Iowa plays prominent role in agricultural research in United States

It should probably come as no surprise that Iowa, the top corn-producing state in the nation and a state with seven times more hogs than people, is an epicenter for our nation’s plant and animal research efforts.

The USDA’s Agriculture Research Service National Animal Disease Center opened near the Iowa State University campus in Ames more than 50 years ago. Three years ago new state-of-the-art facilities were opened, where about 100 scientists conduct high-level bio-containment research in large-animal livestock and wildlife species for a variety of USDA research mission areas.

“Our scientists and researchers solve problems that haven’t been solvable with previous approaches,” says Kurt Zulke, center director. “We work in such scientific fields as genomics, microbial ecology, immunology and systems biology to create unprecedented opportunities for innovation and global leadership in animal health and food safety research.”

Research conducted by USDA scientists in Ames has impacted nearly every animal disease control or management effort in the U.S. during the past 50 years.

Key Points

Iowa is the epicenter for our nation’s plant and animal research efforts.

USDA scientists at Ames are working to improve the world’s food supply.

Scientists with ties to Iowa have made key discoveries for more than 100 years.


For example, scientists worked on diagnostic tests and vaccines to detect and prevent hog cholera virus. Most major veterinary vaccines for critical diseases such as brucellosis in cattle and pseudorabies in swine had their research origins with USDA researchers in Iowa.

Scientists in Iowa also led the national ag research response to the novel 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus.

Along with animal research, USDA scientists in Ames are also conducting extensive research on plant genetic resources and soil management practices that enhance and preserve soil, water and air resources.

The National Centers for Animal Health is home to USDA’s National Animal Disease Center, National Veterinary Services Laboratories and the Center for Veterinary Biologics. The center also works jointly with the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, Plant Introduction Research, and Corn Insects and Crop Genetics Research, all located around Ames.

Iowa’s ag research legacy

Scientists with ties to Iowa have been making world-changing discoveries for more than 100 years. While not necessarily directly connected to USDA, George Washington Carver and Norman Borlaug are two of the most famous researchers the world has ever known.

Carver studied at Iowa State University from 1891 to 1896 and has been credited with helping create 325 products from peanuts and more than 100 from sweet potatoes.

Borlaug was born near Cresco in 1914 and completed his schooling through high school in the area. He then went on to college at the University of Minnesota completing his bachelor of science degree in 1937 and eventually his doctorate in plant pathology from the school in 1942.

Borlaug is credited with saving more human lives than any other person who has ever lived through his research in developing high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat.

Also, the first public veterinary school in the United States was established at Iowa State University in 1879. Graduates from the College of Veterinary Medicine have excelled as leaders in veterinary medicine in all parts of the world.

Today, Catherine Woteki, who was dean of the College of Agriculture at Iowa State University from 2002 to 2005, is the USDA’s chief scientist and undersecretary for USDA’s Research, Education and Economics mission area.

“When looking at the projected growth in the world’s population during the next few decades we will need to potentially double our food production by the year 2050,” Woteki says. “Agricultural science will play a key role in allowing farmers to reach the needed yields and expand production.”

‘The People’s Department’

Jobs in the area of plant sciences, plant breeding, food processing, microbiology and food engineering systems are just a few that Woteki sees as vital to ensuring our food’s nutritional qualities are enhanced while their fundamental attributes remain. Numerous USDA research and funding programs today assist with rural economic development and help speed the transfer of technology from the laboratory setting to the hands of entrepreneurs and new business startups.

After 150 years, USDA is still fulfilling President Abraham Lincoln’s vision as “The People’s Department” that touches the lives of every American, every day.

“All Iowans should be extremely proud of the many ways the state has helped shape so many aspects of the world’s agriculture industry and food production systems,” says Bill Menner, USDA Rural Development’s state director in Iowa. “Iowa continues to play an important role in helping feed billions of people and in making research discoveries that have world-wide impact.”

Leach is public information coordinator with USDA Rural Development in Iowa.

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WORLD CLASS: Located in Ames, USDA’s National Animal Disease Center is the largest federal animal disease research facility in the United States. The center conducts research to solve animal health and food safety problems faced by livestock producers and the public. Photo by Jim Fosse, USDA

This article published in the August, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.