To celebrate National Wyoming Day on May 24, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is highlighting the innovative NIFA-funded research conducted by University of Wyoming’s (UW) Agricultural Experiment Station.
Wyoming remains the least populated state in the nation—in terms of human residents, at least. With a population of less than 600,000 spread out across more than 97,000 square miles, the state is home to far more cattle than people.
The state’s first agricultural experiment station opened in 1891, just a year after Wyoming achieved statehood. Recognizing that Wyoming agriculture spans a wide variety of elevations, soils, precipitation and growing conditions, multiple substations were established to address producers’ regional needs.
Early research focused on sugar beets, fruit-bearing trees and native grasses as well as cropping experiments in wheat, oats, barley, rye, potatoes, turnips and field corn. Over time, the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station evolved to lead livestock and rangeland studies as well.
Today, the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources boasts a robust research program supported by the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station and four research and extension centers located in Laramie, Lingle, Powell and Sheridan.
Successes and Innovations
Wyoming grasses – Starting with the Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station’s first horticulturist, Bert Buffum, Wyoming researchers have studied the state’s native grasses. In 1951, the experiment station hosted the International Grasslands Tour, attracting researchers from 34 countries.
More recently, as invasive grasses like cheatgrass and medusahead have become increasingly prevalent in the Intermountain West, Wyoming researchers have pivoted to address growing concerns about the detrimental impacts of invasive annual grasses.
The Sheridan Research and Extension Center is currently a hub for the Institute for Managing Annual Grasses Invading Natural Ecosystems (IMAGINE). A statewide effort focused on invasive weed management and restoration in rangeland systems, IMAGINE seeks to develop long-term management strategies on a landscape scale.
Wool country – The University of Wyoming (UW) was the first institution in the country to offer a Ph.D. in wool. In 1907, the university established a wool department and wool lab under the direction of longstanding Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station Director John Hill. The program received international recognition for improving wool scouring, coring and sheep culling techniques.
While the wool lab no longer exists, Wyoming’s sheep program has been revitalized in recent years. In 2022, the University of Wyoming sheep program became the first operation to attain Level III (Certified) status in the American Sheep Industry Association’s American Wool Assurance Program.
Feed efficiency research – The Laramie Research and Extension Center was the first university research station to adapt GrowSafe boxes for sheep. Wyoming R&E centers continue to serve producers across the state through feed efficiency trials. The center in Lingle recently expanded its GrowSafe system to include mobile units that monitor and regulate feed and supplement intake for individual animals.
Tardigrades – Through the study of tardigrades—microscopic creatures that can survive extreme conditions like extreme heat, extreme cold, radiation and lack of oxygen—UW researchers have opened up possibilities for stabilizing pharmaceuticals, developing hardier crops, storing human blood in a dry, unrefrigerated state and helping astronauts survive extended missions.
In August 2021, tardigrades from a University of Wyoming lab embarked on an adventure aboard the International Space Station. By examining how these tiny “water bears” tolerate space flight, researchers seek to develop therapies and countermeasures to protect the health of astronauts exploring deep space.
In 2023, UW researchers showed that tardigrade proteins can be used to stabilize a pharmaceutical used to treat hemophilia, even in extreme conditions and without refrigeration.
In Wyoming, NIFA-funded research ranges from biomedical studies of non-healing wounds to insecticide resistance in alfalfa weevil and high-altitude disease in cattle.
Recent and ongoing projects are diverse.
- the development of a novel drug to treat non-healing wounds in diabetics
- vaccine development to prevent malignant catarrhal fever in bison
- management of invasive grasses and restoration of native grasses
- pest management, particularly in alfalfa, and insecticide resistance
- cattle microbiomes, especially the maternal microbiome
- high-altitude disease in cattle
- foodborne pathogens, including listeria and Toxoplasma gondii
- cover crops and forage production
- infectious diseases in wildlife, such as elk
Unique Agricultural Challenges
Wyoming is a high-altitude state, which presents unique challenges both for livestock producers and farmers—and unique opportunities for impactful research.
At 7,220 feet above sea level, the Laramie Research and Extension Center is the highest elevation Land-grant University research station in the U.S. The center is perfectly situated to study pulmonary hypertension (also known as high-altitude disease) in cattle, a major concern for producers operating at high elevation.
Researchers are currently investigating how nutrition and diet may help combat the condition. In 2023, the Department of Animal Science and Laramie R&E Center also launched a high-altitude bull test and sale, designed to serve producers and facilitate student learning.
In addition to elevation-related challenges, Wyoming producers face challenges related to short growing seasons and persistent drought. Researchers at the Powell and Sheridan R&E Centers continue to develop new lines of dry beans and field peas with improved drought tolerance and reduced input requirements.
Wildfire is another prevalent issue in Wyoming and an ongoing topic of research. The Rogers Research Site, located in the Laramie Mountains and managed by the R&E Center in Lingle, has been instrumental in studying management strategies and the impacts of wildfire.
The Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station supports fundamental and applied research on issues related to the current and future needs of Wyoming, the Rocky Mountain region, the nation and the world.
Exciting new projects include quantifying the impacts of grazing management on soil carbon at UW’s McGuire Ranch and developing local food systems through the newly established Northwest and Rocky Mountain Regional Food Business Center.