Agriculture research reaches all-time high


Research grants for the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences have risen 25 percent in the past year. More than $21 million a year will now provide funding for a larger number of research projects.

South Dakota State University officials, however, do not attest this to a specific key project or development, but rather to improved research content and proposals that have helped secure more grants than ever before. These funds come from federal and state agencies, commodity groups and the agriculture industry.

Obtaining this research money is a continual and competitive process for colleges, especially when funding sources decrease, according to William Gibbons, interim associate dean for agriculture research. 

This competition is the reason the department pushed to improve their proposal papers justifying how they will spend research dollars and convey the intent of their work.

“These efforts, along with the tremendous work ethic and intellect of our faculty, are now paying dividends in terms of more research funding coming to SDSU,” Gibbons said.

This hard work has been put into both research content development as well as the presentation of the consent, or the proposals, said Daniel Scholl, College of Agriculture and Biological Science interim dean. Between the two, the determining factor is the quality of the research project ideas. 

“The bottom line is the faculty are doing good work and we’re trying to give them the freedom to do that, which is why we see such an increase … we have focused on being enabling to faculty,” Scholl said. “Faculty are working really hard, they are the ones doing the work and winning proposals.”

There have been multiple workshops that cater to improving proposals for both experienced researchers as well as inexperienced researchers, according to Ann Taecker, grant coordinator.

These workshops have paid off as the higher amount of research dollars correlate with the improved proposal successes, according to Gibbons.

In coordinating these workshops, Taecker has brought in speakers such as SDSU Institutional Repository Coordinator Michael Biondo. Biondo is in charge of the Open PRAIRIE (Public Research Access Institutional Repository and Information Exchange) database and was brought in to help researchers become acquainted with this new system.

Taecker also plans on holding a panel of federal agency officials who review grants submitted by researchers to better understand what they look for in proposals.

When secured, these research dollars go toward labor expenses, research equipment, supplies, contracted services and other miscellaneous costs that go into successful research.

Shirley Jensen, senior accountant in the finance office, has played an “important part of the team” that helps secure grants for more than 25 years, according to Taecker. Jensen works with researchers directly to prepare budgets for the proposals.

“Her attention to detail is fantastic and it’s something the researchers really like … I want to make sure that is acknowledged,” Taecker said. “I could not do what we do without her.”

Current agriculture research projects cover a wide range of categories that Gibbons said can have an immediate impact on producers. He also said these categories — which include microorganisms, plants, animals, human health issues, agricultural engineering, dairy science, economics and natural resource management — can impact South Dakota, the United States and potentially the world.

One such example, according to Gibbons, is a device that has been patented by the Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering that attaches to combines in order to prevent field fires during the combining process of sunflowers.

“This was a very serious safety and economic issue in central and western South Dakota, and our researchers have solved this problem, with companies now incorporating this system into their combines,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons said some of the more basic research topics are to understand the “fundamental questions about the structure, function or regulation” of what they’re dealing with. 

Depending on what is discovered, the topic can either continue to be funded into a higher area of specialty or dropped off of funding entirely. 

“For example, we have some researchers working to understand the population composition and dynamics of microbes in the intestinal systems of livestock animals … they may then be able to later determine methods to achieve and maintain an optimal microbial population in the gut to enhance animal health and performance,” Gibbons said.

While this is a high level of success for agriculture research at SDSU, Gibbons anticipates funding to either level off or decline in the next five to 10 years. To combat this, college faculty members are setting higher goals to increase research expenditures. This goal is to have research funding at more than $30 million in three years.

“Our expectations throughout SDSU are to continue increasing our research funding and expenditures,” Gibbons said. “President Dunn has listed this as one of his top priorities, and we, in the College of Ag and Biological Science, are working hard to continue the trend of increased research funding and expenditures.”

College faculty also plan to “work closely with commodity groups and industrial partners” to stray away from the uncertainty of federal and state grants, Gibbons said.

One example of this is a joint research focus the college has generated with General Mills for oat breeding this past summer. According to Gibbons, General Mills has also shown interest in more collaborative research with SDSU in the future.

“In terms of specific research topics, there are many innovative projects that our researchers are working on,” Gibbons said. “Many of these will continue in the future, or could transition into novel off-shoot projects depending on the findings.”