlier. Corn shoots up quickly, leaving small switchgrass plants to establish under the corn canopy. The corn can then be harvested and sold to provide an income stream in the first year.

“The following year, switchgrass emerges early like other perennial grasses starting from crowns,” Lee says. By the end of that second year, switchgrass is typically able to produce at full capacity.

Planting corn as a companion to switchgrass is not a new idea; other studies have shown it can work. But Lee says that no clear guidelines have been established with respect to corn seeding rates or nitrogen application rates.

The experiment looked at three corn seeding rates: 28,000 seeds per acre, the standard rate at the time the study was done, and 24,000 (85 percent), and 20,000 (70 percent). It also investigated three nitrogen application rates: 0, 100, and 200 pounds per acre. After the first year, no additional nitrogen was applied. Switchgrass stand density and biomass yield was tracked over three years.

The presence of switchgrass did not negatively impact corn yield, but the addition of a corn companion crop did result in lower switchgrass density at first. Density and yield started to bounce back in the second and third years.

The study also included an economic analysis of various scenarios. “Net returns for all treatment combinations with corn were significantly more profitable than without corn, especially when fertilized with 100 or 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre during the establishment year,” Lee says.

Lee and his collaborators conclude that the use of corn as a companion crop with switchgrass can get farmers through the establishment year income gap.

The article, “Establishing switchgrass with a corn companion crop to improve economic profitability,” is published in Agronomy Journal. The study was funded by the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and the Energy Biosciences Institute.

Nitrogen and the 2016 corn crop

Published December 13, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – The 2016 cropping season was a good one for corn in Illinois, according to University of Illinois crop scientist Emerson Nafziger.

“Planting was on time into good soil conditions, and crop development proceeded with little stress, though June was warm and dry in most areas. The current prediction is for statewide corn yield to be 202 bushels per acre, edging out the previous record of 200 bushels set in 2014,” Nafziger says.

Soil temperature and moisture conditions in May and June were favorable for mineralization, or the release of nitrogen from soil organic matter. This increased the amount of plant-available nitrogen in the soil during vegetative growth in 2016.

With a good nitrogen supply and plenty of sunshine, corn plants in most fields were dark green and growing rapidly by late May and early June. Even strips in trials that received little or no nitrogen fertilizer stayed green into the middle of June, much later than normal.

The benefits of this good supply of nitrogen carried through the season, and meant that the crop needed less fertilizer nitrogen than normal.

“Across 26 on-farm nitrogen rate trials, yields averaged 225 bushels per acre at an average nitrogen rate of only 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre. That is more yield with less nitrogen than we saw in 2015, when June was wet,” Nafziger notes.

Not only did relatively low nitrogen rates produce high yields in 2016, but timing and form of nitrogen made less difference in yield than usual. Ammonium is stable in the soil, while nitrate can move with water through the soil. If most of the nitrogen is nitrate and heavy rain falls, nitrogen loss can be substantial. That didn’t happen in 2016, mostly because of dry June conditions.

Nafziger and his colleagues also studied nitrogen application timing in 2016, and found that timing made almost no difference in how corn responded to nitrogen rate. In particular, late-split nitrogen, in which application is split between planting and tasseling time, produced no more yield than when all of the nitrogen was applied at planting. With no additional yield to cover the cost of the late application, late application reduced net income.

“We saw nitrogen at its best in 2016,” Nafziger says. “It was present when the crop needed it, and the supply of nitrogen from soil organic matter, along with little loss, meant that the crop needed less fertilizer than usual, even though uptake and yield were high. We can’t depend on this to happen every year, of course, but the common idea that ‘high yields require high fertilizer nitrogen rates’ clearly did not hold true in 2016. This should increase our confidence, especially in years with dry springs, that nitrogen applied at normal rates will meet the needs of the crop without our needing to pour on more nitrogen to reach high yields.”

For more information, please visit the Bulletin.

Learn small farming skills from your desk this winter

Published December 9, 2016

URBANA, Ill. - Even in the dead of winter, you can learn to raise strawberries, microgreens, and cut flowers.

“Your fields and gardens may be snowed over, but it is the perfect time to develop your skills in small farming and local food production,” says Andy Larson, a University of Illinois Extension local food systems and small farms educator.

University of Illinois Extension will once again be hosting the Small Farms Winter Webinar Series featuring practical, lunch-hour presentations on small farm enterprises and strategies. Log in every Thursday at noon, Jan. 19 through March 30. 

“Because farm life is seldom convenient during the colder months, it’s nice to have these down-to-earth learning opportunities available right at your fingertips. No gloves or long johns required,” says, Larson, who will be providing a lesson on growing hobby farms into businesses.  “Winter is great for planning your next growing season, so let’s talk about ways you can improve or diversify your small farm.”

The winter webinar series will include presentations on buying quality hay, rejuvenating old fruit trees, mite problems in honeybees, planning windbreaks, mulching vegetables, soil management in high tunnels, and new food safety rules. Each hour-long webinar will be presented by an Extension educator. Webinars will also be recorded and archived for future viewing.

Registration is free. Sign up for one or all webinars at Registrants will be sent a webinar reminder, log-on instructions, and instructions on how to access the archived recording. If you do not have broadband internet capable of streaming video, call your local Extension office to see if they offer live viewing.

If you need a reasonable accommodation to participate in this program, please contact your local Extension office.

Webinar series schedule:

Jan. 19 - ABCs of Strawberry Plasticulture Production, Bronwyn Aly, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Jan. 26 - Buying Hay: Quality vs. Cost, Jamie Washburn, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Feb. 2 - Slow Flowers: Small-Scale Cut Flower Production, Candice Hart, University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Educator

Feb. 9 - Out with the Old: Pruning Old and Neglected Fruit Trees, Grant McCarty, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Feb. 16 - Small Commercial Microgreen Production, Zack Grant, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Feb. 23 - Food Safety Needs for Midwest Produce Growers,  Angela Shaw, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Food Safety Specialist

Mar. 2 - Growing Your Hobby Farm into a Business, Andy Larson, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Mar. 9 - Do Your Bees Have PMS (Parasitic Mite Syndrome), Doug Gucker, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Mar. 16 - Maximizing Windbreaks on Your Farm, David Shiley, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Mar. 23 - Benefits of Mulching Vegetables, James Theuri, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Mar. 30 - Soil Management for High Tunnels, Nathan Johanning, University of Illinois Extension Local Food Systems and Small Farms Educator

Christmas tree trivia

Published December 9, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – We may put up a Christmas tree every year, but few of us are aware of their history and significance. University of Illinois Extension educator Ron Wolford enlightens us.

In 1856, Franklin Pierce, the 14th President of the United States, was the first president to place a Christmas tree in the White House.

Thomas Edison's assistant, Edward Johnson, came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees in 1882. Christmas tree lights were first mass-produced in 1890.

The tradition of an official Chicago Christmas tree was initiated in 1913 when one was lit by Mayor Carter H. Harrison in Grant Park.

From 1887 to 1933, a fishing schooner called the "Christmas Ship" would tie up at the Clark Street Bridge in Chicago and sell Michigan spruce trees to Chicagoans.

Since 1971, the Province of Nova Scotia has presented the Boston Christmas tree to the people of Boston. The tree is a gift of thanks for relief supplies received from Boston after the explosion of a ship in Halifax, Nova Scotia Harbor. Part of the city was leveled, killing and injuring thousands.

In 1979, the National Christmas Tree was not lit, except for the top ornament. This was done to honor American hostages in Iran.

Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states and Canada.

The average growing time for a Christmas tree is seven years.

Between 25 and 30 million live Christmas trees are sold in the United States each year.

Approximately, 350 million Christmas trees are currently growing on tree farms in the United States.

Check out the University of Illinois Extension website Christmas Trees & More for more information:

News Source:

Ron Wolford , 773-233-2900

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Finding the perfect Christmas tree

Published December 8, 2016

URBANA, Ill. – Choosing the perfect Christmas tree this holiday season is simply a matter of following a few simple steps, according to University of Illinois Extension educator Ron Wolford.

“Choosing the family Christmas tree can be a memory-filled tradition,” Wolford says. The following tips can help you select a fresh tree for your home and keep it looking its best.

Pick and measure a spot in your home to place the tree before heading out to buy it. Wolford says, “Ask yourself if the tree will be seen from all sides, or will some of it be against a wall?”

Choose a tree that fits where it is to be displayed. For example, if the tree is displayed in front of a large window, then all four sides should look as good as possible. If the tree is displayed against a wall, a tree with three good sides should suffice. A tree with two good sides would work well in a corner. “The more perfect a tree, the more expensive it will be,” Wolford notes. Also, bring a tape measure with you to the farm to ensure your tree is not too tall for your space.

Place the tree away from heat sources, such as heaters, fireplaces, TVs, radiators, and air vents. Wolford points out that a dried-out tree is a fire hazard.

If buying from a retail lot, Wolford recommends going during the day. “Choosing a tree in daylight is much easier than trying to pick out a tree in a dimly lit lot,” he says.

A fresh tree will have a healthy green appearance with few browning needles. Needles should be flexible and not fall off if you run a branch through your hand. Raise the tree a few inches off the ground and drop it on the butt end. Very few green needles should fall off the tree, but it is normal for a few inner brown needles to drop. Make sure the handle or base of the tree is straight and long enough, so it will fit easily into your stand.

“Store your tree in an unheated garage or some other area out of the wind if you are not putting it up right away,” Wolford notes. “Make a fresh, 1-inch cut on the butt end and place the tree in a bucket of warm water. When you bring the tree indoors, make another fresh 1-inch cut and place the tree in a sturdy stand. The water reservoir of the stand should provide one quart of water for every inch of diameter of the trunk.”

Keep the water level above the base of the tree. If the base dries out, resin will form over the cut end and the tree will not be able to absorb water and will dry out quickly.

Commercially prepared mixes, sugar, aspirin, or other additives added to the water are not necessary. “Research has shown that plain water will keep a tree fresh,” Wolford says.

For more information, visit the University of Illinois Extension website Christmas Trees & More at

News Source:

Ron Wolford, 773-233-2900

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Top 10 tips for poinsettias

Published December 7, 2016
Poinsettia plant

URBANA, Ill. – It is hard to think of the holidays without conjuring up images of red poinsettias and a snowy landscape. These beautiful plants are easy to care for, with a few simple tips.

“There is no need for people to experience difficulties with their poinsettia plants,” says University of Illinois Extension educator Kim Ellson. “Here are some tips to ensure your poinsettia looks its very best this season and well into the new year.”

  1. Purchase a healthy, high-quality plant.
  2. Make sure the cyathia remain tight and have not opened. The cyathia are the green buds in the centers of the flowers, surrounded by the colorful red bracts. They eventually open into tiny yellow flowers.
  3. White and healthy roots are a great indicator of good plant health.
  4. Wrap plants before transporting them home.
  5. Avoid cold drafts; poinsettias are highly sensitive to direct drafts and suffer damage easily.
  6. Let plants go completely dry between waterings, without stressing plants. Poinsettias are prone to suffer from overwatering as they have sensitive root systems that easily rot out.
  7. Always water thoroughly.
  8. If possible, select a cool area in your home. Avoid heating ducts or placing plants in overly warm areas during the holiday season. This will ensure vibrant, colorful bracts.
  9. There is no need to fertilize your poinsettia during the holidays; save the fertilizer for March.
  10. Monitor the plant for pests such as whiteflies by checking the undersides of the leaves. Treat early before infestations become unwieldy.

“These basic guidelines should help ensure you get the very most out of your poinsettia this holiday, and enjoy a colorful season,” Ellson says.

News Source:

Kim Ellson, 847-818-2905

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Forcing paperwhites for holiday décor

Published December 5, 2016
flower bulbs

URBANA, Ill. – Longing for a bit of spring during the winter months? A University of Illinois Extension educator suggests “forcing” bulbs indoors to create a beautiful and long-lasting flower display for your home.

“The term ‘forcing’ refers to a technique that imitates the environmental conditions that bulbs encounter outdoors, thereby tricking them into flowering earlier,” says Candice Hart. “Essentially, it allows you to bring the outdoor beauty of bulbs indoors.”

Most flowering bulbs need a cold treatment before they will initiate a flower. “This would apply to most of our spring flowering bulbs in Illinois, like tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, and others,” Hart says. “We plant these bulbs outdoors in the fall so that they are exposed to the winter cold before flowering the following spring. This can easily be replicated indoors by placing bulbs in the refrigerator or in a cool garage or basement for a period of time.”

Fortunately, there are bulbs that do not need a cold treatment in order to flower, making the process much simpler. Paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus), with its prolific white blooms, is one example. “They are so easy to grow, and make an excellent choice for holiday décor,” Hart notes.


“The unique thing about forcing bulbs is that they can be planted in containers with or without drainage, because they’ll only be in the container for a short period of time,” Hart says. “I personally love the look of paperwhites forced in shallow clear containers with decorative stones.”

To plant in a container without drainage, select a 3- to 4-inch deep decorative container. Place 1 to 2 inches of washed gravel or stones in the bottom of the container and carefully place the bulbs on the gravel or stones. Bulbs can be placed as close as desired. Next, place enough gravel or stones over or around the bulbs to hold them in place.

To use a pot that has drainage, again select one that is 3 to 4 inches deep, and plant the bulbs in a well-drained potting mix with the tops of the bulbs even or slightly below the rim of the pot.


In a container with no drainage holes, add water to the base of the bulbs and maintain it at this level through the life of the planting. “Do not immerse the bulbs in water; only the basal plate of the bulb, where the roots originate, should be in water,” Hart warns. In a container with drainage, simply water the soil thoroughly after planting and keep it moist thereafter.


Paperwhites will flower under any light conditions. However, for best results, place the bulbs in a window area with a southern exposure. When the plants begin to flower, remove them from direct sunlight and place plants in the coolest area of the home. This helps to prolong flowering.

If you can pot up paperwhite narcissus bulbs every 10 days or so starting in the fall, you can have a succession of blooms all through the winter. “These forced bulbs make a great decoration for your own home or gift for the holidays,” Hart notes.

News Source:

Candice Hart, 815-732-2191

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

Dicamba and soybean: What to expect in 2017

Published November 30, 2016
soybean plant

URBANA, Ill. – One barrier to weed control on soybean farms has just been lifted. In early November, the Environmental Protection Agency approved a label allowing use of the herbicide dicamba in dicamba-resistant soybean, although only one commercial product received that label. Many Illinois farmers anticipate this technology will provide a much-needed method to control weeds that are resistant to multiple herbicides, as well as other difficult-to-control species.

“Without question, there are instances and scenarios in which dicamba will improve control of certain weed species, but dicamba will not bring back the ‘good ol’ days’ of POST-only weed control programs in soybean. Current expectations of what this technology can accomplish tend to be a bit more optimistic than what the technology actually will be able to deliver,” says University of Illinois weed scientist Aaron Hager.

Hager expects the technology will work well in a handful of scenarios. For example, dicamba should be effective for glyphosate-resistant horseweed (i.e., marestail) that does not respond to the traditional burndown tankmix of glyphosate and 2,4-D.

“The new dicamba label allows up to 1 lb dicamba acid-equivalent to be applied prior to planting dicamba-resistant soybean. This can provide better and more consistent control of glyphosate-resistant horseweed compared with 0.5 lb acid-equivalent 2,4-D,” Hager says.

It is important to note that although the new label allows soybean to be planted immediately after dicamba application, Hager advises farmers to wait a few days following application before injuring the weeds with the planting operation.

Hager also predicts that dicamba will provide good control of tall and ivy-leaf morning glory, as well as common and giant ragweed. “Dicamba certainly can provide better control of herbicide-resistant ragweeds than can glyphosate or ALS inhibitors,” he says.

For farmers battling waterhemp, the solution may not be as simple. Most university weed control guides list dicamba as good or very good on waterhemp, but not excellent.

“Dicamba can improve control of pigweed species, but it will never be as effective as glyphosate once was,” Hager notes. “Illinois farmers have made great strides toward utilizing more diverse herbicide programs for waterhemp control than they were using a decade ago. We suggest that dicamba should be used in a way that does not reduce this diversity. It is imperative to maintain a diverse weed management approach to prolong the effective utility of dicamba.”

Illinois waterhemp populations have evolved resistance to herbicides from six site-of-action groups. According to Hager, resistance to dicamba is not a question of “if”, but “when.”

Hager points out some of the restrictions that come with the new dicamba label. “The current label contains several mandates related to the actual spray application procedure that are somewhat unique,” he says. “For instance, there are limitations on boom height, sprayer speed, and nozzle type that applicators must follow.”

One of the most significant limitations is the inability to tankmix dicamba with other herbicides. There is an avenue by which other herbicides can be approved for application with dicamba, but if the current label remains unchanged during the 2017 growing season, applicators will be required to apply dicamba alone.

“In other words, farmers will make a separate application of dicamba and another application of other needed herbicides,” Hager says.

Additional concerns about the new product relate to yield potential of dicamba-resistant soybean and the possibility of particle drift and volatilization. For more information on these issues, please visit The Bulletin.

More information will be shared about dicamba use in dicamba-resistant soybean as the product is rolled out. Hager suggests that dicamba will provide a solution to unique weed management challenges, but notes that not all weed management challenges can be met with dicamba. 

“Other herbicide-resistant crop technologies, such as Liberty Link and Enlist, also can provide solutions and remain viable options for soybean producers. Proper stewardship of all technologies is essential to prolong their effective utilization,” Hager says.

News Source:

Aaron Hager, 217-333-4424
Apr 03 College of ACES Library Third Annual Food Security Symposium: Commercial Agriculture in the Tropical Environments