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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.

Intern Facility Tours

I almost called them “field trips,” but that just sounds a little childish to me, like we’re in elementary school or something … don’t you think? 🙂 Anyway –

This last week the four other interns and I, who I will briefly introduce in a moment, went on two different facility tours. On Thursday we visited Global Ethanol, an ethanol plant located near Lakota, Iowa, and the next day we visited AGCO, an agricultural equipment company located in Jackson, Minnesota.

First, let me introduce the other four MaxYield interns. Below is a photo taken of the five of us at AGCO (and yes, I warned them that their faces where going to be posted on the internet!):

On the tractor, top left, is Kyle Frerichs. Kyle will be a senior at Iowa State University next year and is a SciMax Intern (MaxYield’s precision ag program).

Also on the tractor, to the right of Kyle, is Mercedes Dittrich. Mercedes is going to be a sophomore at South Dakota State University this fall, and is doing a shared internship with both MaxYield’s SciMax program and Premiere Crop.

Next to me, ground left, is Emily Schwaller. Emily also goes to SDSU and is a MaxYield 101 Intern, which means she gets involved in a little bit of everything MaxYield has to offer.

Finally, to the right of me (ground, far right), is Josh Bringleson. Josh will be a senior at Iowa State University and is a Seed/Technology Sales Intern.

Back to the “facility tours” –

Global Ethanol

At Global Ethanol we received an amazingly thorough tour of how an ethanol plant works – from where the grain goes in and ever step it takes to not only be turned into ethanol and loaded into a truck or rail tank, but also the other products which are a result of the process such as Distillers Dried Grains with Solubles (DDGS). At times it was loud and difficult to hear everything our tour guide was saying, but needless to say even if I heard everything, I would need to wipe to cobwebs of my chemistry book to fully understand the entire process. Fortunately, Global Ethanol’s Website explains how ethanol is made so I don’t need to get into the details. With that said, it was a very interesting tour. This particular plant has been running since November 2002 and operates every minute of every day of the year; of course there are shut downs due to unforeseen problems from time to time.

At the plant there is also a MaxYield office which deals with all the trucks coming into and out of the plant as well as all grain operations.


They aren’t green, but if you’ve ever had a love for agricultural equipment, you would enjoy a trip to AGCO. The AGCO Jackson Operations location has built numerous agricultural equipment, and mostly focuses on Terra Gators and CAT Challenger tractors. On our visit the main plant manufacturing facility assembly line, which builds equipment like the Terra Gator, was shut down for reorganization and improvement. There were still many employees in the welding and fabrication departments working diligently, but nothing was heading down the main production line. We received a tour through the entire main plant facility, viewing everything from where leaks are checked for using antifreeze at the end of assembly, to human and robotic welding, where raw materials are cut by lasers and where parts are clean, primed and painted.

Across an outdoor storage area is the Challenger Assembly building. This is where the “most powerful mass produced tractor in the world” is produced. This assembly building contains two assembly lines where the tractor itself, as it heads down the line starts at one end, takes a 180° turn, and is finished when it gets back next to where it started. After each tractor is checked over the make sure all components run correctly there is an onsite outdoor track and indoor test area so each unit can be quality tested.

The Challenger holds the world record for acres planted by planting 1,413 acres of spring barely in one 24-hour period.


North Eastern Branch Meeting–Grass, a Solution to the World?


Our beautiful world is confronted with unprecedented challenges: energy shortages, water contamination, food crisis, soil erosion, global warming…you name it. Anyone of those, if not addressed properly, would lead to very dire consequence for human beings. Changing mindset and discovering new technologies to solve the problem would always be a good idea, the archetypical example of this is our effort to find new genes for higher yield, better water usage and disease resistance. The other side of the coin is to optimize the way we manipulate the tools that are already in our hands. In this year’s North Eastern Branch Meeting of SSSA, CSSA and ASA (Soil Science Society of America, Crop Science Society of America and Agronomy Society of America), researchers cast their vision to a broader usage of grass—not just the lawn in your home yard.

Good agriculture will not be achieved by single approach, integrated solutions are always preferred, just like eco-balance can not depend solely on animal or plants, and you have to take all players into account. Grass is like a service facilitator, a linkage that can help generate integrated approach to the problems we face. Farmers using cover crops, such as red clovers, generally find their nitrogen leaching problem during the winter time is mitigated dramatically; crops ploughed down in spring may help them save precious dollars on fertilizers. Ground water quality, due to less contamination from nitrate, becomes more usable. In the meantime, water above ground is better managed by cover crop since they can no longer carry away nutrient rich topsoil.

You may wonder what people are doing with grass for generating energy when the petroleum price has fallen back to $2.7 per gallon. Well, many experts have predicted that our peak oil production worldwide have passed in 2008, a heavy oil dependent energy in the future is definitely non-sustainable. The current relatively low fuel price comes from the world financial meltdown, whose plummeting demand makes the price tag more appealing to the public. Grass, a very efficient energy collector, is favored by the industry. Not only having a higher energy production ratio (energy contained in the final product versus energy consumed in the production process) compared with corn based alcohol, they also can be grown on marginal land which is not suitable for food crops. Focusing on a grass-oriented livestock feeding system, will also mean less competition for food with human and better animal health.

However, grass is not the silver bullet, as pointed out by many professors; its relative importance should not be exaggerated. One of the concerns that I had after the meeting was that grass could be apotheosized after corn as the panacea for energy shortage, attracting unproportional and undeserved amount of social economic resource into it. A possible result might be that more arable land is converted to produce grass-based energy and food supply goes down correspondingly. Something too much is not good as well.

Pounding posts…

So my job hasn’t been all fun and games this summer … I’ve spent my fair share of time putting up seed signs; the worst part – pounding the posts into the ground. Seed signs are simply a plastic sign which displays the brand of seed and also lists the particular hybrid planted. We put these signs up in our “knowledge plots,” some of our small seed plots, as well as along client’s fields which neighbor a blacktop road. In our seed plots it is a simple way to compare varieties when we give plot tours. It is interesting to see, even from the road when you drive by, the variations in growth stage and color between varieties. When we sign a client’s field on a blacktop road we add a small MaxYield sign below the seed sign to let those driving by know that this particular field belongs to a MaxYield client. It’s also a nice way to get the MaxYield name out for people to see.

 I have spent a few days this summer putting in 100+ signs and posts each day. On Thursday last week, with the help of a few others, we put up almost 180 signs in a Croplan Answer Plot (which is what you see in the pictures below). Croplan has Answer Plots located all throughout the United States. Iowa has more of these plots than any other state and because we have offered a site within our territory we help maintain it and have an opportunity to take our clients out to it at any time.

Of course, on the brightside – I’m sure my basketball coaches would be happy to know I’m not just sitting at a desk all day munching on potato chips!


Potash matters—Wars of the Titans!

Potassium, along with nitrogen and phosphorus, constitutes the three most essential nutrients for crops. For alfalfa, a predominant legume forage crop for the dairy industry, sufficient potassium in the cell plasm means smooth and effective sugar transportation to all parts of the plant during the harsh winter. Potassium is supplied through potash, its fertilizer form. The origin comes from the burning residue of plant tissue or ash. Though fertilizer prices are generally influenced by energy prices, and the latter has dropped sharply since the outbreak of financial crisis worldwide, the current crude oil price has steadied at about $60 per barrel. This trend of the potash price hike seems irreversible. Within a couple of years, one ton of potash has risen from around $300 to a current price of $900! Without doing careful price forecasting and farm financial management, dairy farmers may face a dire scenario.

My internship research project this summer is to evaluate the current three widely used potassium management recommendation systems and compare their relative effectiveness; generating a feasible solution for alfalfa growers.

The three approaches currently used are:

1) Soil test

Take several soil samples cores from the field of interest and submit them to the soil nutrient laboratory (Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory, or CNAL) for chemical analysis. The result tells how much potassium, expressed in concentration, like parts per million (ppm) or pounds per acre.

2) Potassium saturation (K%)

This also requires doing the same soil chemical analysis, but the focus is on the K’s relative level, in other words, K’s amount versus the summation of potassium, calcium, and magnesium—other major soil cations.

3) Crop removal

This soil test is free! You do not have to do any soil test to calculate your potash needs. Based on the previous harvest, let’s say 5 tons/acre, use the general rule of thumb of one ton of alfalfa can absorb 0.2 ton of potassium. Then you know you need to put 1 ton of K to replenish the loss, right?

Those three approaches all have very long history and are deeply entrenched in our recommendation systems. Cornell has been long dedicated to the first method, generating the Cornell Recommendation every year, which is distributed to farmers for free. This soil test and field trial proves that soil tests work well. The second method, proposed by a group of prominent soil scientists in the 1940s, says that an ideal soil, should have x% of Ca, y% of Mg and z% of K, and of course, xyz may vary a little bit based on years of modifications. The last one, intuitively the most practical one, is believed to be the most useful tool.

Different soil labs and soil consulting businesses may choose different approaches, which makes the whole system pretty chaotic. Basically, if you want to raise your soil’s K% to 5%, as recommended by some consulting firms, the cost will be astronomical (most of the fields here our area is around 2%)! Is it worth it? Maybe, but you also risk ending up with no extra benefit in yield after applying those expensive fertilizers. What about crop removal? Soil will supply some K, but water will carry some away, so you never know. I do hope that we can have some answers by the end of this summer.

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