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2009 Interns

Promiscuous Corn

Did you know that corn is promiscuous? Don’t be too shocked. This monocot is very happy to out cross the very moment you fail to protect its innocence.

Protecting My Corn

Corn, as most of you know, is a monocot. Corn can self pollinate or it can out cross, or get pollinated by another corn plant. It does this so readily in large cornfields that, uncontrolled, the seed that results will be widely different in both its agronomic and genetic traits. In cash grain fields this is not a problem, however, in research, we spend a large part of our time preventing out crosses.

For the past month I have been protecting my corn’s innocence! I have been covering up little ears with shoot bags to keep invading pollen at bay. Then when the silks have grown out we are able to make the necessary crosses to bring out specific desirable traits.

Doing this is quite labor intensive and time consuming, hence the entire months work devoted to just this task! Despite the hard work, this is undoubtedly the most important aspect of our research project. If we mess this up, we don’t have corn to plant out for next years research.

The Process:

Shoot Bag

Shoot Bag

  • Cover the ears with shoot bags before they have a chance to silk.

    Shedding Tassel

    Shedding Tassel

  • Wait for the tassel to begin shedding pollen.

    Bag Tassel

    Bag Tassel

  • Once the tassel has begun to shed, place a tassel bag over the tassel to collect pollen for tomorrows pollination.

    Cut Back Ear

    Cut Back Ear

  • At the same time cut back the respective ear until you see silks. These will grow out over night to leave a little silk bush for you to dump your collected pollen on. Cover Up IMMEDIATELY!

    Silks Grown Out

    Silks Grown Out

  • The following day you will wait until the temperature increases enough for pollen to begin to shed, around 11AM. (Yes, pollen is temperature sensitive
    Collected Pollen

    Collected Pollen

    and needs warm weather to be viable!) You will then shake that bag of collected pollen out onto the silks of the ear you wish to pollinate. Once again, cover up that ear with the remaining tassel bag to prevent any stray pollen from sticking to your silks.

  • Done! You now have a hand pollinated ear.

This may not seem like that big of a task, but imagine doing this to over 9 acres of corn plants. The sheer volume of work available during pollination is enough to make even the most hardy of us exhausted to the core. The work is often never ending, and as one of our grad students once said, “Corn Doesn’t Care What Day of the Week It Is!’

Lots of Pollinations

Renewable Energy Field Days Draw Statewide Crowd

The four field days hosted over 90 attendees total! I was able to attend 2 of the 4 field days that I helped to organize: Warren’s off-the-grid systems on August 5 and Bondi’s solar livestock watering on August 6. I enjoyed meeting the hosts and learning about the systems myself, but the best part was watching the attendees get to know each other and exchange ideas and information.

Sam Warren of On Warren Pond Farm in Trumansburg has been homesteading since the early 1990s. He’s installed his energy systems over fifteen years. The waterwheel was a curiosity for most people; they saw more practical application in the solar and wind technologies. However, the waterwheel runs many of Sam’s tools (e.g., a drill press) directly and simultaneously, which means that there’s no need to store electricity for later use. This field day hosted the largest group: we counted 36 people in attendance!

Sam Warren's homemade waterwheel

Sam Warren's homemade waterwheel

Bob and Mary Lou Bondi are just getting started with a small beef operation in a historic barn in Pultaney, NY. 19 people turned out to learn about Bob’s solar pump system for livestock watering, which was installed with grant assistance from the Finger Lakes Resource Conservation and Development Council.

Bob Bondi explains his solar water pump

Bob Bondi explains his solar water pump

Each farmer is exploring several different technologies to find what combination works best. The attendees were a diverse group; everyone was attentive and curious and they learned as much from each other as they did from the hosts. “Green” might be the buzzword of the day, but passion for renewable energy is present in such a varied population that I will be surprised if interest declines anytime soon.

It was truly a rewarding experience to see so many people show up partly because of my efforts. See more at my blog.

Keep Track of Your Corn

It’s been a while since I blogged and I want to apologize to all. It’s been so hard for me to get used to living without internet in my new apartment, not to mention that the library is only open during my work hours and I never make it back from the field before it closes. Needless to say, I drafted this post back in July. Hope it’s not too late!

Hole Punching Tissue. A tedious by necessary evil!

Remember last time I’d mentioned that I loved the snip and slip method of collecting tissue…well, I may retract my statement. We used that same tissue and hole punched it into tubes in preparation for tissue grinding and chloroform extraction of DNA. The little steel balls are the best part of that whole process. If you have steady hands and don’t mind them bouncing all over like tiny marbles you might be able to get through the process. Interestingly enough, Jesse, our senior graduate student freeze dried the tissue before we had to punch holes with it. This made the process so much more efficient. No more tissue sticking to punchers, no more iron corn leaves that refuse to yield their tissue, just perfection.

In addition to the never ending adventure of tissue, we’ve now been rowbanding. Rowbands are colored cardboard with stuck on labels identifying each specific row or corn plant. This helps us keep track of the specific corn and makes data collection a breeze. These labels even have both a linear and a 3-D barcode on them. Our scanners can be transported out to the field and can automatically collect the data for you by scanning in or typing in your information for a specific plant. Myself and the other two undergrads have been diligently sticking labels and row banding the corn plants so that we are better able to keep track of it!

Sara, another undergrad, fanning out our row bands!

Sara, another undergrad, fanning out our rowbands.

Organic Dairy Videos

I haven’t meant to be absent from the blog for so long, but I’ll take it as a good sign that I’ve been too busy at work to update here. Let’s take it back to the end of July…

The Organic Dairy Initiative and NOFA-NY co-hosted an “Organic Dairy Farming and Raw Milk Marketing!” field day on July 23. It drew a good-sized crowd, including Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton; Professor Gary Fick gave a talk during lunch. I had a chance to experiment with the office’s new Flip video camera and produced a grand total of 14 video clips of the day’s discussions and speakers. Check out some examples at my blog!

EDIT: All 14 videos are now available on the Small Farms Program YouTube channel.

Things you MUST know!

Volunteer corn (corn growing due to seed from the previous year’s crop) can be a serious problem, and according to a 2007 Iowa State University study one volunteer corn plant per 10-foot of row resulted in a 1.3 percent yield loss. I haven’t seen many fields worst than this one…


Got Volunteer Corn?

Algona, Iowa – Corn is so important in Iowa that the Algona municipal airport’s runway is bordered by it! I guess every piece of arable land is being used!

Algona, Iowa - Municipal Airport Runway

Algona, Iowa - Municipal Airport Runway

(Okay, so to be entirely truthful – Algona does have a paved runway — so this is not the only runway at the airport.)

Britt, Iowa — National Hobo Convention

Yes, you read it correctly! Britt, Iowa is home to the national hobo convention, which is being held this summer from August 6-9. For more information and to find out who a hobo really is check out their website: Britt, Iowa.

Britt, Iowa

Britt, Iowa


Everybody has heard of Round Up Ready technology and a lot of people think that it is great.  And it is great.  However, there are certain limitations to the technology that people should be aware of.  Glyphosate (Roundup, Touchdown) is what is known as a burndown herbicide.  The molecule is absorbed through foliage and is translocated to the growing points of the weed where it inhibits amino acid synthesis.  Because it requires growing plant tissue to work, glyphosate has no residual effect.  So, any weeds that emerge after glyphosate is applied are safe from its effects.  This means that multiple applications of glyphosate are usually required to keeps crop areas free of weed.  Weed control can be greatly improved by combining glyphosate (or another burndown herbicide) with a chemical (such as atrazine or S-metolachlor) that has residual action.  This system not only kills weeds that are present, but prevents the germination and emergence of other weeds.  Now remember that certain chemicals are labeled for certain crops, so be sure that you read the label before applying anything.  Also note that glyphosate technology only works with crops that are specifically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate.  So if you are going use glyphosate on your corn, make sure that it is glyphosate tolerant or your will be very sorry.

Take Care,


Summer School Course—Self-learning 101

        No credit, no preliminary tests and no whatsoever final projects, just for the pure joy of obtaining new knowledge I am interested in— along with other studious Cornellians who spare no time crunching books in summer school during the day, I am taking self-learning courses “engineering statistics” and “Introduction to macroeconomics”, in the evening after finishing my whole day’s work as an intern. The zealotry of delving into numbers and arcane mathematical equations, such as Weibull distribution which can potentially cause tremendous anxiety among many people, actually does not come out of nowhere. I love doing something quantitative in my life, something that can make me see things clearer about this world via numbers and functions. For a quite long time, I have had a weird feeling that something is missing in my daily life during the passed spring semester and I just could not figure out what it was. But one day, when I unintentionally glanced across my Schedulizer class arrangement, I suddenly realized that all courses that I had been taking so far, since the very first semester I transferred here at Cornell, none of them have any strong relationship with math: the only things I remember used were addition, subtraction, multiplication and division—even square root was not involved!

       Therefore, statistics, at engineering level, comes as rescue! And in fact, what empowers you to engage in self-learning, in contrast with teaching-learning practice checked by obligations such as assignment and grading during the semester is quite different. The pure pleasure of finding things out, in my regard, is the utmost rewarding experience in self-motivated learning. Exploring the domain where you are really infatuated at is something that no other subjects can replace, and in a self-customized “research” journey, you are your boss. An even more compelling aspect is that the depth of thinking and discussion featuring in that particular subject can be overwhelmingly interesting to you compared with the limited energy and time allowed during the busy semester.

         Self-learning is a component of self-improvement. It enables you to get better prepared for tomorrow’s challenge through a unique way that no others methods are comparable. In addition to the engineering statistics, I am also taking macroeconomics at an intro level. Why bothering learning economics while working as an intern in soil nutrient management research? Well, internship, as I believe, not only can strengthen your skills and knowledge in one particular aspect, which most of us tend to appreciate in the first place, but also may direct you towards a new direction, for me is agricultural economics–a direction full of challenges and excitement. This revelation has come to me a little late—I only have one more year at Cornell, which means that adapting to a new field, though somewhat related to my current knowledge base, is indeed not easy. Therefore, self-charging during the evening is the only choice I have in order to catch up with others in the intermediate level-macroeconomics course in the future. Besides, I am looking forward to applying for graduate school in the fall, whose requirement includes macroeconomics. Shedding sweat in a hot summer evening is much better than shedding tears after being rejected.

          Live and learn.

I’ll Rust Your Tissue…

For the past two weeks the Nelson Lab has been filled with rust and tissue. But listen, don’t get this confused with the kind of rust from the bottom of your car or tissue you use to blow your nose!

Tissue collection is a very important aspect of any genetic analysis. It is collected in many different styles and performed for many reasons, as I learned the hard way this past week. Many of the tissue samples I collected from the nursery stock will be used simply to see which plants must be cross pollinated to create the next generation with a desired trait. These we collect into tiny plates, being sure to clean our tweezers off on our cloth between every pluck of sawdust size tissue. I later aided the grad students with the DNA Extractions of this same tissue where we got a quick lesson in SNP’s and SSR’s. SNP’s can be performed much quicker than SSR’s and the information is shown as a cluster in a computer generated graph rather than the tough to analyze peaks of the SSR’s.

Then we had to hole punch one piece of tissue out of each plant in the row to get the row average of specific recombinant inbred lines. These we loaded into Costar tubes, which apparently work well to create a DNA that will, as the grad students say “LAST FOREVER,” which is quite ironic as collecting that tissue TAKES FOREVER!

The last type of tissue collection I will discuss is one that i enjoy the most. No bending over for hours. No hole punching. Just grab some scissors and snip it! This tissue we collected into small envelopes for later use.

After all this tissue collection I was glad to switch to rust duty. I learned that Rust is a biotroph. This means that it needs a live host to grow and sporulate. This is very different from the Northern Corn Leaf Blight cultures I am accustomed to. NLB is a necrotroph meaning it grows on a host and kills it in order to utilize the dead tissue, making it very convenient to culture in a lab on Petri plates.

Since we have a large amount of plants in a trial searching for rust resistance on a specific QTL, we cultured our rust on live plants in the greenhouses here at Cornell. By using this QTL selection method or Quantitative Trait Locus we can essentially practice selection for a number of generations until the desired phenotype for the quantitative trait is identified. Once the rust was spreading on our flats of sweet corn we carefully collected the leaves and rinsed them in water to collect the spores. After a spore count we diluted spores into a liquid inoculum. We then trucked out to the field to inoculate the corn with our usual repeating pipetters.

Custom Application

I spent a half a day last week tagging along with two of MaxYield’s custom applicators as they sprayed soybeans. The first tractor I rode along in was AgChem’s RoGator. The picture below isn’t the actual tractor, but it is very similar. This particular RoGator was not the newest machine by any stretch of the imagination. Although it did have the comforts of an air conditioned cab, radio, and straight line gps guidance. The guidance works by using a light bar which is mounted on the top of the hood, out in front of the tractor. This light bar simply lets you set a point A and point B so you can drive in a straight line relative to that first pass. It tells you how many feet left or right you need to go to stay in the middle of where you are spraying. This  enables the applicator to keep straights lines across the field; improving efficiency and reducing overlap spraying.rogator2

These applicators, depending on weather of course, can put in 17 hour days spraying fields during different times of the year. After riding in the RoGator I moved to the John Deere you see below. This machine was a dramatic improvement from the first. It was much smother across the field, and best of all — it had auto-steering. After just a few trips through the field and across the headlands the tractor would automatically steer as you drove across the field. The applicator simply has to turn the tractor back around when he gets to the end of the rows and get in within somewhere around 20 feet heading back down field. Then the tractor guidance systems automatically kicks in and steers it right back where it needs to be and then keeps this path across the field. Although this can make it very difficult to stay awake in the bright sun, after a full stomach from dinner, most applicators agree that at the end of the day they are dramatically less stressed and worn out; allowing them to be safer and more alert on the job.

JD sprayer

North Eastern Branch Meeting–Agricultural Sciences Major—a New Vision for Our Beloved Earth

Portland, Maine (Lobster Eating Place)

Portland, Maine (Lobster Eating Place, I am in the center with NIKE)

There are few countries in the world like the United States, whose farming population is well below 2% while at the same time achieving astounding productivity. Ever since the beginning of the last century, this percentage has been going down dramatically in the New World, the adoption of modern technologies such fertilizers and machineries, which culminated during the Green Revolution, have certainly served as a boost for this trend. However, as our world is confronted with more and more environmental problems, water shortage and quality degradation, pollution, energy crisis, soil erosion, agriculture–one of the major sources of these dire problems has been regarded by emerging generations as the solution for a better life on earth.

In this year’s North Eastern Branch Meeting of CSSA, ASA, and SSSA (Crop Science Society of America, Agronomy Society of America and Soil Science Society of America), faculties and extension educators talked about how the establishment of majors, such as Cornell’s Agricultural Sciences (AgSci) and Penn State’s Agro-Ecology (, can meet this demand from young people—going back to agriculture and make a difference to the world. Such enthusiasm of engaging in agriculture has been well reflected in our fall semester enrollment—more than doubled since last year. What is even more inspiring that one the very same day when we were in the meeting, I read an article from USA Today, entitled “On tiny plots, a new generation of farmers emerges”. It said now that the tide has begun turning direction, though still insignificantly for the USDA’s statistics, but there is a consensus in the farming world that “there is something afoot”. People turn to agriculture, particularly organic agriculture, not only for the money, they are actually “creating something real—the food people eat—and at the same time healing the earth”. Accompanied with this emerging interest towards agriculture over the years, is the visionary advocacy from the academia.

Our AgSci major creates an interdisciplinary environment that fosters a new vision toward the diverse aspects of agriculture. Students are able to self-assemble courses fit for them related to agriculture (which is just encyclopedic as culture) with unprecedented width of choices. I have benefited a lot from our major; it grants me with a brand new perspective for agriculture, which I deem very important for the country where I come from—China, and also our beloved earth.

Nevertheless, the more choices you have, sometimes the more perplexed you become. As reflected by a couple faculties in Penn State and other schools, an interdisciplinary major, especially when it is too young ( Penn’s was founded in 1998 and ours was 2006), may potentially have its students confused about what exactly they want to do after graduation. Students need more direction as those emerging young farmers in their tiny plots whose start-up error margin (the buffering capacity of the job that allows you to make mistakes) is small. Time is precious.

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