Linda Foster Benedict
The 3,000-acre Central Research Station south of Baton Rouge is the one among the LSU AgCenter’s 15 research stations that has brought about the most international acclaim, but it is little known outside of the LSU campus.
The fame came from two remarkable events that happened there. Back in 2000, the world’s first transgenic goat was born at the station and then cloned to create a herd of goats that produced a substance in their milk that could be turned into a valuable heart medication. This was four years after Scotland’s historic Dolly the sheep was cloned.
Then in 2004, as an AgCenter researcher was inspecting the soybean plants in a field at the station, he discovered the first instance of Asian soybean rust disease on the continent of North America.
That serendipitous event caused a global sensation because at that point the fast-growing disease, which had devastated soybean fields in Africa and South America, was not known to have reached this part of the world.
The disease has since been brought under control through the combined efforts of scientists all over the world, including at the AgCenter.
Most people are not familiar with the Central Research Station because it does not host field days for farmers or other popular, publicized events. Instead, it’s a real farm classroom and laboratory for agricultural researchers and teachers on the LSU campus.
AgCenter scientists have research plots in fields at the station where they grow corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. They also do indoor experiments on these crops and others, such as rice, cotton and hemp, at station facilities. The animal scientists conduct research using the cattle, horses, goats, sheep and chickens on the farm.
The farm gives students in the College of Agriculture a chance to experience firsthand how to raise animals and grow crops. Students, both undergraduate and graduate, are involved in the research projects.
The Central Research Station is the umbrella term for several AgCenter entities. These include the Ben Hur Farm with both crops and livestock; a poultry unit; the Plant Materials Center; the Reproductive Biology Center; and two other operations run by other groups — a U.S. Department of Agriculture honey bee research facility and a training center for pesticide applicators.
Bad weather affects a research farm just like a regular farm, and 2021 was the year of way too much rain at the 700-acre Ben Hur farm.
“We lost a considerable amount of research,” said Chris Roider, Ben Hur Farm manager. Because of the flooding conditions in the crop fields, “we had to do a considerable amount of replanting,” he added.
Too much rain cuts into hay production as well. Roider said he had produced 450 to 500 round bales by Aug. 1 but needed 2,300 to 2,500 round bales to feed the cattle all winter.
“We’re far behind. We’ll have to sell cattle,” Roider said, adding that all the other farmers are suffering, too, so there’s nobody to buy extra hay from.
The Ben Hur farm includes about 400 acres in crop production for research purposes, and another 300 acres are operated as a commercial farm, with the proceeds plowed back into the College of Agriculture to support the teaching program.
AgCenter scientists conduct research projects at the farm. For example, Steve Harrison, professor in the School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences and director of the wheat and oat breeding program for a consortium of universities across the southeastern United States, has experimental plots at the Central Research Station and at the Macon Ridge Research Station in Winnsboro, Louisiana.
Harrison and his group have developed and released 25 wheat and oat varieties since 1996, an average of one new variety per year. Though not major crops in Louisiana, wheat and oats are vital to some farm operations to help them meet the bottom line.
Other scientists use the Ben Hur fields to study the effects of pesticides on crops so they can make recommendations to Louisiana farmers. The scientists also evaluate new soybean varieties on the station for suitability to grow in Louisiana.
Brenda Tubaña, professor in the School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences, conducts her soil fertility studies on the farm. One of her current projects involves use of silica solubilizing bacteria found in soil to help plants grow with less use of commercial fertilizers.
A new feature at the Central Research Station is the $9 million Plant Materials Center, which became operational in 2019. The facility has 32 temperature-controlled, well-ventilated and safe greenhouse labs inside and 10 high-tunnel greenhouses outside.
One of its primary uses is for the LSU AgCenter breeding program to develop new crop varieties for Louisiana. It is where research is being conducted on hemp to determine the parameters for growing this crop successfully in Louisiana.
The labs are used to test various pesticide and disease-control mechanisms in plants, and the safety protocols prevent the spread of pathogens or germplasm to another lab.
The high-tunnel greenhouses can protect plants from excessive rain, which can interfere with research studies. Calvin Glaspie, the center’s manager, said one of the sugarcane studies was moved here under cover because rain had destroyed the test plots at the Sugar Research Station, which is a few miles away in St. Gabriel.
The LSU Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences also uses the lab for studies on coastal plants.
The state-of-the-art poultry unit at the Central Research Station, which became operational in 2000, is used for both teaching and research purposes.
“On average we house about 2,000 white leghorns, 800 ISA browns, 50 turkeys and 1,500 broilers,” said Gerardo Romero, the manager, adding that the unit is self-contained and produces its own rations from the corn and soybeans grown at the farm.
College of Agriculture students work with the animals in poultry science classes and “learn the poultry business from top to bottom,” Romero said.
The students also use the facility to train for poultry judging. LSU hosts the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association National Poultry Judging Contest every spring. LSU teams consistently rank at the top or near the top in competition with the 10 other universities that participate.
The horse farm at the Central Research Station covers 90 acres and includes 45 head of horses – mares, geldings and a stallion. Franklin “Randy” Wright, who has been with the AgCenter 50 years, manages the horses as well as the sheep and goat herds.
The horses are used in the teaching program, for equestrian training classes and for research projects at both the AgCenter and the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine.
Horses are not bred at the farm, Wright said. Rather, he takes in horses that other people don’t want for a variety of reasons, such as behavioral problems. A few of the students keep their own horses at the farm to use in their horsemanship classes.
Neely Walker, extension horse specialist and an associate professor in the School of Animal Sciences, teaches classes on horse management and also conducts the Master Horseman program in which people learn beginning through advanced horsemanship and then pass on these newly acquired skills to others including 4-H members.
Sage Edelkind, manager of the 715-head cattle at the Ben Hur Farm, was promoted to that position in June 2021. A native of Lewisburg, Louisiana, he came to the Central Research Station in 2019 from the Iberia Research Station in Jeanerette, Louisiana, where he had worked from 2017 to 2019 for Guillermo Scaglia, an LSU AgCenter beef researcher there.
Edelkind is trying to keep the diverse herd of cattle — which include Brahman, Angus, Brangus, Charolais and Wagyu, a Japanese breed — more segregated by breed so there is less mixing.
“I’m working toward more uniformity and genetic purity, which will help with the research and teaching programs,” he said.
Because of the hay shortage caused by excessive rain in 2021, Edelkind will have to sell about 75 head by the end of the year to hold down expenses. But this gives him the chance to cull the animals he no longer wants.
The Wagyu cattle, a smaller breed dark mahogany brown in color, were added to the herd in 2019 because they are highly prized for the excellent marbling of their meat. A goal of the research program is to refine breeds of cattle so they produce as much meat as possible that is tender and desired by the consumer.
Because Wagyu cattle are smaller, they don’t yield as much meat as the larger breeds, such as Brahman. But an advantage is that they are good at reproduction.
“The Wagyu bulls have a stronger libido than the other breeds,” Edelkind said.
The record amount of rain in the Baton Rouge area in 2021 caused a problem for the 46 goats and the 45 sheep at the Ben Hur Farm on the Central Research Station. Excessive moisture on the ground means more parasites growing in the grass, which the animals then ingest as they nibble on the pastures. Intestinal worms caused by these parasites can be deadly to these small animals.
“I’ve never seen so much rain in the 50 years I’ve worked here,” said Wright, who manages the goats and sheep as well as the horses.
Once every two weeks, the animals are treated with deworming medicine. The sheep are herded into a chute as Wright goes down the line to check the color inside the bottom eyelid for a shade of pink that’s deeper than it should be, a sure sign of worms.
For their check, the goats stay in a pen while staff members grab each animal, identified by a numbered tag in the ear, by the horns. For those who need it, Wright quickly shoots a bitter-tasting liquid medicine into the animal’s mouth.
The LSU AgCenter goats are mostly the Savanna breed, good for meat and milk products, which is a growing industry in Louisiana. The sheep are mostly Hampshire, an English breed used for meat and not wool, although they have to be sheered once or twice a year to keep them cooler.
“The weavers don’t like their wool because it’s too short,” Wright said.
The goat and sheep herds, which have been on the farm for 47 years, Wright said, are used in the teaching program, in the training for judging competition and in research projects.
On the walls of the Reproductive Biology Center — a modest one-story structure on a 1,200-acre section of land 8 miles southeast of the Central Research Station — are framed photos of animals that were the first produced in the world through newly invented techniques in reproductive physiology, including the first transgenic goat from 2000.
These breakthrough accomplishments in genetic engineering, cloning, infertility research and embryo transfer came about because of leadership from Robert Godke, director of the reproductive physiology research program for the AgCenter until his death in 2015. Many of his students have gone on to become world leaders in the reproductive sciences for both animals and humans.
But his legacy of excellence in research in animal reproduction continues. A recent example occurred in February 2021 when the first horses were born using techniques developed by Erin Oberhaus, an equine reproductive physiology researcher and assistant professor in the School of Animal Sciences, that resulted in mares ovulating and becoming pregnant months ahead of schedule, which will ultimately add to their value in the horse industry.
The newest project at the station is the Forested Wetlands Observatory, which is being created on a 1,100-acre site that was formerly pastureland next to the Reproductive Biology Center. The land is being restored to the hydrological conditions that existed before artificial drainage for row crops and pasture. Researchers, teachers and students will use the area as a laboratory to learn how best to restore land to its natural state and help the environment.
The project is being funded through a public-private partnership — the first of its kind in Louisiana — as a wetland mitigation bank. A private company, Spanish Lake Restoration, will sell credits to local land developers to offset permitted wetland degradation elsewhere.
In addition to the Ben Hur Farm, the Plant Materials Center, and the many animal and plant projects, the Central Research Station is also the location of two other facilities. The Lois Caffey Termite Training Center provides training for people in the pest control industry, and the USDA Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Laboratory conducts research on bee health, sustainability and management.
The sprawling Central Research Station, with its varied parts, is a valuable resource not only for the faculty, staff and students of the LSU AgCenter and the LSU College of Agriculture but also for the state, nation and world.
Linda Foster Benedict is the editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Bryce Gilbert, in front, and Michelle Vetter are graduate students in the LSU College of Agriculture working on their master’s degrees in animal sciences. As part of their assistantships they work with the horses at the Central Research Station. Once every two weeks as part a research project, they deworm the 45 horses at the station. They line up the horses in a chute, put a halter on them and then lead them to a stall, where they take fecal samples and give them medicine to treat their worms. Their major professor is Erin Oberhaus, who does research and teaches equine reproductive physiology. Both Bryce and Michelle plan to work in the horse industry when they finish their degrees. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
Open wide. Victoria Bailey, a Ph.D. student in animals sciences, administers deworming medicine to a horse at the LSU AgCenter Central Research Station. She is helping with a study on parasites in horses being conducted by Adriano Vatta, associate professor in the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
The 715 head of cattle at the Central Research Station include Brahman, Angus, Brangus, Charolais and Wagyu, a Japanese breed, known for the excellent marbling of its meat. Note the Wagyu behind the Brahmans above. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
Wagyu cattle are smaller and don’t yield as much meat as the larger breeds, such as Brahman. But their meat is known for its excellent marbling. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
The crew that tends the goats and sheep at the Ben Hur Farm includes, left to right, Gabriel Eberle, student worker and animal sciences major; Seth Spurlock, farm assistant; Randy Wright, Ben Hur Farm manager; and Jacob Martin, a pre-vet student and student worker. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
Ben Hur farm manager Chris Roider points out the field where in 2004, LSU AgCenter plant pathologist Ray Schneider, now deceased, discovered the first Asian soybean rust on the continent of North America. Because of his find, the agriculture community over the whole continent was able to implement measures to prevent the disease from spreading and causing widespread devastation as it had on other continents. The irrigation system in the field behind Roider was put in with grant money received to help control Asian soybean rust. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
Soil is heated in ovens as part of the soil fertility research being conducted by AgCenter scientists. Left to right are Francisco Valle, visiting scholar in International Programs; Rosalie Calderon, doctoral candidate in the Department of Plant Pathology and Crop Physiology; and Calvin Glaspie, manager of the Plant Materials Center. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
The high tunnel greenhouses at the Plant Materials Center allow for studies to be conducted on crops outdoors but protected from inundating rain, which can ruin research projects. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
Bryan Green, research farm assistant, candles the eggs as they are assembled into cartons for sale. The poultry unit at the station processes 6,650 white eggs a week and 4,200 brown eggs per week. The white eggs are sold to a local restaurant near the LSU campus, Louie’s Café, and the brown eggs are marketed at Southside Produce in Baton Rouge. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
The horse farm at the Central Research Station covers 90 acres and includes 45 horses used for research, teaching and in the horsemanship classes. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict
Sonyja Thomas, research associate, is the lab manager and safety officer at the Reproductive Biology Center. She makes sure that AgCenter scientists follow all the rules for animal safety in their research projects so that the Central Research Station can maintain accreditation through the Association of Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International, known as AAALAC. She is standing by a collage of the photos of the different phases of development and improvement of the Reproductive Biology Center. Major renovations were paid for by Genzyme, the biotechnology company that funded the research that resulted in the cloned goats of 2000. Photo by Linda Foster Benedict