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Idaho research wants to help keep crops standing tall

September 22, 2018

FILE--In this June 22, 2009, file photo, soft white winter wheat is shown turning from the green color of growth, to the brown color of harvest in a field near Mann Lake in Lewiston, Idaho. There are nearly 7.5 billion people on Earth and more are being born every second. In order to feed all of us, researchers at University of Idaho are looking at ways to keep our existing crops upright. (Barry Kough/Lewiston Tribune via AP, file)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — There are nearly 7.5 billion people on Earth and more are being born every second. In order to feed all of us, researchers at University of Idaho are looking at ways to keep our existing crops upright.

When Daniel Robertson was a kid growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, he got chased off by farmers once or twice for playing in their fields.

“We’d go out there and we’d make little forts and the stalks had fallen down. We’d kind of cut them and make little doorways to come into our fort,” Robertson says.

But it wasn’t until he was an adult when he realized that the fallen corn he and his friends used to hide in cost these farmers a lot of money.

As a mechanical engineering professor at University of Idaho, Robertson now studies what’s called stalk lodging. New varieties have beefed up how much each plant can produce, but that made them top heavy.

“The grain has gotten so heavy that the wind just blows them over and knocks them down and then the grain falls to the ground and rots,” he says.

Between 5 and 25 percent of corn, rice and wheat crops are lost worldwide due to stalk lodging, according to Robertson. If someone could reduce the amount of corn that topples over by just 1 percent, he notes that would put an extra $2 billion into farmers’ pockets.

Robertson and his team at U of I, University of Kentucky and Clemson University will target certain plant traits that keep them upright and encourage breeders to adopt them in future varieties.

To help find these traits, he takes a CT scan of a plant and uses his mechanical engineering background to find its weakpoints and strengths. These researchers have also developed tools that farmers can use in their fields to pinpoint their weaker crops.

The National Science Foundation awarded the group a $6 million grant to study the issue for the next four years.

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