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Research from the Ground Up

Cynthia Jordan Profile

Like many 21-year-olds Cynthia Jordan is nearing a major milestone in her life with the completion of an undergraduate degree, but few have as many hours in research as Jordan.

“[Cynthia] is one of the most impressive underclassmen I’ve ever seen based on some of the research projects she has participated in,” Dr. Glen Ritchie, chair and associate professor of the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University, said.

Despite only being a underclassman, Jordan said she has participated in and published research in soil topics such as rapid quantification of lignite sulfate, and has worked with consulting firms to help apply the technology she’s researched in a commercial practice.

Her work in soil sampling research and classification methods has made it easier for professionals to get information about specific soil, Jordan said. But its application is not limited to agriculture or crop production- Jordan was able to help a firm in Houston, Texas, take soil samples and learn why houses in their subdivision were flooding.

“I started research with Dr. Weindorf in March of 2018,” Jordan said, “and from there, I’ve had the opportunities to continue researching and do some consulting work.”

With graduation on the horizon for Jordan, she is already looking forward to graduate school. She is even already working on her Master’s project.

“I am working towards my master’s, and from there I will be going to do my Ph.D. work,” Jordan said. “After that, I would like to do more work in soil, as well as incorporating that into agricultural production of crops.”

Being able to publish research as an undergraduate student has given her a feel of  graduate school research and the tools to succeed as a life-long researcher, Jordan says, but there is more important things than the lab work.

“Most importantly, is the collaboration with other people. Within our lab, we definitely have a good team. We have some people from Romania, some from India, and some from Brazil, as well as people from the United States — so we’re able to use them to share all of this information and contribute to a project.”

Counting Sheep

Jessica Marsh grew up in Liberty Hill, Texas, and is now an animal science major at Texas Tech University. Marsh was raised on her family’s farm where she first gained her passion for agriculture through her father’s roping horses. The responsibilities the animals gave Marsh in her early childhood laid the foundation for her future endeavors.

“It wasn’t really a particular moment that caused me to select my major, but a combination of my love for animals and the lessons they taught me growing up,” Marsh said.

Through high school, Marsh showed market lambs and goats competitively across Texas. However, it was not until reaching out to a Texas Tech professor that Marsh found her true passion.

“I reached out to Dr. Jackson to see what research he was working on regarding sheep,” Marsh said. “Getting involved with the research really opened my eyes to just how much I didn’t know about the industry and made me want to learn more.”

Sam Jackson, Ph.D., serves as a mentor to Marsh by helping facilitate her research.

 “Jessica is a very bright, hard-working student,” Jackson said. “She tends to business relative to her duties and goes above and beyond what is asked of her.”

Marsh anticipates continuing her education after receiving her undergraduate degree and aspires to attain a master’s degree in livestock nutrition. Even with big dreams, Marsh stays true to herself and wants to continue to learn as much as possible to be beneficial to the industry she holds close to her heart.            

“My goal has always been to earn high grades or get my dream job,” Marsh said. “At the end of the day, I just hope to be as passionate about what I do and be able to shine a positive light on the agriculture industry.”

Reducing the Water Footprint

Photo of Dr. West holding last years alfalfa
Dr. West grabs the previous year’s alfalfa, while the new forage grows in beneath it. Alfalfa is a perennial, high-quality and resilient grass that is full of nutrients.

A West Texas farmer sits on the bed of his Ford truck, watching his cattle graze the land. His feeder steers are in the distance pulling the last of the forage out of the barren ground. The farmer shakes his head at how thin his stock looks because the Ogallala Aquifer is too low to sustain the forage. He is worried about breaking even on the steers, let alone being profitable enough to make his yearly return. 

Luckily researchers at Texas Tech University have been studying and testing different ways to reduce the water footprint to save the Ogallala Aquifer. The water footprint refers to how much water it takes to produce a pound of beef. Charles West, Ph.D., professor and Thornton Distinguished Chair in Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech, has been researching forage crops and pastures for many years. Also, West is director of the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources Water Center and provides administrative leadership to the Texas Alliance for Water Conservation. 

“This is what we do research for,” West said. “We see something that looks interesting and could be very important.” 

West has been researching forage crops and pastures for 43 years, including 28 years at the University of Arkansas. West said Texas Tech has excellent facilities to do field research on forage grazing systems. The overarching goal of their research is to reduce the water footprint used on cattle grazing grass without negatively affecting the rate of gain of the cattle.

Photo of WW-B Dahl Seeds
WW-B Dahl Bluestem is a high-quality, resilient grass and has a good drought tolerance. It is a high-yielding grass that has low fertility requirements.

Focused on Forage

West is currently focusing his research efforts on cattle grazing on Old-World Bluestem called WW-B Dahl Bluestem and a legume Alfalfa. Both are perennial plants that are resilient and tolerate to weather, which makes them a prime choice for the dry West Texas climate. These forages are high-quality to ensure cattle ingest their proper nutrients. 

West said the research is designed to have a few pastures with only WW-B Dahl and a few pastures with WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa at high and low densities. These pastures are irrigated with a drip irrigation system and center pivot irrigation. 

Kathryn Radicke, a Texas Tech plant and soil science research graduate student, works closely with West on this project. Radicke said these grasses can do extremely well without irrigation for farmers who cannot irrigate their pastures.  

“Rather than moving cattle through pastures with a bunch of different types of forage, it is something more applicable to the farmers in this area,” Radicke said. 

For their research, the cattle breeds used for the research are typically Purebred Angus or a Simmental Angus cross and graze the pastures from June to the beginning of October. West said the cattle are in the stocker stage meaning weaned calves to before they are sent to a feedlot.

West said the reason for using Angus or Angus-cross cattle is because they handle the low humid climate better, and the meat quality is typically the best. He said they want the cattle to be as uniform as possible. The cattle should look, act, and digest the grass the same way. This ensures the cattle are a constant. 

“The differences in their productivity can be related to the differences that we impose on the pasture rather than differences from animal variation,” West said. “In our research, our enemy is biological variation.”  

Keeping the cattle as uniform as possible and letting them graze the two different types of pastures will show any differences in the cattle’s rate of gain as a result of the grass rather than genetics, West said. Beyond the grass and the cattle, water is the next important component of West’s research. 

A Conclusion Worth Ruminating

The water footprint calculated is how much water it takes to keep the WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa healthy and keep cattle gains high. West said that Alfalfa is easy to digest so it helps increase weight gain and reduce the amount of water it takes to produce a pound of meat.

 “Keep doing what we are doing. We are lowering the footprint and things will change.” 

Charles West

West and Radicke found WW-B Dahl and Alfalfa are a good mix and could be beneficial to South Plains cattle producers. Radicke said this is an inexpensive process for producers to increase their gains and help preserve the Ogallala Aquifer.  

Photo of Dr. West checking the alfalfa
Dr. West checks the pasture to see the quality of the new forages growing back in. The alfalfa turns green typically when the potential for a spring frost has passed.

A few producers have recently transitioned into this way of grazing and others have been forced into it. West said producers who adapt to this process are concerned about water consumption on their farms or have trouble with growing grasses to increase cattle gains.

“You can grow this resilient grass called WW-B Dahl and grow Alfalfa with it and it bumps up your gains,” West said. 

West said reducing the water used and increasing gains translates into money. 

After many successful years researching forage, West will retire in August of 2020. His advice to other researchers and farmers is to continue advancing and finding advancements for agriculture. 

 “Keep doing what we are doing,” West said. “We are lowering the footprint and things will change.” 

Growing soybeans; Growing futures

Dr. Lyford looking at statistics of his research.
Texas Tech University takes pride in doing research internationally to advance agricultural practices in other countries.

Ghana’s poverty and hunger have declined steadily over the last 20 years thanks, mostly, to improved agricultural extension services and improved market access. Researchers in Texas Tech University’s College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources were working to understand the financial benefits of producing soybeans in Africa.

In Ghana, research plots of soybeans were planted to monitor the changes in yield and income for local farmers.

The goal of the research was to evaluate the effect of improved agricultural extension services and improved market access opportunities on productivity level, food security, nutrition status and income levels among smallholder farmers, according to research by Conrad Lyford, Texas Tech agricultural and applied economics professor.

The research took place for a year. At the end of the study, farmers showed interest in continuing to grow soybeans. In the year after, soybean production expanded in almost all targeted communities, according to Esri.

“There’s a lot of inequities in production agriculture in Africa,” Lyford said.

“Typically, most of the farmers are actually women. However, women have a lot less access to credit, quality land, informational resources, and other inputs to be successful in farming. Soybeans were considered at the time to be a ‘woman’s crop’.”

In Ghana, soybeans are put into food for an additional source of protein. Soybeans have appealing nutritional characteristics and looked like they would be profitable, Lyford said. The producers could benefit financially from the crop with the right tools, which they did not currently have access to.

Lyford said the scale of Ghana’s production agriculture differs from the United States, especially when it comes to equipment. Ghana farmers harvest everything by hand, whereas U.S. farmers utilize a wide range of machinery to farm a higher number of acreage.

However, the two countries do share some agricultural commonalities. One way production is like the United States is the mindset, he said. The Ghana farmers are doing a job to benefit the community and their families.

“The big similarity,” Lyford said, “is they’re just growing crops for a source of income and food.”

Lyford said Ghana has a more agriculturally-based economy. A big engine for growth in Ghana is production agriculture, and it is something that can be improved for the better, he said.

Throughout Lyford’s study, yields were substantially increased for most farmers who participated.

As of today, most of the farmers who participated in the study are now producing on their own.

“The ones I talked to were very happy to have done it. They were proud to be involved and pleased with the outcomes.

Dr. Lyford

“Some of the other farmers in different regions and communities are now starting to produce soybeans,” Lyford said.  

Lyford said men and women from the farming communities participated in the study.

“The focus was primarily on women,” Lyford said, “70% of the recipients were women; however, we did have men that were involved as well.”

Women farmers are key contributors to agriculture production, marketing and intrahousehold food distribution.

Available evidence shows food security and overall national growth and development of any economy could be improved if smallholders, particularly women smallholders, are supported, according to Esri.  

The study’s objectives for the research were to determine the current situation with soybean productivity level, food security and nutrition status, he said. Then, they would evaluate the effect of the improved situation and the impact on female smallholders.

In Ghana, soybeans are used for farm families who are extremely poor. Soybeans can provide protein for malnourished children.

Lyford’s project aimed to help aid farmers in Ghana with agricultural opportunities. Lyford said he and his team saw significant increases in yield, especially in Sankpala and Chiranda. In the other three areas of research, they found the yields were lower than before the implementation of the study. However, the end of the assessment showed unpredictable climate was the main cause of lower yields, Lyford said.

In regard to income, all areas showed an increase in income for the farmers. The objectives of the study were achieved by identifying new market locations, training smallholders in market dynamics, and linking farmers to agricultural commodity marketing platforms, according to Esri. 

During the research, gender inequality was also a factor. On a national level, there has been improvement with inequality for women. However, some parts of Ghana still struggle with this issue, he said. One example of the inequality women face is receiving lower quality land.

In Ghana, men usually have the power over decision making with resources, education, and training, according to Esri. This was one of the main reasons the study focused in on aiding women he said. 

For the most part, the farmers who were a part of the study were grateful for the experience.

“The ones I talked to where very happy to have done it.” Lyford said. “They were proud to be involved and pleased with the outcomes. At the end, they took over ownership of producing the soybeans. They were very motivated to get the job done. Farmers were now thinking about how to be more productive, and how to overcome constraints they faced the year before.”

Growing Gold

Wenwei Xu standing in his corn breeding lab.
Wenwei Xu is a leading plant scientist for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension where he has worked for over 20 years.

Wenwei Xu’s face lit up with joy as he held a sample of one of his many ground-breaking projects, Hi-A corn. This year, he and his colleagues will handle over 10,000 different corn materials in order to give superior genetics to corn farmers across the South Plains.

Xu, who has a doctorate in genetics, has a joint appointment as a professor in plant genetics at Texas Tech University and as a leading corn scientist at Texas A&M AgriLife Research. He is currently working on multiple projects that will transform the corn industry. His current projects are directed toward improving drought-tolerance, reducing infestation, and creating high-quality crops.

“We are always developing new corn lines and hybrids that did not exist before,” Xu said.

Xu grew up on a farm in China where his family raised corn, wheat and sugar beets. He said he came to the United States in 1987 as a visiting scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia where he eventually pursued his Ph.D. After graduation, Xu moved to Lubbock, Texas, in 1993 to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Texas Tech before joining Texas A&M AgriLife Research in 1998.

“This land is a challenge, but it also offers opportunities.”

Wenwei Xu, Ph.D.

Xu said developing a new variety of corn is like developing two different crops because geneticists must develop an inbred line then create hybrids. He said it takes a minimum of 10 seasons to develop a new variety, but he has found a way to expedite the process. Each year, he and his coworkers will hand-pollinate over 10,000 ears then go to Puerto Rico for two weeks with samples, so they can evaluate two seasons in one year.

One of Xu's corn fields with coverings on corn plants for hand pollination.
Xu and his colleagues will hand pollinate over 10,000 ears of corn in one year. Photo Credit: Wenwei Xu

“Corn breeding is different from other crops like cotton and wheat,” Xu said. “It takes an additional three to five years to develop a corn variety.”

Xu said the difficulty with plant breeding is different genetics do better in separate places. A corn species that thrives in Minnesota will not do well in Lubbock because the land has different limiting factors.

“That’s the difference between agriculture genetics and the cell phone,” Xu said. “The best cell phone in Lubbock is also the best cell phone in California, but with agriculture, the best variety in Lubbock may not even be the best variety for Bushland, so we have to find the best variety suitable for a certain environment.”

He said in Lubbock, the biggest limiting factor for corn production is water. There are three ways to address water limitations: improving drought-tolerance of crops, producing the same amount of crop with limited water, and producing a higher quality crop which brings more money per bushel. Two of his current projects are focused on developing a higher quality crop, so farmers can plant less and still meet their bottom-line.

“This land is a challenge,” Xu said, “but it also offers opportunities.”

Xu said one of his current projects does not have a name yet, but he refers to it as specialty corn. It comes in a variety of unique colors including red, maroon and black. Xu said the compounds in this corn are different from yellow or white corn. They have more antioxidants and contain anthocyanins, making the corn’s contents like a blackberry. The darker they are, the more antioxidants and anthocyanins they have.

“A strawberry or blackberry will rot,” Xu said, “but these will not. They are easy to store and transport.”

Red and black specialty corn laying on a table with other corn varieties.
“Specialty corn” contains important antioxidants and anthocyanins. Its colors include red, maroon, and black.

According to data from a peer reviewed article published by Food and Nutrition Research, anthocyanins are a type of antioxidant used commonly as a natural red and blue food dye. They offer many health benefits including enhanced antimicrobial activity, improved visual and cognitive health, and resistance to non-communicable diseases.

The project Xu said he is most excited about is his development of Hi-A corn. He said this corn is like specialty corn; however, the antioxidants and anthocyanins are present in the cob instead of the kernel.

Xu said a common practice in the corn industry is to harvest the kernels then discard the cob as waste, left to rot in the field. The purpose of Hi-A corn is to add extra antioxidants and anthocyanins to the cob so it can be used as a high-quality livestock feed. He said he is working on a research study to determine how the Hi-A corn cob does as a feed supplement.

“We have a cob that can produce lots of anthocyanin,” Xu said, “and potentially we can use the corn cob as a valuable animal feed so that trash becomes treasure.”

Thomas Marek is an engineer for Texas A&M AgriLife Research who works in irrigation water conservation and management. He is stationed out of Amarillo and has worked with Xu for over 20 years in the field. He said Xu creates the genetics, and he properly cares for the crop.

“You can develop the best genetics in the world and put them in a bag,” Marek said, “but you can’t see the full potential of a crop without proper management.”

Marek said he enjoys the partnership he has developed with Xu over the years and has respect for his research.

“Wenwei came over here looking for an opportunity,” Marek said. “He is well-respected across the state and country. He has saved producers not only in this area, but across the country.”

Teaching with Aspiration

Dr. Li is the first foreign professor in the department of agricultural education and communications. She conducts her own research and teaches scientific communication.

he move from China was great, but the opportunity at Texas Tech University was greater. Dr. Nan Li, assistant professor for the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications, started her teaching and strategic communications research at Texas Tech three years ago. Her research is centered on the study of science, policy, and the public within the realm of agriculture. She is interested in a close focus on valued tendencies and shaping an individual’s thought process of scientific information.

Li’s strong devotion to improving students writing skills is reflected in many aspects of her research. Expanding her knowledge of agriculture to her students at Texas Tech was not an easy feat due to the language barrier, social differences, and the culture shock you experience when making such a significant decision such as moving to the US.

“From an outsider’s perspective and using my experiences as someone who used to struggle with writing and communicating, teaching the students is helpful for them,” Li said.

When I look into my culture and I compare that to what happened here, I want to bring those experiences here and expand their scope.

Along with teaching, Li works closely with graduate student Kimberly Cantrell. The two are collaborating on a research project on the effects of how people perceive food labels and products. Most importantly, specific characteristics of food labels such as colors, terminology, and images. They will interpret their data by the public’s attitudes, perceptions, and purchasing tendencies.

After renovations to the agricultural education and communications building, assistant professor of agricultural communications, Dr. Li, moved into her new office.

Working with Li has made Cantrell realize how there is a lack of communication within the food industry. Cantrell has the opportunity enhance her advocacy through her research with Li.

“With her having not the strongest ag background, it has made me a better advocate,” Cantrell said. “Explaining certain practice topics and issues with her has made me develop a better understanding and has developed both of our knowledge.”

Li possesses an outstanding ability to communicate to students through her past experiences. Li’s students learn from her opportunities and are able to excel outside of her classroom.

Reducing uncertainty on the Southern High Plains


arming practices on the Southern High Plains, and more specifically a farmer’s choice of whether or not to change them, are affected by irrigation methods and crop insurance.

Dr. Darren Hudson of the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics is the graduate director and helps put together funding for research.

Dr. Hudson said, “We have students from all over doing research that impacts this area.”

Jorge Romero-Habeych is not your traditional student, he served in the Army and worked as an analyst in the natural gas industry before returning to school. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Central Florida. As a doctoral student in Agricultural and Applied Economics, Romero-Habeych’s research explores how farmers choose irrigation techniques.

Agriculture on the Southern High Plains was significantly impacted by the introduction of center pivot irrigation.

 “Prior to the center pivot in the 1990s, … irrigation was very inefficient,” Romero-Habeych said.

By adopting center pivots farmers were able to sustain yields while using less water.

In recent years farmers have had the option of adopting an even more efficient alternative, subsurface drip irrigation. Adopting efficient irrigation techniques along with the right kind of crop insurance is essential for farmers to reduce their exposure to risk.

“Why is it that we don’t see a wider implementation of this technology in the area?” Romero-Habeych asked. “My theory is that crop insurance in conjunction with already existing irrigation techniques might be making drip irrigation less attractive,” Romero-Habeych said. “On the margin, adopting drip is relatively expensive and the benefit in terms of risk reduction is likely not worth the cost.”

In terms of water use, wider adoption of drip irrigation by farmers on the Southern High Plains does not necessarily translate to less pressure on the Ogallala aquifer. Romero-Habeych made an interesting point on the issue.

“Past experience with the center pivot shows that its adoption led to more water use. Farmers actually started using more water than before because they started planting in fields that had previously not been economically attractive,” Romero-Habeych said.

Using the most efficient farming practices possible is vital for all farmer’s to continue production and not give up yields.

“Perhaps drip irrigation would be more widely adopted in the area if existing crop insurance choices were not made available. The combination of current insurance and irrigation options to reduce risk exposure might be crowding out drip,” Romero-Habeych said. “However, that might be a good outcome for the aquifer.”

How farmers on the Southern High Plains are affected by government policies, along with understanding how they use the tools at their disposal to reduce uncertainty, is what drives Romero-Habeych’s research.

Going Against the Grain


hen you imagine the typical professor, you might be visualizing some strict, straightforward individual. One professor at Texas Tech University is anything but the status quo.

Blake Grisham is a professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management at Texas Tech where he leads extensive fieldwork with many of his undergraduate and graduate students.

Grisham teaches a field-based wildlife techniques course, which spends 17 days in the research facility capturing a wide variety of animals such as turkey, deer, and snakes.

Grisham’s style of teaching sets him apart from professors and engages his Texas Tech students.

“I’ll tell jokes in class; I will trip; I will make fun of myself. I like to open it up so that the students know that I’m human,” Grisham said.

Grisham hails from Black Oak, Arkansas, a quiet town with 200 people. He found his passion for the outdoors in his childhood. After attending graduate school at Louisiana State University, he began studying ground-nesting birds, which later brought him to Texas Tech.

Blake Grisham, Ph.D., tags a Sandhill Crane with his students during spring break in Oregon. Image provided by Blake Grisham.

“There was a research opportunity with lesser prairie chickens in the southern High Plains,” Grisham said, “and that is why I am here, and that’s why I stayed.”

“We [Texas Tech] are the only University in the state that now has a completely field-based techniques class,” Grisham said.

I like to open it up so that the students know that I’m human.

Grisham’s passion for this course helps bring his students into an environment they are in control of and teach them hands-on field techniques.

“It gets them [students] to understand they are their own family,” Grisham said.

He enjoys teaching and helping students find their passion.

“Overall, the thing I enjoy most is all the students who now have meaningful careers,” Grisham said with a smile. “Those things stick with me.”

Grisham creates a lively environment in his classroom with his sense of humor and personality. Grisham enjoys making comical remarks and getting the class to join in on the fun.

“When I teach them how to use rocket nets with explosives in my wildlife techniques class, and see the looks on their faces, those are always memorable,” Grisham said.

  A student of his, Jane Donels, a senior at Texas Tech University from Dallas, Texas, had all positive things to say about Grisham.

“He is very intense and passionate,” Donels said. “He also admits to not knowing everything.”

Overall, Grisham is a fascinating and unique character who is living his dream every day. He started as a small-town kid, who now has many accomplishments furthering his career and helping his students follow their passions.

“I do not have a dream,” Grisham said. “I am living it out.”

Conserving Today’s Resources

Research participant and farmer, Stever Yoder in his field 45 minutes outside of Dalhart.


ost farmers try to find ways to ensure quality crops while saving money. Three Texas Panhandle farmers are getting a little help with this thanks to research.

In 2017, the Texas Corn Producers Board, Texas Tech University, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension, the National Resource Conservation Service and three producers in the Texas High Plains have partnered together to find ways to grow crops more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Katie Lewis, assistant professor in the soil fertility and chemistry department at TTU, is the principal investigator for the Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

“This project exemplifies successful and productive teamwork amongst producers, commodity groups, government agencies and universities,”Lewis said.

Other co-investigators involved in the project include Dana Porter, Jourdan Bell, and Donna M. McCallister. The collaborators include Darren Richardson and Keith Sides, from USDA-NRCS, and Brandt Underwood, a conservation agronomist.

The project began in the fall of 2017 with the collection of crop data to get information about crop management. In the fall and winter of 2019, a final report will be released.

“This research is focused on soil health practices and irrigation management tools, both of which can potentially improve farm sustainability,” Lewis said. “The innovative aspect of this project is that the effects of these tools and practices are being monitored on farmer’s fields.”

NRCS collaborator, Darren said this project can install new practices to help everything on one farm, including reducing pressure from pests.

“It is an interesting project with good producers involved,” Richardson said.

The farmers that are taking part in this research are Steve Yoder of Dalhart, Texas, Kelly Kettner of Lamb County, and Braden Gruhlkey of Deaf Smith County. Each cooperator had different techniques used to evaluate cropping, with advanced technology to monitor the soil moisture and irrigation.

With the help of this research, farmers can improve their fields and the way they take care of their crops and soil. Keeping their soil healthy will improve agricultural production and provide long-term benefits.

“The information collected from this research will serve to educate all involved in addition to our policymakers,” Lewis said.

This research has been an asset to farmers like Steve Yoder. Yoder has been able to evaluate the difference between farming practices such as fallow land and cover crops on his farm.

“Since we are probably considered as early adapters of new technologies,” Yoder said, “a lot of the practices in this research we are already using such as no-till, moisture sensors, weather stations, yield monitors, and satellite imagery.”

Yoder said he will continue their research practices on his farm after this project is over. Due to this research, these farmers can see what is working for their farm and ways they can improve along with other farmers in the future.

It is an interesting project with good producers involved.

Where the Grass Grows Greener

The researchers will utilize a drone, equip with various sensors, in hopes of identifying the optimum sensor to detect drought stress on turfgrass. Golf courses in the Lubbock area provide economic benefit to the region according to the projects lead researcher, Joey Young Ph. D.

A situation is playing out in the Texas Panhandle and local golf courses are feeling the heat. During the end of 2017 and into early 2018, the region has gone through an extreme drought, and the main source of groundwater has been in rapid decline for over a decade. Two Texas Tech University faculty members are gearing up to tackle the water issue.

Although an afternoon on the golf course sounds like a fun way to spend the day, for Joey Young, Ph.D. and Wenxuan Guo, Ph.D., two assistant professors in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, it is an opportunity to solve overwatering of recreational turfgrass.

With the region in an extreme drought and the Ogallala Aquifer at risk of total depletion, golf courses like the Rawls Course at Texas Tech are under pressure, said course superintendent, Rodnie Bermea.

“Golf courses use a lot of water,” Bermea said. “In times of drought, it’s especially hard to water all areas of the properly and efficiently. We can end up using more water than we need to, which costs us money and hurts our water supply.”

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, turf requires an average of 25 to 60 inches of water annually, depending on climate, to maintain a healthy appearance. This is one reason some argue golf courses are wasteful. However, Young, an assistant professor of turfgrass science, sees it differently.

It’s more than a tee time

“There’s definitely a perception that golf courses and turfgrass are something that’s basically a waste of a lot of water, and therefore unnecessary,” Young said. “But that’s just not the case. Courses provide a big economic benefit for cities like Lubbock.”

[Left to Right] Joey Young Ph. D., and Wenxuan Guo Ph. D., discuss plans for their turfgrass research at the Rawls Golf Course as the drone waits, ready for takeoff.
Young argues tournaments and other events hosted at courses like the Rawls impact the local economy by bringing people into the city who utilize local businesses. A sentiment echoed by Bermea.

“Tournaments aren’t only beneficial to the Rawls course, ” Bermea said. “They help everyone. There are the obvious businesses that benefit directly from visitors to the golf course, like hotels, restaurants and all that. But there’s a trickle-down effect on the economy that just can’t be understated.”

While it is apparent golf courses use a lot of water, Young and Guo have devised a plan that could help not only the drought-stricken Lubbock area, but could impact courses around the country and the world.

“Water is our No. 1 limiting resource,” said Guo, an assistant professor of crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture. “Everyone knows the Ogallala Aquifer is depleting at a rapid rate. So, we need to figure out how to save the water or use the water more wisely, more efficiently. This is important from both an economic and social perspective.”

Driving with the drone

Guo said it is not only important to save water for the next generation, but also to conserve water for conventional agriculture production. With a grant provided by the United States Golf Association, the two researchers have developed an experiment with the potential to allow more accurate water allocation on golf courses.

Courses provide a big economic benefit for cities like Lubbock.

“Our goal is to utilize drones and different sensors that will be attached to the drones to collect imagery that could basically determine areas of drought stress on a golf course,” Young said. “The overall purpose would be to utilize various sensors that may give us different information.”

Once these optimal sensors are identified, they could be utilized by golf courses to identify drought stress, potentially before it is even visible to the human eye, Young said. This technology would be used by course managers to adjust irrigation from areas that stay wetter to areas that tend to dry out more. This will ultimately help lower water usage on the golf course and achieve more balanced playing conditions.

“If this technology could allow us to see an area that’s dryer or an area that’s wetter we would be able to water those areas more efficiently,” Bermea said. “We could create a more sustainable irrigation program that would be environmentally beneficial and save us money.”

Simply lowering the golf courses irrigation by 10 to 15 percent would be a huge financial saving for the Rawls, Bermea said.

The research is being conducted at the Rawls Golf Course as well as the Amarillo Country Club, which use different kinds of turfgrass. The varying sensors will give a broader picture of how cool season and warm season turfgrasses handle drought stress.

Young says ultimately he hopes to identify sensors to address specific issues on golf courses and would then like to share that information with course managers around the country. But, it is not just golf courses that may be reaping the benefit of his research.

A put for all mankind

In tandem with the research being conducted on Lubbock and Amarillo golf courses, Guo will also be utilizing the drone and sensor technology to look at lowering water usage in conventional agriculture.

“My area of research is in crop ecophysiology and precision agriculture,” Guo said. “I will be using drones to identify the crop growth variability in fields, within the same season. So, before the final yield at the end of the season, we can look at how the plants are growing and adjust irrigation and other imputes to minimize resource use.”

He said even though different plants sometimes require different methods to study, all plants show drought stress in the same way.

Just like the work being done on the courses, Guo hopes to utilize drone imagery to identify areas of drought stress in crops like corn, cotton and sorghum.

“It has become increasingly important to conserve our water,” Guo said. “The water in our area has been diminishing much faster than originally expected, and we don’t know what our water supply will look like in 20 years. Our whole economy is driven by an adequate water supply, so that makes it urgent.”

This joint research endeavor to ultimately lower water usage in West Texas could have a lasting impact on the region, through improving sustainability and protecting the economic stability of golf courses and conventional agriculture practices. But Young hopes their research will have an even greater impact.

“It’s important to us that we are doing what’s right for our region,” Young said. “But bigger than that I want to communicate our findings to the scientific community in hopes that the information can be shared with course superintendents around the world. For my research to have that kind of reach and impact communities around the world would be the ultimate reward.”

USCP and USDA-ARS Find New Traits in Sorghum

With new sorghum research, the future of sorghum has become more stable.

The United Sorghum Checkoff Program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Services are teaming up to find new traits to increase sorghum yields.

Justin Weinheimer, Ph.D., USCP crop improvement director, said current research is focused on advancing the crop’s productivity.

“When you look at the portfolio of research that we have conducted, it is really aiming at improving (yield) to allow the sorghum producers, particularly on the grain side, to be more productive,” Weinheimer said. “Obviously, when you ask any farmer what they want in a field of sorghum, they are going to tell you three things; they want yield, yield and yield. But the question in our research is how to address: ‘how do you get that?’”

Weinheimer said USCP invested in a five-year, $1.25 million project with the USDA-ARS in Lubbock that allows research to be conducted to identify and explore the uniquely diverse genetic traits within sorghum.

Chad Hayes, a sorghum geneticist for the USDA-ARS in Lubbock, explains one of the unique genetic traits they found within sorghum called Multiseed.
“Multiseed, what we call MSD, is a mutation within sorghum that will increase the number of seed within the sorghum head,” said Hayes. “Though the seeds are currently small, we hope that in the future MSD will increase the yields of sorghum.”

Hayes said sorghum yields have been flat for the past 20 years. However, they hope to change that soon.

“Currently we have been doing a lot of research on identifying a tolerant source within sorghum to battle the sugarcane aphid,” said Hayes. “We are testing a line from Ethiopia to find new singles lines and sugarcane tolerance. This line is photoperiod sensitive, the main source of sugarcane aphid tolerance, does not flower in Lubbock, so it continues to grow.”

Hayes said they are also conducting research on a cold tolerant line of sorghum.

“We are also working on a cold tolerant line,” Hayes said, “Normally sorghum germinates above 60F soil temperature. However, the line we are creating would be able to germinate around 56F soil temperature.”

With farmers planting later due to rains and cool soil temperatures, the USCP said that this new research along with others will be beneficial to farmers looking for higher yields.

Weinheimer said this new research will be beneficial to farmers looking for a higher yield.

“I think these are the types of technology that are going to offer some value for growers,” said Weinheimer, “Maybe not these specific ones but these types of technology are going to be something that helps growers in the field get directly more yield.”

This Research Team Is On Fire

Hard at work maintaining a forest fire. Picture provided by: Dr. Verble

Wildfires are known for their destructive and reckless behavior on the South Plains. However, Robin Verble, Ph.D., in the Department of Natural Resource Management at Texas Tech, is working to harness the environmental benefits of wildfires while working to develop better control methods.

Learning About Wildfires

Wildfires have been known to do serious damage. They are started by a lot of unfortunate events usually starting along highways and grasslands. They can spread very quickly across vast grasslands. They have been known to get so big that people several miles ahead of the fire are even forced to evacuate their homes. According to the Texas Tech NRM department there are also thousands of important species living amongst the areas affected by wildfires. It is very important to make sure and know everything there is to know about how these wildfires  and how they affect the insect populations they come in contact with. Dr. Verble teaches many wildfire classes in the natural resource management department at Texas Tech. She really enjoys wildfire ecology, and she has taken it upon herself to spread her knowledge about this topic to every student interested. She offers several courses at the university such as “prescribed burning” and “Forest and Rangeland Insect Diversity”.

One of the main topics covered throughout these courses is about insect communities and how their colonies react to prescribed burning. This type of burning is where land is purposefully burned and controlled at the same time, so that it reduces risks of actual wildfires for the future. There are areas all over the world that Verble described as “high fuel loads”, which is an area that vegetation is considered highly flammable and it could potentially be a very dangerous area if it were to catch fire. If these “high fuel loads” are not controlled by prescribed burning then a giant wildfire can sweep through a forest or a prarie and wipe out everything in its way. When wildfires do hit a high fuel load it really does affect every single species in its way, and it totally destroys everything the insects depend on for food and shelter. Verble said “My classes are very hands on. So students really get the chance to learn through real experience instead of just classroom lectures.” So it’s a great way for students to really see our environment and get face to face with one of the biggest threats to mother nature itself.

The Research Team

Alongside the classes offered by Dr. Verble there is the research team. The team observes insects before and after the event of a wildfire, and students get the chance to be involved with this process if they are interested and ready to work hard. For instance, Britt Smith is an assistant graduate student now, and he conducts research over the dung beetle species. Britt explained “Examining whether the habitat changes after prescribed rangeland fires, and if it has an influence on dung beetle species that live in the Texas Rolling Plains.”  You see, there is three types of dung beetles: rollers, tunnelers, and dwellers. The names basically describe each type of beetle and how these insects use the dung they come in contact with. Dung beetles are found everywhere except for Antartica, and they live in places that range all the way from forests to the driest ofdeserts. Britt mentioned that “So far, early results suggest that we have not seen a difference in dung beetle species or abundances between rangelands treated with prescribed fire and those that were unburned.” With that said, they are going to continue the research on the species until they find out more.

Many students end up researching much longer than they planned in order to really get the results they are looking for. Also, Britt said “I have greatly enjoyed the study of fire ecology. Knowing that people have applied fire to this same landscape for thousands of years makes me feel connected to these past people. Also, seeing the response of wildlife to the matrix of burn and unburned rangelands brings up many new questions I would like to explore.” So with that being said, obviously this field of work keeps researchers interested and wanting to learn more at all times.

cimarron national grassland

Future Goals And Plans

In recent publications Verble said “I  plan to further explore plant combustibility in the future and learn more about how each plant burns compared to others.”  Further research within this topic may allow predictions of where fire danger or the P.O.I. (probability of ignition) are higher and how we can plants along the highways to reduce the chances of a fire catching.” Dr. Verble has also previously mentioned that one of her favorite things within her studies is watching students get really excited to research, and also being able to teach them how to use fire as a tool. Along with that she also emphasizes that students will graduate with a thorough understanding of fire itself, its history in the United States., and how it impacts an ecosystem from soil to animal and plant communities.

Wildfire’s can be devastating overall, so it is extremely important thatwe keep researching this subject. Verble and her research team plan to uncover even more important facts regarding wildfires in the near future so that we can better understand how the fires occur and find ways to prevent them.  We can be proactive in stopping them before they even occur if we really do work hard to discover new things in the next few years. In conclusion, Britt said, “Wildfires have a tremendous impact on a lot of ecosystems as well.  So the continuation of this research is crucial in the safety of the South Plains and all of the rangeland within it.”

Collaborating to Catch Criminals

Matthew Barnes, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Natural Resources Management, is looking for a criminal in the Sabine River. This criminal left behind DNA, in the form of skin cells, that Barnes will utilize to identify the suspect.

However, in this case, the criminal Barnes is looking for is not human. It’s Silver Carp, an invasive fish species in Texas’ waterways.

Barnes is an aquatic community ecologist who has an interest in invasive species. Although his lab uses a variety of tools to study invasive species, one of his favorite management tools is testing for environmental DNA.

Environmental DNA, also known as eDNA, is the genetic material organisms shed into their environment like skin cells, blood, feces and other bodily fluids, Barnes said. The material provides clues that a particular species is present in a particular environment.

Barnes said there are benefits to using eDNA testing as a management tool. It has been proven to be cost effective in searching for invasive and endangered species. It can be a less intrusive tool when looking for a species in a sensitive ecosystem. It can also be useful when looking for an invasive species with low population numbers that has been recently introduced in an area.

“The first step in studying or managing an organism is to know where it is,” Barnes said.

Barnes said managers can use tools like eDNA testing in order to start the research or management of an organism. Searching for an organism can be costly, time consuming, and work intensive. Barnes said developing eDNA testing as a new tool is important for aquatic community ecology, invasive species management, and natural resources management.

We are applying eDNA to new species in this case, and that will provide new opportunities for natural resources management. Matthew Barnes, Ph.D.

Although eDNA testing has most frequently been used in aquatic systems, Barnes and his graduate students are applying eDNA testing in new ways for both aquatic and terrestrial systems.

New researcher brings new ideas

Mark Johnson, a graduate student in Tech’s Department of Natural Resources Management, is a part of Barnes’ lab and is in charge of researching eDNA testing in terrestrial systems. His research is being done with help from across the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. Robert Cox, Ph.D., and Peter Dotray, Ph.D. are assisting with the research.

Johnson removes a filter filled with eDNA and other particles

Johnson said he grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by trees, mountains and rivers. After taking a botany class during his undergraduate education, he realized how much he liked natural resources management and chose to pursue a master’s at Tech.

Johnson said he is looking at airborne eDNA and how it works as a survey method for plant communities.

“My work is looking at plant communities, how eDNA can be used to identify plant communities and how that all fits in together on a landscape scale,” Johnson said.  “I think that it’s really important to try and find uses for eDNA that aren’t just finding an organism and reporting on it.”

Johnson said he has set up various dust traps in the field to collect airborne eDNA. He visits the testing sites every two weeks to wash the dust traps out. He then takes the water back to the lab, filters it, and extracts DNA to run tests on the samples.

Johnson said he hopes his research will provide a new way for wildlife biologists and natural resources managers to utilize eDNA testing in terrestrial systems.

This research is entering new territory. Johnson is the first to compare a traditional plant survey with an eDNA survey. Because this is new research, there are a lot of unknown aspects to his research.

One of the unknowns is they do not know how far eDNA can travel through the air, Johnson said. They are unsure what species are able to produce eDNA. They do not know whether pollen spreading species or species that are insect pollinated produce eDNA. Johnson said he believes this is what sets his research apart from others.

“I think the research that Mark is doing in particular is expanding this method, to say, terrestrial plants,” Barnes said. “We are applying eDNA to new species in this case, and that will provide new opportunities for natural resources management.”

Lab’s new research

Barnes said although his lab is interested in applying eDNA testing in different systems and species, another thing that sets them apart is their focus on the ecology of eDNA. The unique focus on the ecology of eDNA is another new way his lab hopes to impact natural resources management.

The ecology of eDNA focuses on the interactions between genetic material after it is shed from the organism and the role the genetic material plays in its environment, Barnes said. The research being done on the ecology of eDNA has helped distinguish Barnes’ lab from other natural resources labs in the country.

Barnes said he has had the opportunity to filter and look for eDNA in thousands of liters of water in very diverse systems, ranging from the Chicago area waterways and Great Lakes to the reservoirs and streams of Texas.

Johnson and Barnes discuss the impacts of eDNA on plant ecosystems

Although he has spent most of his research in aquatic systems, Barnes said Johnson brings enthusiasm and an expertise in terrestrial plant systems, and he has pushed Barnes out of his typical work in aquatic systems.

“He also challenges us to develop and learn new skills in terrestrial plant census and ID,” Barnes said, “and it has been a lot of fun having him on board.”

Pushing the boundaries

Barnes said his lab is pushing the boundaries and increasing the amount and type of information researchers can gain from eDNA testing. He said this is an exciting time to be in research.

Barnes said it is stimulating to be asking questions that nobody has asked before, and it is compelling to be producing knowledge that nobody has produced before.

Barnes and Johnson credit Tech for giving them an opportunity to do research.

“One of Texas Tech’s main roles is providing an area for us to help build on its foundation,” Johnson said. “It has the resources we need, areas where we can go study environmental DNA, and the work being done here is really helping to build on what we know about eDNA and expand it broader as a field.”

Tech has provided the resources for Barnes’ lab to continue their work searching for invasive fish and zebra mussels in Texas, detecting threatened and endangered fish species in New Mexico, and looking for the vector for white-nose syndrome in bats in Louisiana. Barnes and Johnson look forward to expanding the natural resources field with their research, and they will continue to spend their days searching for traces of criminals.

Between Earth, Sky and Texas Tech

David Weindorf, Ph.D., knew when Chien-Lu Ping retired from academics his knowledge of arctic soils would be leaving with him. Weindorf, a plant and soil science professor at Texas Tech, wanted there to be a way to continue to share Ping’s knowledge with the world. He knew, if successful, he would be saving knowledge for future generations. What Weindorf did not anticipate was that it would culminate into a documentary produced by Texas Tech Public Media, Between Earth and Sky.

About 10 years ago, Weindorf began taking students on an arctic soils field tour, which is a course offered by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“The course is taught by a man named Dr. Chien-Lu Ping,” Weindorf said, “and he is considered one of the preeminent arctic soil scientist in the world.”

Weindorf said eventually he became so familiar with the course he was made a co-instructor.

“The students that go on this course, every one of them, will tell you that when they come back from this course they never looked at the world the same way again,” Weindorf said.

After seven years, Ping and Weindorf continued to teach the field course on arctic soils. However, Ping, who is in his late 70s, eventually expressed his desire to retire.

“Gosh,” said Weindorf, recalling his feeling at the time, “When he leaves, that is going to be such a tremendous amount of knowledge that walks out the door.”

Chien-Lu Ping with students on soils field tour. Photo Courtesy of Texas Tech Public Media

Concept Development

Weindorf began planning to document Ping’s last arctic soils field tour.  He said he wanted to develop a way to archive Ping’s knowledge of arctic soils for future generations.

He took his idea to the Soil Science Society of America who then appointed Weindorf as chairman of a task force devoted to the idea of documenting arctic soils.

How do we get people to care about soil science in Alaska? David Weindorf

“We started wrestling with this idea of: How do we get people to care about soil science in Alaska?” Weindorf said.

According to Weindorf, arctic soils have large amounts of organic matter resting on top of them. These soils are known as permafrost, which are soils that remain frozen, below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, for at least two consecutive years. As permafrost begins to thaw there is increased microbial activity as the previously frozen organic matter begins to decompose.

Weindorf said that as the organic matter decomposes more carbon is released into the atmosphere.

“As long as that permafrost stays frozen,” Weindorf said, “any methane or organic deposits that are there are locked away. When things start to melt, that’s when all those gases start to be liberated.”

Weindorf said that was when the task force began to realize why people should care about arctic soils.

“We said, ‘Boy, if we made a film where we talk about the arctic soils field tour, soil science, and carbon sequestration and how all of that links to global climate change, that is a really strong pyramid to build upon’,” Weindorf said. “That’s kind of how we arrived at the idea for the film.”

Interpolygon ice wedge in melting permafrost. Photo Courtesy of Texas Tech Public Media

Teaming with Texas Tech Public Media

Eventually, Weindorf contacted with Paul Hunton, the new station manager for KTTZ-TV, Texas Tech Public Media and two-time Emmy award winning director for his work with non-fiction films.  The two began working on the documentary Texas Tech Public Media would film, direct, and edit, Between Earth and Sky.

Weindorf said when shooting in Alaska two very unique angles began to present themselves: the angle of the scientist, which he said can sometimes be dull, and the angle of the laymen.

“We came up with this idea of presenting the science,” Weindorf said, “but also getting just the native Alaskan perspective.”

Jonathan Seaborn, from Texas Tech Public Media and co-director of Between Earth and Sky, said there were many personal stories from filming that stuck with him.

“Some of the more compelling stuff to me was talking to farmers or just random people that were telling us their experiences,” Seaborn said, “about how there was this glacier they used to go to as a kid. Maybe four miles off some highway. Now, it’s some 15 years later and that glacier is maybe 50 miles.”

Weindorf said while the film focuses on some of the negative aspects of climate change, they tried to take a balanced approach to the issue.

“Admittedly, there are going to be some positives to climate change,” Weindorf said. “As temperatures warm farther to the north there are going to be areas of Alaska that are now brought into agricultural production.”

Weindorf said it is necessary to view the whole cycle and that oil, which is extracted along the northern slope and commonly cited as one of the leading causes of climate change, is one of the driving factors of Alaska’s economy.


Seaborn, co-director of the film, said it was a much larger undertaking than anything he had done before. The long days of an Alaskan summer gave the crew lots of daylight hours to film, and the challenges they faced while filming in the Alaskan frontier added to the entire experience and film.

“It was almost a full month of just non-stop interviews or being out hiking up the mountain filming or out in the wilderness,” Seaborn said. “Everything was wet all the time, and there were crazy bugs everywhere, and the wildlife, and so there were just these extra little elements you have to overcome.”

According to Weindorf and Seaborn, Between Earth and Sky is the first documentary of its kind to look at the effects of climate change as it relates to soils. Between Earth and Sky will be showing at film festivals and specialty theaters throughout 2017.

“What makes it a little different than another climate change documentary,” Seaborn said, “is the fact that we talk about the effects of melting sea ice and these other things that are mentioned in every climate change documentary. But the main focus of the film, as far as the scientific part, is what’s happening in the ground because of climate change that’s also affecting it and intensifying it.”

CASNR Companion Canines

Dr. Protopopova and students working with a dog at the Lubbock animal shelter.

Dog shelters sometimes get a bad rap. The negative connotation that often accompanies dog shelters makes them seem like a scary place from the outside. However, if you take a closer look, these shelters are no different from the dairy farmer or hog raiser, who is just trying to give their animals the best possible lives they can. That’s exactly what Sasha Protopopova Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Companion Animals Science is here to prove. With the help of Protopopva, the Texas Tech University animal science department has recently added a companion animal science program, which focuses on animal welfare and well-being as well as human-animal interactions.

This new program will study dogs just like the one you might have running around in your backyard, to determine the correlation between behavior traits and adoption rates. Directed by Protopopova, the program focuses on the study of animal behavior in dogs. Their main goal? Get more dogs adopted from shelters.

Protopopova has focused her career on the behavior of dogs. As a dog lover herself, Protopopova is very passionate about this program and is excited to share her canine expertise with the animal science department of Texas Tech. Protopopova utilizes dogs at the at the Lubbock Animal Shelter, the Haven Animal Care Shelter and dogs from the community. With the help of these dogs, she is improving the lives of current and future animals.

The question that I ask at shelters is if we can increase adoption rates through behavior training in dogs.Sasha Protopopova

Protopopova has already seen immense success through her studies. During her dissertation research, she was able to actually increase adoption rates within the shelters she researched. This accomplishment gained the support of an animal welfare program called Mattie’s Fund, which gives research grants to people striving to improve the lives of animals.

This program is helping Protopopova take her already established and proven practices to shelters all across the country. With the help of Mattie’s Fund, her recent experiment will recruit six shelters across the nation “I want to improve adoption rates on a large national scale,” says Protopopova.

Though Protopopova may sound like a hero to shelters, dogs and dog lovers alike, she is no stranger to the backlash from animal rights activist groups. Protopopova describes instances of the aggressive disapproval she has dealt with, especially regarding the lives of animals living in shelters.
“It is typical to get threats from these animal right groups of releasing these animals into the wild, which basically is a death sentence for those animals,” Protopopova says.

Protopopova’s goal is to improve the lives of dogs by getting them adopted from the shelters into homes where the can be cared for. Keeping these animals off the streets and improving their chances of finding a safe and caring home is of utmost importance to her research.

Along with studying behavior of shelter dogs, Protopopova looks into other aspects of improving the lives of these dogs through focusing on disease transmission and predicting which dogs are going to get sick in the shelter.
“The idea here is to prevent illness and treat animals faster,” she says.

Protopopova will be rearing her new departmental program along side Nathan Hall Ph.D. Hall, also earned his doctorate at the University of Florida where he studied behavior analysis on dogs.

“I have always been interested in animals and working with animals,” Hall said. “When I was growing up, I didn’t even know what Ph.D.s were.”

Hall discovered his career path during college, where he started his journey in the study of companion animal behavior with the dream of becoming a vet. He later decided he was more interested in the research side of things.

Contrasting from Protopopva’s work, Hall focused on the training of military dogs, specifically focusing on the study of behavioral techniques and genetic analysis to select optimal dogs to increase rate and selection in which dogs are used for military purposes. Hall studies military dogs that are imported over from Europe. The Lackland Air Force Base Located in San Antionio, Texas, sends teams over to Europe to pick out dogs to begin the training protocol for military purposes.

Hall explained that only 60-65 percent of these dogs actually become military dogs, while the other 40 percent are taken out of the program and adopted out to other training agencies or to become pet dogs.
Hall wants to improve this system to ensure the dogs being purchased and brought over form other locations are still given the best lives possible and reducing the rate of dogs that need to be adopted out.

“We are interested in using behavioral techniques to figure out how to select optimal dogs from the get-go in order to increase the rate of dogs which succeed in the training program,” Hall said.

While the companion animal science program may be brand new to Texas Tech, Protopopva and Hall are no strangers to the subject. Companion Animal Science classes will begin to be offered in the spring and fall semesters of 2017. Protopoova and hall are eager to recruit students to join them in their classes, “Students can get a wide variety of experience with companion animal science,” says Hall.

What’s all the Buzz About?

On a crisp October day, students and faculty from Texas Tech University, along with Bayer Crop Science representatives, gathered for the groundbreaking of the pollinator planting at the Texas Tech Quaker Avenue Research Farm. Hands from different generations and people collected and planted wildflower seed, side-by-side, in an attempt to contribute to the research being done for the conservation of pollinators.

Texas Tech University was named one of the four national native pollinator planting locations in the United States, and has been a part of Bayer’s Feed a Bee campaign since 2014. Texas Tech University’s Plant and Soil Science Department is one of many different partners the Bayer Bee Health program has.

Scott Longing, Ph.D., professor of entomology in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, said, “The wheels were greased before we were even chosen, it didn’t hurt to already be a partner.”

The Bayer Bee Health program gave Longing and the plant and soil science department 100 pounds of seed to plant for the study and conservation of pollinators. Longing said one of the reasons he believes our region was chosen is related to the pollinator mismatches we have and the area is understudied.

“In the High Plains counties, there are significant pollinator mismatches where we have a lot of agriculture production but not the wild lands to support the pollinators for pollination services,” he said.

Texas Tech was the only university out of the four locations chosen as a pollinator planting site. According to Longing, Tech was awarded the site because the department already had the infrastructure that was needed, and Bayer had been sending seed to the department already.

Graduate and undergraduate students helped during the planting at the Quaker farm and are also going to be involved in the research the plant and soil science department will be conducting.

“We will establish plots, and then we are going to do some irrigation experiments and have different zones in the field we can turn on and off, so we can see what plants grow best under wet and reduced water situations,” Longing said. “We are also going to do some assessment with plant growth and pollinator sampling in the plots to look at which specific flowers attract more pollinators.”

Two plant and soil science graduate students were involved with the pollinator planting event Texas Tech hosted on behalf of the Bayer Bee Health program. They are conducting research with the wildflowers that were planted as well as other crops and the pollinators at the Quaker farm. Bianca Rendon is a graduate student in the department of plant and soil science whose research will focus on foraging behaviors.

“We have honey bees out there that I will cover up with nets, and I am going to see how foraging behaviors change with those honey bees being excluded compared to when they are there regularly,” Rendon said.

The pollinators have a huge importance.
Bianca Rendon

Samuel Discua, a doctoral student in the department, is also conducting research at the Quaker farm using the plants from the Feed a Bee program. His research will mainly focus on native plant attractiveness through pollinators.

“I am looking at pollinators such as native bees, flies, butterflies and other insects that might be visiting the plant at that time, Discua said. “I do that every hour, which is how I can quantify how attractive the plants are to pollinators based on how many insects are visiting within the time frames that I will look.”

Conservation of these pollinators is highly important for agriculture. Many of the foods we eat such as fruits, nuts, and vegetables all need pollinators such as bees to grow. According to Discua, one out of three bites of food we eat are directly attributed to insects because a lot of the crops we eat need to be pollinated. Planting these seeds at the Quaker farm is going to develop foraging areas for these bees to pollinate and thrive.

“The pollinators have a huge importance,” Rendon said. “Out of 124 main total food crops, pollinators account for the pollination and success; so a huge percentage of crops is dependent on these pollinators.”

Rendon believes the five acres they are planting the seed on will make a difference in the conservation of these pollinators.

“These planting will be on five acres which doesn’t seem like a lot but it will make a difference and give those pollinators a place to go to get their nectar and to help other crops,” she said.

The honey bee population is dwindling due to loss of habitat and many other factors. Texas Tech students are using their research to see if native bees could be another alternative.

“We know honey bees are in trouble, so why not use native bees, because they already do a lot of free work for us,” Discua said. “It is estimated that about three billion dollars every year in U.S. agriculture is attributed to the native bee pollination.”

Longing and his students also want to educate farmers on the importance of pollinators and how they can actually help increase crop yield. Many farmers are unaware pollinators contribute at all to their crop production. Educating them on conservation practices will not only help the pollinators but the farmers as well.

“The other thing people need to understand is pollinators, native bees, can actually help farmers,” Discua said. “By having native pollinators and natural strips of land around their fields, farmers can actually increase their cotton yield.”

According to Longing, the Bayer Bee Health program partnering with Texas Tech is a huge opportunity for the students and faculty of the Department of Plant and Soil Science to go deeper into their research with pollinators, and to help establish conservation efforts in the South Plains region.

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Righting The Wrongs Of Our Past

Showing Bogdun in the lab test soil samples.

On Monday, Aug 5, 2015 a crew from the Environmental Protection Agency was cleaning the Gold King Mine in southern Colorado, when all of the sudden a leak sprung. The leak slowly started to progress until it was out of control, and a river of heavy metal flowed down stream turning many miles of the Animas River to a mustard color.

Because of the leak, a substantial amount of toxic wastewater, from the mine work, began to flow out of Gold King. The river rapidly filled with 3 million gallons of waste and began changing colors. The thousands of people, who depend on the water were uneasy not knowing how or what they could do to solve this issue. The Denver Post reported the last time there was a spill this extreme it was in the early 1990’s.

Monday, Aug. 10, 2015. As a result of the leak at the Gold King Mine and the heavy metal wastewater that flowed into the Animas River, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declared the incident a natural disaster.

The 3 million gallons of water that was contaminated
by red sludge, which is a thin, crusty layer that sits on the very top of the soil. That sludge was potentially harmful to those who were utilizing the river as a primary water source. The three states including Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as the Animas and San Juan Rivers, were the locations that were contaminated the worst.

“It was quite concerning that this type of situation was going on, and there was no one to clean up the mess,” Carla Millares, a doctoral student at Texas Tech, said.

David Weindorf, PHD associate dean for research in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University, was called upon to take a team to collect soil samples that were affected by the mine spill.

“About two weeks after the spill had happened, the EPA was mobilizing and assessing, while trying to figure out what the damage was going to be like” Weindorf said.
I was just sitting at my desk when my phone started buzzing, it was Washington, D.C. The State Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) from New Mexico made a call to Washington D.C, and Washington, D.C said, ‘call Dr. Weindorf at Texas Tech.’

“I was sitting at my desk when my phone started buzzing. It was Washington, DC.”

Weindorf said.

“I received the call and they said they needed me and my team right away, the very next week we were on sight, and started to scan the soil.”

Weindorf is considered to be a national authority when it comes to using the portable x-ray florescence spectrometer gun.

“On the Texas Tech campus I am the only person who has this piece of equipment,” he explained. “Every research project that has needed this equipment in the last ten years, my team was the one who conducted it.”

Weindorf, along with his research assistants Bogdan Duda from Romania and Carla Millares from La Paz, Bolivia, have since provided the NRCS with all of the data and results, and detailed reports. Which allowed them to receive a new grant from the NRCS and New Mexico State University for monitoring the farmland in the area that was most significantly affected.

For the next three years, the researchers will continue to collect data by scanning the soil a few times per year to monitor what is happening with the medal levels in that specific area. To see if there has been an increase in the medal inhibition or if the counts be staying at a constant number.

“This research project has not only allowed me to see new places and conduct new research, but it has given two schools an opportunity to work together to try to enhance information and see better results on these types of projects.”

“The same issue with the higher levels of metal is going on back in Romania, by working on this project we have also been able to compare the data that was taken from this river and compare it to the one over there,” Weindorf said.

“If more people would adopt these type of technologies and use the cutting edge tools that are available, we would have been able to figure out the issues sooner.”

Multiple researchers across the Texas Tech campus in different departments have started to utilize this technology from collecting data on chemical compounds to testing the different sounds that antique horns make using the x-ray gun.

History tends to repeat itself, and it has been roughly estimated there are almost 500,000 mines similar to the Gold King Mine that need to be cleaned up. This spill was treated like a crisis issue, but now with the research available and technology, researchers will be better prepared, not if it happens but when it happens again. This now begins the waiting game, and researchers are not sure when or how the spill will occur. However, the crisis in Colorado, more research is being done to prepare. Despite the negative effects of the Gold King spill, there were some positive outcomes, more awareness for the abandoned mines.

Weindorf, along with the help of Duda and Millares, are prime examples of the different levels of research that one is able to start and perfect at Texas Tech University. Through the hard work, long tedious days, and many hours of research on and off the river, these three individuals have excelled in the representation that they provide for Texas Tech.
One phone call saved many gallons of water, provided new data and research, and has prepared multiple researchers for the future. Though it was a national crisis these researchers will be prepared for the worst.

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What’s the Buzz on Pollinators?

This honey bee is collecting necter from a Mesa Red Gaillardia flower.

 What do your favorite pair of blue jeans and the apple you ate for breakfast have in common? At some point in time, a pollinator helped set the process in motion to get a crop from the field to you.

The Value of a Bee

According to the National Academy of Science, there are more than 250,000 known species of flowering plants on Earth. Seventy-five percent of those species rely on animal-assisted pollination, including the plants that produce a large portion of our food, fiber and oils.

An estimated $212 billion globally and $15 billion nationally have been attributed to pollination service by pollinators, according to the Xerces Society. Thirty percent of world food production relies on pollinators. These foods range from apples and almonds to watermelons and pumpkins, while also including plants like alfalfa, which is used as a livestock forage to produce meat and dairy products.

Pollinators also play an important role in the pollination of crops like cotton, which is ultimately used to make your favorite jeans.

Cotton is an important crop in West Texas and drives the regional economy. Lubbock County and the surrounding 18 counties, make up the largest cotton producing area in the world, often exceeding 3 million acres annually, according to the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service. The crop even played its own vital role in the establishment of Texas Tech University.

This is one of the reasons researchers at Tech have teamed up with organizations like Bayer Crop Sciences, the Wildlife Society and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to study native pollinators.


NRCS supported a Conservation Innovators Grant specifically aimed at pollinator research, worth over $300,000 to support the research at Texas Tech.

Without pollinators we would be in real trouble, said NRCS Wildlife Biologist Manuel De Leon.

CIG Program Director and Assistant Professor of Etymology at Texas Tech University, Scott Longing, Ph.D., said the program is aimed at expanding the knowledge of native pollinators in the area, so that future conservation efforts can be carried out.

“We don’t know yet, the value of wild bees and their pollination services,” Longing said.

A Lot To Learn

In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent the number of pollinators is declining. According to Longing, this came to the forefront of public attention with Colony Collapse Disorder, a compounded issue that has caused dramatic losses in honey bee populations.

This has led to an abundance of research on honey bees, an important pollinator in the agronomic system, but also a species that is non-native to North America. Longing said the influx of research has also failed to definitively account for declining native populations of bees, mostly due to a lack of information on them.

According to Longing, there are over 900 native species of bees in Texas, with more than 100 species living in the high plains area. However, little is known about these native pollinators. In fact, Longing said his team actually has more species of bees in its collection than the local museum.

“We are trying to find out about pollinator diversity,” Longing said, “so we can really monitor pollinator decline.”

Longing said he and his team have partnered with 19 farmers from across West Texas to set up a variety of research plots. The research plots range from Conservation Reserve Program land to land bordering a vineyard and organic cotton farm, to even a pumpkin farm in Floyd County.

One thing many don’t understand about bees is that while honey bees and some species of bumble bees are social, most other species are solitary. According to the Xerxes Society, most species native to North America make their nests in the soil, where they will tunnel out brood cells to lay eggs.

These solitary bees usually live for about one year, but spend most of their lives developing in their nest. Humans typically only see native bees in their adult stage which last three to six weeks, according to the Xerces Society.

“We want to learn about their habitat,” Longing said, “so we can figure out the best way to manage them, so that they can provide that pollination service.”

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What are they learning?

With the very limited amount of information about the native pollinators in the area, Longing said his team is studying many facets of the native pollinators including their habitats.  One thing the team has already observed is the native bees on the Floyd County pumpkin farm, manage to live in the rotation fields, somehow making it out of the soil before the field is cultivated the next year.

Longing said that particular pumpkin farmer had brought in almost 100 hives of migratory honey bee hives to support pollination services, but the team noticed that only two varieties of the pumpkins were being pollinated by them. The rest were being pollinated by native squash bees.

“Another need, from an economic stand point, is just to learn about pollinator services.” Longing said. “To learn what the different bees are pollinating, and what can benefit from the pollination, from a honey bee stand point and a native bee stand point, and to keep farmers from spending excess money on honey bees that aren’t doing anything for their crop.”

The research Longing and his team are doing stands not only to benefit pollinator conservation, but also has great potential to benefit producers.

According to Longing, recent research conducted by another university showed a correlation between cotton fields that were surrounded by wild vegetation and native bee species, and larger cotton boll sizes due to out-crossing of pollination. Longing said he hopes his project finds valuable information like this that benefits producers and pollinators.

Longing said Texas Tech is located in a unique, but well suited, area for pollinator research to be conducted. The university sits in a transition zone between two insect-rich areas, the Great Plains and the Southwestern United States, which he noted is likely the most diverse area in the U.S. in terms of stinging insects. This rich diversity makes the High Plains an optimal place to gather information about pollinators.

This is one of the reasons Tech was selected for NRCS’ prestigious Conservation Innovation Grant, as well as a native pollinator planting location. The location is one of only four in the nation and is a collaborative initiative between Bayer Crop Sciences and The Wildlife Society to provide forage for native pollinator populations.

The project taking place at Texas Tech could have a major impact on the future of agriculture. With declining numbers of pollinators and limited current knowledge, the future could look grim, but Longing and his team, with the support of their partners, are working to change that.

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