Agriculture and Environment

logo of sun rising over fieldsOur agriculture and environment researchers work to improve food security, protect wildlife, ensure a clean water supply, develop climate change solutions, and bolster the health and sustainability of natural and managed systems.

These impacts are made possible through public and private investments, legislator support, multi-institutional partnerships, and the dedication of faculty and student scholars.  

Below, we showcase a fraction of our world-class research in the area of agriculture and the environment. You can also view a pdf version and subscribe to one of our ACES e-newsletters to stay abreast of new developments in ACES research.

Delivering more milk to food-insecure tropical countries

cow infographic

A philanthropic project from the College of ACES is bringing the milk-producing power of Holsteins together with the heat tolerance of cattle indigenous to tropical climates. Using traditional breeding techniques along with artificial insemination, the project promises to deliver tropical-adapted cattle capable of producing 10 times the milk of indigenous breeds. Although similar hybrid breeds are common in Brazil, they can't be exported to other countries due to endemic diseases. The high health status of the U.S. herd, along with access to the world's best Holstein genetics, set the Illinois project apart. Better still, the researchers are simply giving the embryos away to developing countries, with the goal of establishing local herds and boosting food security for generations.

Funding: An anonymous donor provided $1.2 million to this project.

ACES researchers:
Matt Wheeler, Animal Sciences

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Could corn's lost microbial partners be restored?

corn infographic

Before the Green Revolution, corn plants took advantage of partnerships with soil microbes to meet their nitrogen needs. But 40 years of corn breeding during a period of sharply increasing synthetic fertilizer application had some unintended outcomes, according to new research from ACES scientists. Not only did corn lose the ability to recruit "good" microbes -- the ones that help plants acquire nitrogen without fertilizers -- the crop now actively enlists "bad" microbes that contribute to nitrogen loss. The researchers hope to "rewild" the corn microbiome, bringing genes from ancient corn relatives into the modern crop to help restore partnerships with good soil microbes. If successful, they could reduce farmers' reliance on synthetic fertilizers, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and avoid nutrient pollution in waterways.

Funding: USDA-NIFA's Agricultural Microbiomes Program ($750,000) and the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council ($250,000) are funding this work.

ACES researchers:
Angela Kent, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Alonso Favela, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Martin Bohn, Crop Sciences

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Rethinking bat boxes

bat box infographic

Many conservation professionals and homeowners install bat boxes in an attempt to protect the sensitive and ecologically important creatures. But many of these roosting boxes are small or painted in dark colors, potentially causing bats who use them to overheat and even die. ACES researchers are studying the impact of these products on bat populations, finding that the flying mammals often choose hot bat boxes over more suitable roosting sites. The researchers are working to educate the public about the dangers of certain bat boxes and encouraging homeowners to take other steps to create habitat for bats, such as planting native vegetation and providing clean water sources. They are also testing safer, cooler bat box designs.

ACES Researchers:
Joy O'Keefe, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences
Reed Crawford, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences

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Regenerative agriculture initiative takes shape at Illinois

regenerative ag infographic

With climate change mounting an ever-growing threat to food security across the globe, it is critical to commit to sustainable farming practices. The University of Illinois has been innovating in the agriculture space for more than 150 years, and, with the launch of the new Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative (IRAI) in 2020, it is advancing productivity, profitability, and environmental health through outcome-driven approaches. The IRAI encourages interdisciplinary research collaborations and requires each project to be conducted with the partnership of stakeholders, including producers, land owners, end users, policymakers, and more. Through these partnerships, the IRAI will enhance food security, reinvigorate rural and urban communities, and restore natural systems upon which life depends.

Funding: Funding was provided by FreshTaste ($818,000)

ACES researchers: 
Emily Heaton, Crop Sciences
Adam Davis, Crop Sciences
Madhu Khanna, Agricultural and Consumer Economics
Kim Kidwell, ACES Administration

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Illinois Regenerative Agriculture Initiative launches at University of Illinois