Soybeans are one of Virginia’s top crops, ranking sixth out of the commonwealth’s top 10 agricultural commodities.
Faculty members such as M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences (front), are making agriculture more profitable in the commonwealth by building a soybean that can be grown in Virginia and digested easily by nonruminants.
The vast majority of the crop is processed as feed for farm animals — including cows, pigs, and chickens — which are also top products for the state.
Soybeans contain high levels of phytic acid, which stores phosphorous. When animals ingest soybeans, the phytate is broken down in the gut.
While ruminants such as cows can break down soybeans with ease, nonruminants like pigs and chickens have difficulty breaking down the high-phytate content in a traditional soybean. In addition, the waste produced by animals who consume soybeans is also high in phosphorous, which has far-reaching ramifications for bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay that are overburdened with phosphorous runoff.
M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, is one of several researchers in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences helping to produce new soybean varieties with lower levels of phytate, which in turn is more easily digested and produces less phosphorous.
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Soybeans are an important staple of Virginia agricultural exports and are among the top five crops exported to markets overseas. In the last agricultural census, soybeans were also the top revenue-generating crop with more than $300 million in sales.
The lucrative Virginia crop is sought out as far away as Japan, where fermented soybeans are eaten as a breakfast item called natto.
Hillary Mehl, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, is working to keep Virginia a sustainable, soybean-producing powerhouse.
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Soybeans are a major crop in both Virginia and North Carolina, but money spent on weed control is choking out about $40 million of profits per year for farmers in each state.
A collaborative grant between Virginia Tech and North Carolina State University seeks to eradicate weeds such as Italian ryegrass, wild radish, common ragweed, and Palmer amaranth that are common to both states. The grant money is being focused on environmentally friendly ways to control weeds that won’t contribute to herbicide resistance.
“Herbicide resistance prevalent in our region is just shy of doubling the weed control costs of production,” said Michael Flessner, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science and Extension specialist. “This is a way to not only combat the weeds, but to also keep the problem from becoming worse,” said Flessner.
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