Kansas State University researchers have continued studies with crops and livestock, despite the slowdown caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.| File photo
K-State researchers adapt to keep agricultural studies moving forward
Important university research has been slowed, but not stopped, by COVID-19
April 8, 2020
MANHATTAN, Kan. – While much of the world has hit pause due to the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, Kansas State University researchers are being tested to keep important agricultural studies moving forward.
“Let’s just say that there have been challenges,” said Marty Draper, the associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture and associate director of K-State Research and Extension. “And every day as we recognize those challenges, we are trying to find new solutions and new work-arounds so that we can continue to do the things that we consider mission-critical.”
Listen to Marty Draper talk with Eric Atkinson about agricultural research on the radio program, Agriculture Today
Draper notes that “agriculture has the largest research footprint on campus,” which includes numerous studies on crops and livestock and such related fields as genetics and genetic improvement, nutrition, feed efficiency, physiology, reproduction, pest and disease management and more. Many agriculture projects run continuously over several years in order for researchers to validate findings.
And, Draper adds, much of K-State’s agricultural research affects production on the farm, which ultimately affects profitability of farmers and communities.
“Beyond the production work, there is basic research occurring that provides the foundation for some of the applied advances that will come in three, five, 10 or maybe 20 years down the road,” he said. “If we don’t do that basic research, our advances in production and profitability…will be too slow to keep up with the demands of a growing population and a growing economy.”
Draper said K-State has cut back on operations in many labs in order to meet social distancing requirements. “We need to make sure we have at least that six feet of space, but you can’t do that in a busy lab,” he said. “So we’ve asked labs to determine if they can pause operations – we are referring to that as hibernation. If so, we want them to do that. Our buildings are minimally staffed with a fraction of active research labs operating.”
Because students are not on campus, many of the university’s crop and livestock units have fewer employees to help with important work. When crews go out to fields to plant crops or conduct other work, they often have to travel in separate cars, “because it’s really hard to get a six foot social distance when you’ve got a load of people that you have to haul to the field,” Draper said.
“In the College of Agriculture, we work with living systems,” he said. “We work with seasonal and cyclic processes. We’re concerned about living collections, stored samples, irreplaceable germplasm and animal welfare. We’re not neglecting those responsibilities; we’re progressing with planting spring crops and animal research that is tied to a specific date, but we’re also not prolonging studies beyond completion dates. We’re trying to minimize the amount of time that people are required to interact with one another.
“All of what we’re doing is being done with social distancing and social hygiene in mind. When we talk about social hygiene, it’s beyond social distancing; it’s thinking about wearing masks, washing hands frequently, washing surfaces and sanitizing common surfaces as frequently as possible. All of our projects are being re-assessed on a weekly basis and we’re really looking for the optimal approach to keeping people safe.”
Draper said some K-State researchers and graduate students are using time away from the labs and fields to catch up on writing scientific manuscripts, theses, or dissertations.
For most researchers, however, it’s a bit of a waiting game for when things can get back to some sort of normalcy.
“We know we’re going to get through this, but we also know that research is going to be set back,” Draper said. “We know that there are going to be costs incurred, there are going to be results delayed…I’ve looked at some of the things going on in labs and I am absolutely certain that people are going to have to backtrack in order to get to the point where they have the continuity in their work to move it forward.
“But we are going to continue to look at each project and try to find the best outcomes for each of those. Ultimately, what we’re concerned with is the best outcome for the researcher, which is probably going to be the best outcome for K-State and ultimately the best outcome for the people of Kansas.”
Draper said he is hopeful that relief bills being considered in Congress will provide support needed to rebound from the slow-down in university research.
“We are a ways from being able to plot the way out of this, but in the next weeks or months, we should have a much better picture of what that is going to look like,” he said.