Catching Up with CALS — Sept. 21, 2022
Dean's Message — Faculty a Key to CALS Days
High school students from throughout the state will soon be on campus experiencing what life is like in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. They’ll stay on campus and experience what our beautiful residential campus has to offer. They’ll attend classroom workshops, compete in livestock and dairy judging and mingle with CALS students. Most importantly, they will have the chance to interact with our outstanding faculty. The more we engage prospective college students and their parents with our faculty, the more we increase the odds that they’ll choose to continue learning at our college. CALS Days, scheduled for Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, is a truly unique recruitment event, celebrating the college and its complexity while introducing the next generation of college students to our campus and faculty.
We initially called the event Ag Days. Indeed, our departments cover the gamut of agricultural disciplines: Agricultural Education, Leadership and Communications; Animal, Veterinary and Food Sciences; Entomology, Plant Pathology and Nematology; Plant Sciences; and Soil and Water Systems. We adopted CALS Days, however, as a more encompassing name, recognizing we also offer instruction in the life sciences through our Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology and the Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences. Under the umbrella of family and consumer sciences (FCS), students can earn degrees in apparel, textiles and design; child development; early childhood education; family and consumer sciences; food and nutrition; human development and family studies; nutritional sciences; and FCS teacher education.
The 15 workshops offered during CALS Days reflect the diversity of CALS programs, covering topics ranging from veterinary medicine to textile dyeing. Participants in the workshops will have the chance to handle live giant Australian stick insects at the Barr Entomological Museum, learn the secret of making perfectly flaky biscuits at the Carmelita Spencer Foods Laboratory or work with the Department of Animal, Veterinary and Food Sciences to peer inside a cow with advanced imaging techniques, among other activities.
CALS faculty are the DNA of the land-grant system at U of I, embracing our Extension/outreach mission to engage with the public, report to stakeholders and promote the importance of agriculture. Giving of their time to interact with prospective students, parents and educators may come naturally to our CALS professionals, but I assure you it’s not the norm among colleges at many institutions.
Students who visit campus during CALS Days may discover that we offer great scholarships and opportunities for internships with industry. I’m also confident they will leave impressed that our programs are as good or better than those offered at colleges of agriculture throughout the country.
Furthermore, the value they get is unrivaled. For a third consecutive year, U.S. News and World Report has ranked U of I as the No. 1 best value college in the West. We’re hoping to draw a group of about 200 high school students to CALS Days. By training the workforce of tomorrow, we meet the needs of industry and fulfill a central function of our land-grant mission. Our graduates are the most valuable commodity we produce, and are the ultimate ROI the state receives back by investing in U of I.
Special Dean’s Update
The Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CAFE) reached another major milestone on Sept. 20 as the Idaho Board of Land Commissioners unanimously voted to invest $23 million in the project to be used for land and dairy infrastructure near Rupert. Funding came from the November 2021 sale of 282 acres of land in Caldwell that was formerly home to the Caine Veterinary Teaching Center but was no longer being used for agricultural research. CAFE will be the nation’s largest research dairy, with a cutting-edge milking parlor and capacity for a 2,000 head dairy herd. Its research will focus on helping dairies operate sustainably into the future while minimizing their effects on the environment. Learn more.
Michael P. Parrella
College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
By the Numbers
For the 2nd year in a row, CALS new first-time undergraduate students exceed 190, up from an average of 147 first-time students from 2017 to 2020, according to enrollment numbers updated on Sept. 19. The college enrolled 745 of the university’s 7,118 undergraduate students as primary majors and another 49 students have chosen a secondary major in CALS. Graduate student enrollment was boosted by 59 new graduate students in both 2021 and 2022, and the current 185 CALS graduate students is the most in over a decade. In total, 979 students have chosen to major in one of CALS’ 7 departments.
University of Idaho researchers are introducing genes from a plant in the nightshade family into potatoes, seeking to develop spuds that resist harmful nematodes.
The plant, called litchi tomato, has natural resistance to several species of cyst and root-knot nematodes.
“That’s an unusual trait to have such broad resistance,” said Allan Caplan, associate professor in U of I’s Department of Plant Sciences who is involved in the project.
Nematode cysts can remain viable in fields for more than a decade, and they can be found down to 3 feet deep in soil.
U of I researchers — led by nematologist and plant pathologist Louise-Marie Dandurand — have worked for several years studying a range of possibilities for using litchi tomato as a tool to avert nematode-related yield losses in potatoes. Litchi tomato has been planted as a “trap crop” in the program to eradicate pale cyst nematode (PCN), which is quarantined in a small area of eastern Idaho. When planted in fields infested with PCN, litchi tomato stimulates cysts to hatch in the absence of a viable host, causing them to starve.
Dandurand also has a post-doctoral researcher seeking to identify chemicals in litchi tomato that harm or kill nematodes. The chemicals that prove effective could be refined and applied directly to fields as a pesticide.
Caplan and Fangming Xiao, professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, have been working to identify the genes in litchi tomato that are specifically expressed when nematodes attack the plant.
“We found at least 277 genes that got turned on,” Caplan said. “We think not all of them are necessary. We have to make educated guesses of which to try first, and it’s really a matter of trial and error. We’re pretty certain some of these are going to have a big effect but we can’t say with certainty which ones they’re going to be.”
They turned over some of the genes they suspect may be directly involved in killing nematodes to Joseph Kuhl, associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, who used biotechnology to introduce them into a red-skinned potato variety, Desiree, last summer. Desiree was chosen because it’s relatively easy to transform through genetic modification.
“If we see resistance in Desiree then we’ll make the effort to put it in russets,” Caplan said.
Xiao created some biotech potatoes using litchi tomato genes last fall, and Caplan is set to introduce additional litchi tomato genes into potatoes this summer. All their growing, infecting and analysis is taking place in closed growth chambers.
By first using genetic engineering to find the pathway through which litchi tomato protects itself, Caplan believes researchers may later be able to change gene expression to protect potatoes from nematodes through laboratory methods that aren’t considered to be genetic modifications.
Their work has been funded by several sources including the Idaho Potato Commission, the Northwest Potato Consortium and the federal Plant Protection Act.
U of I Barn Owl Boxes Changing Perspectives
A long-running University of Idaho Extension project to build, distribute and monitor wooden houses for nesting barn owls is wrapping up, but Idaho farmers who have struggled to control ravenous voles should enjoy lasting benefits.
UI Extension educator Jason Thomas has sold about 150 owl boxes since starting the effort. He’s offering to sell his remaining inventory at the discounted rate of $100 each and plans to transition to projects involving biological control of insects, including distributing bat boxes. His owl box plans can be accessed free online.
Thomas estimates voles are being held in check throughout 76,374 acres of Idaho agricultural land thanks to owls using either the boxes he’s sold or boxes built by landowners who have used his design.
Thomas launched the popular owl box program shortly after starting at U of I in 2018, seeking another means of helping farmers who were sustaining heavy crop losses to voles (pdf). The farmers were spending thousands of dollars on the primary tool available to them — the rodenticide zinc phosphide — and were still losing large swaths of their grain, hay fields and pastures to the rodents.
“As I went out to cereal fields, there were islands of dead ground in the middle of the field where 10% to 20% of the field was just this dead stuff because they had such a high number of voles,” Thomas said. “They talked to me and said, ‘We wish we could do something about this.’”
He found information about how owl boxes were being used to help control rodents in California. To fund his own project in Idaho, Thomas obtained about $4,000 from UI Extension and a $3,000 mini-grant through Western Sustainable Agriculture Research.
A California bird bander and woodshop teacher allowed Thomas to use his design, and Thomas made his own tweaks. The wooden boxes have an elliptical hole — 3.75 inches by 4.5 inches — to allow owls to enter while keeping predators out. Grips below the hole help owls get in and out. They’re built to last 30 to 40 years.
Each box has a door in the back or bottom that opens to facilitate cleaning. Thomas recommends cleaning the boxes every couple of years while wearing an N95 respirator mask for protection from diseases spread by birds.
Thomas has recruited Idaho youth, including Boy Scouts in need of an Eagle project, to help build the boxes. He’s also worked closely with the school districts in Minidoka and Power counties and Mini-Cassia Juvenile Probation. Students at J.R. Simplot Elementary School in American Falls build the boxes annually during their ecology day.
Thomas has monitored his owl boxes regularly to assess occupancy rates. Dietary studies show a family of barn owls consisting of two parents and five owlets can eat more than 2,000 voles within the three-month span before the brood reaches maturity. Anecdotally, he’s noticed owls tend to avoid using boxes placed within 500 meters of an occupied home or a frequently visited building.
“Where we are seeing activity is away from humans,” Thomas said.
Nests can be mounted on a pole or tree. Thomas advises locating them at least 6 feet above the ground for protection from predators, and he suggests mounting them no higher than 12 feet to ensure they’re easy to clean and maintain.
Thomas estimates the average occupancy rate of his boxes has been about 75%.
Sean Mallett, with Harmony Organic Dairy in Twin Falls, has been using owl boxes for vole control since 2015, when the Magic Valley experienced a major outbreak.
“They were destroying everything — winter wheat, pasture, everything. They wiped out 300 acres of our pasture,” Mallett recalled.
Mallett found an owl box design on the internet and had someone build him about 40 boxes, which were placed about 40 acres apart. He’s also set boxes adjacent to additional fields he’s acquired throughout the past seven years.
“We really haven’t had a problem since,” Mallett said, adding using the boxes helped him meet requirements of the biodiversity section of his organic systems plan. “Overall, I think there’s been a great benefit to our farm utilizing these owl boxes.”
Thomas acknowledged owl boxes aren’t a cure-all and farmers and ranchers who put them up may still need to use some zinc phosphide. One of the greatest benefits of the owl boxes in Thomas’ opinion is that they’ve led the state’s agricultural producers to think more broadly about their approaches to integrated pest management.
“The whole purpose of this barn owl project is to help farmers and other people understand there are more options besides just pesticides,” Thomas said. “We’re trying to help farmers change their mentality.”
Entomologists Address Giant Hornet Confusion
A harmless, native insect known as the cicada killer wasp is being implicated throughout Idaho in the crimes of an international invader with a menacing reputation.
University of Idaho Extension entomologists Jason Thomas, of Minidoka County, and Brad Stokes, of Elmore County, have recently responded to several purported sightings of northern giant hornets, formerly referred to as murder hornets.
Northern giant hornets, which attack bee colonies, have made national headlines since they surfaced in August of 2021 in northwest Washington. They’ve also been found in southwest Canada, but there have been no confirmed sightings in Idaho to date. In most cases investigated by Thomas and Stokes, people confused the giant hornet with the cicada killer wasp — a large, solitary insect that is similar in appearance to the giant hornet but is docile and even beneficial, helping to control certain pests.
Scott Jensen, UI Extension livestock educator in Owyhee County, was elected as the next vice president of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents at the 2022 national conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. With this appointment, he will progress through the four-year leadership ranks of vice president, president-elect, president and past president for the national association.
The 4-H Outreach to Military Youth program will be recognized on Sept. 24 in Boise at the Idaho National Guard Major General Michael J. Garshak’s awards banquet for receiving the Community Purple Award. The program, coordinated by Julia Villagomez, was nominated by statewide military partners.
Anna Briggs, who earned a doctorate in entomology and a master’s and bachelor’s in animal and veterinary sciences from CALS, has earned an Idaho Science and Technology Policy Fellowship (ISTPF). ISTPF is a nonpartisan program that places scientists, social scientists and engineers in state government to learn about policymaking while using their knowledge to address pressing challenges facing Idaho. Briggs will spend her fellowship year with Idaho’s Legislative Services Office.
The U of I Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center will host a series of free monthly webinars from October 2022 through April 2023, covering topics pertaining to the cultivation and preservation of heritage fruit varieties, called the Heritage Orchard Conference. Contact Kyle Nagy, superintendent and orchard operations manager, for more information.
Katelyn Hurl, a freshman studying animal and veterinary science: business option, won the amateur barrel racing competition at the Lewiston Roundup for the second consecutive year.
Maddy Lasher, a junior studying human development and family studies, was named the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week on Sept. 13 after recording two assists in a 3-0 win over Louisiana and the lone goal in a 1-0 win over UC Santa Barbara.
- Sept. 30-Oct 2 — CALS Days, Moscow
- Oct. 3 — Idaho Sustainable Agriculture Initiative for Dairy annual meeting, Twin Falls
- Oct. 6-7 — University of Idaho Rangeland Fall Forum, Pocatello
- October-April 2023 — Heritage Orchard Conference, Online
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