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Doing More Collectively: Checkoff-funded research pays dividends to Iowa farmers

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This article was originally published in the Spring issue of the Iowa Soybean Review.

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By Bethany Baratta, ISA senior writer

Checkoff-funded research and coordinated efforts with Iowa State University (ISU) have paid dividends for Iowa soybean farmers.

Whether it’s research in soybean breeding or soybean cyst nematode or sudden death syndrome, the partnership created with ISU and its researchers has helped Iowa soybean farmers not only overcome challenges on their farm, but stay ahead of emerging issues.

ISA and the soybean checkoff have provided more than $61 million in funding for research activities through Iowa State University, says Greg Tylka, a nematology professor in the department of plant pathology and microbiology, and director of the Iowa Soybean Research Center (ISRC) at ISU.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do if it wasn’t for ISA,” Tylka says.

ISA CEO Kirk Leeds says the partnership helps fund research that supports soybean farmers in Iowa and across the nation.

“The partnership with Iowa State is incredibly important because it’s allowed Iowa soybean farmers to direct their checkoff investment and in many ways the overall soybean research program at Iowa State,” Leeds says.

One of the first checkoff-supported research programs at ISU was the soybean breeding program, says Steve Julius, who was on the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board, the state’s checkoff board, in 1987. It merged with the Iowa Soybean Association (non-checkoff) board in 2005.

“The Iowa board from day one was supporting [ISU researcher] Walt Fehr and the soybean breeding program at Iowa State,” Julius says.

That program flourished on campus and expanded to include a presence in Puerto Rico. It allowed ISU faculty and staff to raise two soybean crops in a single year, which sped up soybean breeding and genetics research, Tylka says.

With ISA’s support, ISU was one of the first universities in the U.S. to have two faculty members researching soybean cyst nematode (SCN). Tylka started researching this yield-robbing plant-parasitic roundworm at ISU in 1990, and Thomas Baum joined ISU as a molecular SCN researcher in 1995.

Since then, he’s been working to combat SCN through plant genetic resistance to complement agronomic management practices.

Checkoff funding helped researchers look for SCN resistance in soybean lines and propagate those to make germplasm available to soybean breeders. That germplasm was incorporated into their breeding programs for commercial products farmers could plant.

“It paid dividends to soybean producers all over the state and the Midwest to have access to germplasm to combat the growth of cyst nematodes,” says Julius, who farms near Barnum.

Steve Julius, who was on the Iowa Soybean Promotion Board in 1987, says the Iowa board was supporting the soybean breeding program at Iowa State from day one. (Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

At that time, one of the more significant projects was Fehr’s work with soybean oil, trying to develop oils more stable for the cooking industry.

“We were crushing soybeans for meal for feed, but there was excess oil that we couldn’t find a home for, and it was always a drag on the soybean market,” Julius says.

With demand for soybean cooking oil waning, they knew there had to be another way they could use soybean oil.

“We started doing basic research on how the oil could be refined and cleaned so it would work for diesel engines,” Julius says.

That work was a major impetus for biodiesel.

ISU researchers, with funding through the soybean checkoff, showed biodiesel could meet various government and fuel industry standards, Julius says. Researchers showed biodiesel could work in a variety of diesel engines.

“Biodiesel was in its infancy, and Iowa was really a pioneer in getting it started. Other states joined the effort to develop and promote biodiesel,” Julius says.

Increasing biodiesel production created more demand for soy oil. Today, biodiesel adds about 63 cents to the price of soybeans for farmers. And it all started with checkoff-funded research, Julius notes.

“The soybean checkoff has been instrumental in helping producers find new markets for their crop and by giving all of us access to new disease-resistant lines for our fungal diseases,” he says. “And much of it was paid for and administered by the farmers themselves.”

There have been a whole host of research programs and projects funded through the checkoff, Leeds says.

As part of the North Central Soybean Research Program (NCSRP), ISA checkoff dollars went toward the first fully integrated, multi-institutional, multi-state project using crop modeling in a large yield project.

Because of farmers’ investment in the checkoff and the vision of the NCSRP board, there were management strategies in place to combat white mold before the disease made its way to the state.

That’s just one of many examples, he says.

“We’ve never been satisfied waiting for a researcher to come to us. In most cases, it’s through dialogue and strategic planning that we determine those emerging issues and then work with the best researchers to handle those issues,” Leeds says.

Research Center

The Iowa Soybean Research Center (ISRC) was created in 2014 as a way to further enhance collaborative, strategic discussions between the private sector, farmers and university researchers, says Ed Anderson, senior director of research at ISA.

The ISRC is one of six soybean research centers across the nation. Research at the center often provides the preliminary data and proof-of-concept work from which private companies and institutions derive new technologies and products for farmers.

The center has helped further soybean research not only in the state, but the nation, says Keith Smith, who worked for the American Soybean Association as the director of research. He oversaw research projects through several states’ checkoff programs. He and his wife, Ginny, recently donated money to the center to support a communications staff person.

“It’s so important that the results that researchers generate through the Iowa Soybean Research Center are communicated to farmers and accepted by farmers,” Smith says. “To me, that’s one of the real opportunities that we have — working closely through the center to make sure industry, researchers and farmers are on the same page and working cooperatively to improve soybean production.”

The ISRC reflects the changing approach to research, Leeds says. Instead of a binned and siloed approach — researchers working separately on specific topics — there’s a much more coordinated effort.

“Today, there’s leverage to our dollars across state boundaries, across institutions and with other agencies and funding sources to support projects that have much more impactful results,” he says.

ISA research

ISA-supported research takes a farmer-focused approach, Anderson says.

“Our primary focus has been on farmers, and it will always be on farmers,” he says.

The ISA’s On-Farm Network®, as an example, focuses on production field-scale research projects to help farmers better understand the agronomics and cropping system parameters, which help them make better management decisions.

“We work with farmers to do the work, collect and analyze the data and turn it back over to them as information. Then they make the decisions on the most cost-effective practices and products for their operation’s productivity, profitability and sustainability,” Anderson says.

The ISA’s Environmental Programs and Services team helps farmers understand more about soil health, nutrient management, soil preservation and water quality.

The ISA Analytics team supports both ISA research teams with experimental design, agronomic research and the collection, management, interpretation and reporting of results and information. All ISA research teams build and maintain collaborations with farmers, university researchers and company representatives to mine and apply data and information to benefit farmers, advance research, and drive the soybean industry forward.

The coordinated, multi-disciplinary approach within ISA and with ISU and others will continue to be important to Iowa soybean farmers and the industry, Leeds says.

Contact Bethany Baratta at

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