Tucked away in the back of the Department of Agriculture Building is a scientific resource that has served East Texas producers, researchers and novice gardeners for more than 60 years.
Dr. Leon Young, professor of agriculture and laboratory director at SFA, estimates that since its opening in 1952, the SFA soil, plant and water analysis laboratory has processed more than 200,000 soil samples, not including the thousands of water, forage, litter and waste samples that pass through its doors on a yearly basis.
“Our mission is to provide soil, plant and water testing for farmers, ranchers and homeowners in the East Texas region,” Young said. “Soil testing is our major function, and based on the soil test results, we make limestone and fertilizer recommendations.”
Between Young and Wayne Weatherford, SFA laboratory associate, the lab offers more than half a century of experience and expertise in enhancing East Texas’ acidic soils.
The facility may be best known for its soil analyses and subsequent recommendations, but it also routinely conducts forage, water, and manure and poultry litter quality analyses.
Young explained that a forage analysis assists livestock owners in determining if a protein supplement is needed to enhance their herd’s diet, while manure and poultry litter analyses evaluate the waste material’s value as fertilizer. These analyses also help the region’s large-scale livestock producers meet the requirements of their comprehensive nutrient management plans.
Weatherford added that these conservation plans are strategies implemented by livestock producers to address issues such as soil erosion and nutrient overload that can be caused by the disposal of byproducts such as manure.
Recently, through a collaboration of funds from several SFA departments, the lab acquired a new scientific instrument, which is believed to greatly advance the lab’s mission. The new carbon and nitrogen analyzer provides rapid, valuable information regarding the elemental content of the materials analyzed, Weatherford said.
He also explained that to obtain measurements, a small amount of test material is loaded into a rotating carousel and inserted into a built-in furnace, which is heated to 900 degrees Celsius. Oxygen is then injected, and the gases released following the material’s combustion are measured and immediately translated into usable data.
“This is the Cadillac,” Weatherford said. “I love this instrument, and I was so excited to get it.”
SFA’s lab is actively engaged in research happening across the university, conducting analyses that range from investigating the lead content of snowy plover blood to E. coli contamination in a local watershed.
Currently, the lab is assisting Dr. Kefa Onchoke, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry in SFA’s College of Sciences and Mathematics, in analyzing fish tissue for a variety of chemical elements. The lab also is responsible for conducting soil analyses for SFA Gardens’ partnership with Moody Gardens Galveston as they investigate salt-tolerant plants for the Texas coast.
“That’s a whole different side of our lab that people don’t realize we are capable of,” Weatherford said.
In the lab, undergraduate and graduate student employees are given the opportunity to enhance their research and techniques. Tim Turner, an SFA undergraduate studying animal science and biochemistry, said he appreciates the ability to fully engross himself in the scientific process.
Turner regularly utilizes the lab’s inductively coupled plasma emission spectrometer, an instrument that employs temperatures near the surface of the sun to atomize and emit elemental compounds. Weatherford explained Turner’s experience working with this instrument will undoubtedly benefit his future scientific career.
Animal science and biochemistry student Tim Turner uses the lab’s inductively coupled
plasma emission spectrometer, an instrument that employs temperatures near the
surface of the sun to atomize and emit elemental compounds.