Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Ben Fallen

Ben Fallen, USDA-ARS Research Geneticist and USDA Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
I was born and raised on a tobacco farm in Virginia. I went to college knowing I wanted to pursue a career in agriculture, but I wasn’t sure what that would look like. During undergrad at Virginia Tech, a buddy invited me to work with him as an hourly student in a soybean breeding lab. When I graduated, I continued working there as a technician, and then I earned my graduate and doctorate degrees. And I never got out of soybeans. The opportunities in soybeans are pretty incredible, and the soybean breeding community is small and supportive.

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
I think my work exploring the genetic diversity of wild soybeans to find good traits that can be incorporated into commercial soybeans will have the most significant, long-term impact on soybean production. This work has found potential to increase protein content without impacting yield, traits to support drought tolerance and more. As a USDA public breeder, I have more opportunities to work on long-term goals.

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
Funding from the soybean checkoff is a very vital part of the program. As a major commodity, soybeans get less interest from many agencies funding research. The soy checkoff also supports training students, who will become the next generation of researchers, helping farmers solve the next generation of issues. This funding allows us to do more, especially through collaboration. We can accomplish more when we work with more researchers than just breeders.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?
Farmers understand the whole dynamic of how multiple crops work in their fields, so I often go to them for advice. However, when it comes to soybean variety selection, farmers should make decisions for each location, accounting for pest pressure and susceptibility to stresses like drought or flooding. They should also look at data from independent variety trials. I also encourage them to keep soybean composition in mind.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of farmers in the future?
I expect the focus on sustainability to increase, so research on characteristics like drought and flood tolerance will continue to be important. We are losing land for production as the global population grows, so we need to work together to develop genetics and management practices to grow a better product for end users.

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Andrew Scaboo

Andrew Scaboo, Assistant Professor, Plant Science and Technology, University of Missouri

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
Growing up, my mother was into plants and vegetable gardening, and I enjoyed helping her. I went to the University of Tennessee and majored in plant and soil science. In the summer between my junior and senior year, I did a practicum with Dr. Vince Pantalone, a soybean breeder and a great mentor. This is where I fell in love with agriculture and soybeans. I went on to the University of Arkansas and earned my Ph.D. in plant breeding with Dr. Pengyin Chen, and worked with Dr. Tommy Carter with the USDA at North Carolina State University.

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
I think what has had the most impact is our cultivar development. We’ve licensed a lot of germplasm to private companies, specifically and significantly, releasing the SOYLEIC™ soybean cultivars. The University of Missouri breeding program released some of the first publicly available high oleic, low linolenic soybean varieties. Drs. Kristin Bilyeu and Grover Shannon discovered the trait, and my program released the cultivars that farmers are growing now. 

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
The soy checkoff has been vital to my work developing new higher yielding, value-added soybean varieties. Developing the SOYLEIC™ varieties was a huge undertaking, and we did it, which has helped develop the market space for soybeans here and internationally. Actually, the soy checkoff is behind every single cultivar that I’ve developed.

And the checkoff in general has been instrumental in supporting the education of staff and students. With every research project, we’re educating undergraduate and graduate students so they can go on and either continue research or work at a major ag company, which impacts farmers’ fields more than they realize.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?

  • As a soybean breeder, it may seem odd, but I think weed management programs are probably the number one concern a farmer should think about. It is hard to control weeds and many people outside of agriculture don’t realize how bad of a problem it can be if farmers don’t control them. 
  • Also, plant early. There are a few things farmers can control and being ready to plant at the earliest time they can is one that can be controlled to increase yield. Be prepared.
  • Select the varieties that have traits important for your farm. Tailor your selection of varieties to maturity, disease resistance and herbicide package. Taking the time to find the cultivars with genetic resistance to help manage pathogens specific to your farm is crucial.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of famers in the future?
Education support needs to continue to keep agriculture advancing. When you look at a research project proposal, the majority of the money goes to salaries. The checkoff creates jobs and sustains this whole realm of graduate students, postdocs, and staff, which makes a big impact on the agriculture industry.

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – John Tooker

John Tooker, Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Entomology, Pennsylvania State University

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
I fell in love with insects in college. I enjoy studying them and I find their interactions fascinating. Soybeans came with the entomology job I have at Penn State, and I have enjoyed learning about the crop and how insects interact with it.

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
The research I have done on slugs, which is a growing concern because of the use of no-till and cover crops, helps soybean producers most. My research team learned how the use of neonicotinoids also controls predators of slugs and other damaging insects. The loss of natural predators makes fields more susceptible to slug damage, and it has lots of other downstream effects. Because of this work, my team has become known as the slug people. 

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
The Pennsylvania Soybean Board was among the first organizations to fund slug research. Their willingness to fund ongoing research allows all of us to have a better understanding of what is happening in soybean fields each year.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?
I recommend integrated pest management practices to manage insects. Farmers should invest in scouting to see if they need insecticides, because often treatment isn’t necessary.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of farmers in the future?
With more farmers using cover crops, I think research on the risks and benefits of cover crops is needed, especially related to pests. Cover crops actually bring more natural enemies to fields, reducing pests. 

Photo: Nick Sloff, Penn State University

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Jeremy Ross

Jeremy Ross, Professor and Soybean Extension Agronomist, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
I fell into this position. In college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I started working in a plant pathology lab, which led to earning a master’s degree. I worked for a plant pathologist for a few years. Then I did corn and sorghum verification for Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service for seven years, and I earned my doctorate during that time. This position with a focus on soybeans opened up as I graduated in 2007, and I’ve been doing this ever since. I enjoy working with soybean farmers, helping them solve their problems.

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
Research showing the value of using an inoculant on late-planted soybeans is paying off for Arkansas soybean farmers. They usually plant about half their soybean acres after June 1. My research showed that for soybeans planted after mid-May, adding an inoculant needs a yield increase of just one-third to one-half of a bushel per acre to pay for it, and we consistently see yield increases of 5 to 10 bushels per acre.

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
The soy checkoff provides funds to do this research. The funds and the farmers who volunteer to oversee the allocation of the checkoff make it possible for us to answer a lot of questions. I value having a good relationship with the farmers serving on the Arkansas Soybean Promotion Board.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?

  • Use narrow row spacing when planting soybeans. We have a lot of data showing that narrow rows increase yield. 
  • About 85% of Arkansas soybeans grow under irrigation. Using soil moisture sensors and programs that improve the efficiency of furrow irrigation can minimize over- or under-irrigating. Improving water use efficiency supports soybean profitability. 
  • Spend the time needed to pull soil samples and track data. Building a long field history allows farmers to see nutrient trends over time to better maintain soil fertility.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of famers in the future?
One major risk farmers face is the loss of herbicides as weed control tools due to weed resistance. Palmer amaranth is developing resistance to multiple herbicides. We need research to identify long-term weed control options when chemicals don’t work well. We also need to pay attention to the economic profitability of soybeans for our farmers as they compete with other global regions for market share and adapt to address consumer concerns.

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Ray Weil

Ray Weil, Professor of Soil Science, University of Maryland

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
Soy is the main source of protein in many food systems around the world. Soybean is also a good rotational crop for soils. As a soil scientist, I have a natural interest in the soil-plant relationships created by soybeans. 

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
I believe my research on the value of sulfur to soybeans has been most valuable to farmers and soybean production. My work found that soy protein quality, especially the critical amino acid methionine, is very sensitive to the amount of sulfur in the soil. The research demonstrated why sulfur should be added to the soil when needed. That work, considered groundbreaking for food systems, has been extended to other legumes as well.

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
The soy checkoff has been really useful over the years. We’ve made big advances because farmers are willing to support research that other research-funding sources don’t. I’m fortunate to work with a state soybean board that welcomes off-the-wall ideas, like using radishes as a cover crop. Their support allows us to gather enough data to start answering questions and demonstrate the need for additional grants to further that work. The checkoff supports practical research because farmers want to know what concepts address practical problems and to learn more about potential solutions.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?
Farmers need to take care of their soils. They are meant to be covered, but they are not meant to be tilled, so developing a system as close as possible to no-till with cover crops supports soybean yields and soil health.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of farmers in the future?
We need research on secondary nutrients in the soil. We also need to better understand cover crops that promote mycorrhizae and other microbes in the soil.

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Horacio Lopez-Nicora

Horacio Lopez-Nicora, Assistant Professor, Soybean Pathology and Nematology, Ohio State University

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
I grew up in agriculture, primarily raising cattle and riding horses in Paraguay, South America. I was intrigued that we could produce feed for the cattle, which included soybeans. I am fascinated by how resilient soybeans are as a crop, though many pathogens threaten them. I’m also fascinated by the ways pathogens can damage soybeans. I have learned that with accurate knowledge of pathogens and environmental conditions, we can figure out how to make adjustments to help the crop and protect yield.

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
Raising awareness and understanding of soybean cyst nematodes with farmers is making the biggest impact on soybean production. Farmers are being convinced of the need to manage SCN through their own sampling data and understanding that yield loss is possible even with no visible symptoms. And the same is true for the entire industry. Once everyone on the team understands a problem, we can work together to successfully address it.

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
Without soy checkoff support, my team would not be able to do our research. I also believe it’s very valuable that growers review our research proposals, so that we know we are asking relevant questions. That makes it more likely that farmers in general will be able to use our research results to address problems.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?
In the field, myriad components both enhance and reduce crop yield, productivity and sustainability, and those factors change constantly. Multiple pathogens are always present, and they interact with abiotic factors, especially the weather. Because of this, farmers should be curious about their crop, constantly asking questions. They need to use the network of information available from the experts around them, including those from land grant universities and other partners. They should connect all that information to manage the health of their crop, much as we holistically manage our personal health.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of farmers in the future?
We understand individual soybean pathogens well, but as a former president of the American Phytopathological Society said, nature doesn’t work with pure cultures. We need research to understand the interactions between pathogens. Some situations likely favor different pathogens over others, while other situations may create synergies that can cause bigger problems for crops. Understanding interactions will help us better protect crop growth and yield potential.

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Joe Ikley

Joe Ikley, North Dakota State University Extension Weed Specialist

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
I did a summer internship as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, my home state, and ended up working with the extension weed specialist there. He was the weed scientist for major agronomic crops, and soybeans are an important crop in Maryland. It took just that one summer to make me realize I wanted to work in weed control. I’ve worked in weed science and soybeans throughout my career. It’s a continuing challenge and it’s enjoyable to try to find solutions. 

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
Some of the most significant topics have been regional and national collaborations that I’ve been a part of — groups of scientists working at multiple sites with a unified goal. One of those projects was about cover crops and weed suppression with soybeans, and another one I worked on was with weed seeds using controlled devices, such as the seed terminator that grinds up weed seeds before they exit the combine, and how these can be integrated for overall weed control.

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
The soybean checkoff funding is always good for helping us conduct the research from a financial standpoint. It also allows us to have students involved. I like to help train graduate and undergraduate students so they may have the same kind of passion I have for weed control. The checkoff has helped us conduct the research and help train the next generation of weed specialists.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?
One of the top recommendations for me is continuing to integrate different strategies for weed control in soybeans. Because we have herbicide resistance, which seems to be increasing, we are looking at other things that can be integrated into an operation — whether that is cover crops or weed seed destruction methods. We need to think beyond using herbicides solely to achieve weed control outcomes.

The other recommendation is timeliness of making herbicide applications. Knowing about the different herbicides is a foundation to build upon. With the weeds we are currently dealing with, farmers need to apply herbicide when the weeds are small to get the best control.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of farmers in the future?
We need to continue to evaluate integrated tactics for weed control that can be easily integrated or worked into a farming operation. These need to be methods that can be easily added to a farmer’s current operation such as the weed seed destruction devices. If it is easier to integrate, it’s more likely these practices will be adopted. 

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Matthew O’Neal

Matthew O’Neal, Professor, Department of Plant Pathology, Entomology and Microbiology, Iowa State University

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
I wanted a job in applied entomology, and one opened up at Iowa State University. It’s hard to pass up the opportunity to work at the center of tackling key insect problems and helping a lot of people. Soybeans face a lot of challenges, so they offer many opportunities to help farmers. And in soybeans, we study beneficial insects as well as pests. My time is now split about 50/50 between pests and beneficial insects. 

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
I think my research on prairie strips in soybean and corn systems to improve honeybee productivity has the most potential to impact soybean production. Although soybeans don’t need pollinators, evidence suggests that soybean yield increases when pollinators do visit the plants. Bees support biodiversity, and they could also support soybean yields.

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
The soy checkoff provides the foundation for getting research work done. It allows us to recruit, support and train students that conduct practical research, preparing them for jobs in the industry. Without the checkoff, none of this happens.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?

  • Scout. It’s hard, but it matters. Farmers tend to look at big fields, but insect populations change within the field. What insects are present? Where are they? What course of action should be taken? Scouting helps answer all these questions, and the answers can help limit insect resistance.
  • I recommend farmers include check strips with applications to see if what they chose to do worked. This practice also helps detect resistance. 
  • Follow local and regional extension updates about what is happening in the field. An abundance of information is available online, and it can help farmers make better decisions.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of famers in the future?
I am personally curious about the interaction between pollinators and soybeans, an area where research could reveal synergies. We also need to do research on the biology of new pests as they appear. At the same time, we need breeding research to find traits that protect against these pests. Insecticides are not our only tools for pest management. 

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Avat Shekoofa

Avat Shekoofa, Associate Professor, Crop Physiologist, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
During my undergraduate studies, I took a class on plant physiology that changed my life. I was fascinated by how plants respond to different environmental conditions. Soybeans are a strategic plant, extremely important to feeding the world. I am interested in how they respond to different stress factors, and my research plays a role in ensuring efficient soybean production continues and improves.

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
Water use and availability is the biggest issue for agriculture, and many research discussions go back to that. My research related to better, more efficient use of water for soybean production, whether it focuses on irrigation timing, cover crops or genetics, has the biggest impact on long-term soybean production.

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
I am thankful to the Tennessee Soybean Board for funding soybean research. I also appreciate that they come with their questions about production, which tell us if our research is meeting their needs. Working with the farmers and checkoff funding refines the process of prioritizing research as we dig into ideas, apply what we learn and share the results. With their help, we develop more ideas, fund students’ work and find answers to help more farmers.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?

  • They should be open to using new technologies, especially tools that save water. They should learn about available irrigation technologies and consider how to incorporate them to improve water use efficiency.
  • They also can make better production decisions when they are aware of the production aspects of their land. They need to understand soil type, soil quality and water availability. Then, they should use the data and resources available to them to make sound decisions. Those resources include researchers, specialists and local extension agents who can provide information to help make production decisions.

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of famers in the future?
Farmers need research into how soybean varieties can better manage environmental impacts and extreme weather conditions. They also need research about how to use new technology and precision tools. In my opinion, improving collaboration between agricultural scientists and engineers will help improve both crop water use efficiency management and crop productivity.

Soybean Research Principal Investigator Profile – Mike Marshall

Mike Marshall, Assistant Professor, Agronomic and Forage Weed Science, Clemson University

Why did you decide to pursue a career that includes soybean research?
During my undergraduate studies, a weed science class sparked my interest, especially because managing weed pressure applies in any crop. As my education and career progressed, I focused on weed science, which allows me to work in all crops, including soybeans. 

What research topic have you completed in the past or are working on now that could have or has had the most significant impact on soybean production?
I work to help farmers manage weeds. My research comparing products and programs and demonstrating the impact of weeds on crop yields provides them with practical data that allows them to better control weeds in their fields. 

How has the soybean checkoff enhanced your ability to find answers to production problems for farmers?
The soy checkoff helps provide funding for student workers and research costs, and that helps a lot. With that support, I can do relatively simple — yet very impactful — short-term studies that help farmers every year. I am very appreciative of that funding.

Within your area of expertise, what are the top two or three general recommendations you would offer farmers to improve their management practices?

  • Spray weeds on time, to increase the effectiveness of control.
  • Scout and observe changes in weed populations over time. This helps farmers notice problems like herbicide resistance or the appearance of new weeds so they can stay ahead of these problems.
  • Practice rotating herbicide modes of action when possible. Make a list of the herbicides and modes of action used in each crop and change them up from one crop to another. Today, all our major crops in South Carolina tend to use herbicides from the same families, so crop rotation isn’t necessarily effective in supporting herbicide rotation. One way to minimize this challenge is to include two or three herbicide modes of action in the tank every time they spray weeds.  

Within your area of expertise, what do you consider to be critical soybean research needs that can impact the profitability of farmers in the future?
We need research to help us understand how changing climates and weather patterns impact weeds. Weeds tend to thrive under high temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, and research will help us understand if they could become more aggressive in the future.