Department of Agronomy 125th Points of Pride

Experiment Station Works with USDA to Conduct Soil Surveys
The USDA Bureau of Soils began the national soil survey program in 1899. A cooperative agreement was signed with the Experiment Station to conduct Iowa soil surveys in 1913, drawing in faculty from the agronomy department. William Stevenson, a professor of soils, served as director of the Iowa Soil Survey from 1910 to 1932, and vice director of the Experiment Station from 1912 to 1948. Comprehensive maps and analyses were prepared of soil types, fertilizer needs, crop tests and drainage patterns for each county of the state. The surveys were used to aid in valuation of agricultural land for tax purposes beginning in 1949, and in 1977 valuation was changed to 100 percent productivity and earning, which meant the soil survey was used as the primary source of information.

Experiment Station Hosts World Class Corn-breeding Program
The corn-breeding program at Iowa State began in 1922, and the first Iowa State and USDA hybrids were available for planting in 1933. George Sprague is considered one of the fathers of modern corn breeding and is credited with bringing the Iowa State program to prominence. He was a member of the Iowa State agronomy faculty from 1939 to 1958. Lloyd Tatum, Wilbert Russell and Arnel Hallauer also were instrumental in the program, which in 1953 began to release “stiff-stalk” synthetic lines with improved plant characteristics and disease and insect resistance. The lines, known as Iowa Stiff Stalk Synthetic, are considered the most important inbred lines and are parent to nearly half of the corn produced in temperate regions of the world.

Popcorn Breeding Program Housed at Iowa State
Iowa State was home to the most comprehensive public popcorn-breeding program in the nation, first directed by John Eldredge. Popcorn seed was initially distributed in 1937 and hybrids followed in 1945. The program was suspended in the 1950s and resumed in 1979, until its conclusion in 2004.

International Conference Held in Honor of ISU Soil Physicist
Don Kirkham joined Iowa State as a professor of soil physics in 1946. His main areas of research focused on the physical properties governing the fertility of soils and applying physics as well as mathematics to the movements of fluids through porous material. Kirkham gained prominence for developing standard techniques of measurements in the relationship between soil and water, and is known for inventing the neutron probe that measures soil moisture. A Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture, Kirkham retired in 1978. The Soil Science Society of America created the Kirkham Conference in his honor with the first held November 2000 at Iowa State.

Agronomist Develops Multi-line Cultivar Concept for Disease Resistance
Kenneth Frey served on the agronomy faculty from 1953 to 1993. Frey, a developer of oat cultivars, worked with J. Artie Browning from the plant pathology department, to develop the multi-line cultivar concept for disease resistance. Dealing with the rapid evolution of crown rust strains, Frey and Browning first released multi-line cultivars that were available as certified seed in 1968. They were controlled blends of lines, each carrying resistance to a different strain of crown rust.

Agricultural Climatology Program Started in 1945
In 1945, the agronomy department at Iowa State began a program in agricultural climatology under the direction of Herb Thom, the state climatologist and meteorologist-in-charge of the U.S. Weather Bureau office in Des Moines. Robert Shaw was among his first students. Shaw received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from Iowa State and by 1957 and became a professor of climatology and soils. He is known for creating a system for collecting data about soil moisture and its relation to the production of agricultural crops. He developed the stress index for corn and the statewide soil moisture status report. Shaw and his colleagues were some of the first in the nation to scientifically evaluate the effect of weather factors on crop production.

Administrator Begins Second Career as Research Climatologist
Louis Thompson enjoyed a distinguished career at Iowa State, beginning in the agronomy department in 1946. He served as professor-in-charge of a new program, called farm operations, from 1950 to 1958; then was promoted to associate dean of agriculture in charge of academic programs. When Thompson retired in 1983 he began a second career as a research climatologist. He made an exceptional prediction of the drought in 1988 based on his research on the relationship between drought in the Corn Belt and El Ninos. The prediction led to scores of invited presentations that kept Thompson busy until just days before his 81st birthday, when he decided to begin a more traditional retirement.

Iowa State Among First to Research Environmental Problems Linked to Agriculture
John Bremner is regarded as one of the world’s premier soil scientists. The Scotland native was an internationally recognized scientist when he came to Iowa State as an associate professor in the agronomy department in 1959. However, he exceeded expectations with his success in Iowa. He not only dramatically increased scientists’ knowledge of the nitrogen and sulfur cycles, but developed methodologies for research on these cycles that have become standards in soil science. Bremner was among the first to do research on environmental problems linked to agriculture. His basic findings have been, and will continue to be, used in developing management practices to improve efficiency of fertilizer use and minimize environmental damage.

Iowa State Agronomist Helped Pave the Way for Sustainable Agriculture
John Pesek is world renowned for his role in the 1989 National Academy of Sciences Report on Alternative Agriculture. He was appointed to a national research council committee to study alternative methods of crop and soil management and compare them with conventional methods and practices. Pesek became chair of the committee and edited, reviewed and wrote much of the report, which was published in 1989. The report showed that alternative farming systems can be productive and profitable, and encouraged farmers to emphasize diversification and management. Pesek came to Iowa State in 1950 and moved through the ranks to professor in the agronomy department, serving as head of the department from 1964 to 1990. A Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences, Pesek retired in 1992. He was named an emeritus professor and continues to spend time in the agronomy department.

Approaching 100 Years of Continuous Corn Research at Iowa State
Iowa State’s continuous corn research plots were first planted in 1915. William Stevenson and Percy Brown, soil scientists and former heads of the agronomy department, were instrumental in establishing the plots. Their long-term crop rotation and soil management study tested lime, manure and fertilizers in different cropping systems. Those results were the basis for Iowa State recommendations to farmers during the first half of the 20th century. In 1953, the study changed to evaluate commercial fertilizers, but the research continued. In 2006, the study was modified again to accommodate larger machinery.

Agronomist at Iowa State Develops Phosphorus Index
High yields don’t happen by accident. They demand a science-based approach to soil fertility and sustainable agronomic practices — a key area of research for Antonio Mallarino, a professor of soil fertility at Iowa State. His research helped create the Phosphorus Index in 2000. The index offers a site-specific, farmer-friendly tool that balances cost-effective crop production with practical soil and water conservation practices. Developed for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Phosphorus Index was adopted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for nutrient management plans.

Iowa State Agronomist Helps Complete Maize Genome Sequence
In 2005, the National Science Foundation funded the Maize Genome Sequencing Consortium, a $29.5 million effort to provide a comprehensive foundation to systematically understand maize biology with the goal of breeding higher yielding, disease-resistant and drought-tolerant cultivars. Iowa State was one of four institutions involved in this three-year project. Patrick Schnable, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professorship in Agriculture and Life Sciences and Baker Professor of Agronomy, and his team developed methods for the assembly of maize genome sequence data and conducted much of the ongoing functional analysis work. Sequencing a genome reveals an organism’s genetic blueprint and opens the door for researchers to discover the role each gene plays in the life of the organism. The corn variety selected for sequencing was B73, which was developed at Iowa State. The cultivar remains the basis for many of the world’s commercial lines of corn, and is used widely in corn genetics research. Schnable was lead author for the maize genome sequence publication, featured as the cover story for the November 2009 issue of Science, and coordinates a team of researchers using these data to address multiple biological questions.