Agricultural Research

By: Dudley T. Smith and Steve Hill

Type: General Entry

Published: July 1, 1995

Agricultural research has generally had a regional focus, and Texas research has been no exception. However, the state's research also has had lasting national and international implications since its formal organization in the late 1800s. In its second century, Texas research has continued to increase its global focus and impact and to aid economic growth. Vast amounts of land, variable fertility, and short water supplies helped define Texas research, as did the national research model that gave a central role to the land-grant college and the state agricultural experiment stations. These stations were based on practices already developed before the mid-1800s in Europe, where systematic, scientific methods were used to improve the process of agricultural observation and selection. Those practices led to improved yields and less labor devoted to food production-developments that had long marked the progress of various cultures from subsistence economies to more stable and varied social systems. Such progress marked the period in which the United States established its agricultural research system. The Industrial Revolution was expanding and requiring more labor; the American West was being settled, cities were growing, and trade, especially for manufactured goods, was increasing. In 1887, hoping to improve agricultural efficiency, the Congress approved the Hatch Act, which established federally supported experiment stations as components of state land-grant colleges (themselves established by the Morrill Act of 1862). The colleges often possessed the farmlands, laboratories, and faculty needed by the stations, and students would benefit from the close working relationship between state colleges and experiment stations. The structure of these stations is fairly uniform throughout the United States. As in Texas, they usually conduct a three-pronged effort involving education, research, and extension carried out by a land-grant college or college system, a state experiment station (often with several research sites), and a state extension service. Most state experiment station scientists traditionally spend some time teaching in the colleges.

The Texas Agricultural Experiment Station was established on April 2, 1887, when Governor Lawrence Sullivan Ross signed legislation establishing the station and designating Texas A&M as administrator of its program. This was during the midst of a depression in American agriculture, when rapid plowing of the Great Plains, increased farm productivity, and steady appreciation of the dollar brought low prices for farm commodities. An advisory body of Texas farmers and ranchers went to College Station to confer with the station on agricultural research. Together they decided to focus initial research on seven projects with a practical bent: improving feeding methods for beef and dairy cattle, finding the best-adapted fruit varieties for Texas, studying the adaptability and feeding value of various grasses and forage plants, comparing the usefulness of barnyard manure and commercial fertilizers, determining the value of tile drainage for gardens and farms, controlling cotton blight (or root rot), and protecting cattle from Texas fever. Within a few years of its establishment, the station had successfully met major research goals in six of the seven projects. Texas fever, once a nationwide problem, had been effectively wiped out, largely through TAES efforts in cooperation with others. Root rot, however, remained a major problem, even though its effects can be somewhat controlled through various cultural practices. The remaining five initial projects became successful bases for later work in the areas of irrigation, fertilization, livestock feeding, new or improved crops, and range management. Early field trials were conducted at the TAES College Station headquarters, but researchers suspected that many findings were dependent on local conditions. By 1880 several state prison farms also were used for trials, as were fields at Prairie View Normal College. Occasionally, private farms and ranches cooperated with TAES by providing funding, livestock and their own facilities for research. The King Ranch in South Texas, for example, was a partner in the successful effort to eradicate Texas fever. This beef-cattle disease caused many northern states to ban imports of Texas cattle from the 1870s to the 1890s. After TAES scientists confirmed it was carried by ticks, joint development of a method of dipping cattle into vats of sheep dip and other fatty solutions to kill the ticks helped defeat the disease. By 1900, growing demands for agricultural products in a rapidly increasing urban population led to higher commodity prices, and agricultural research and education had also improved and grown dramatically across the United States. TAES had begun expanding its efforts and throughout the next century it was able to improve productivity of all the state's major crops and livestock.

For cotton, since the 1800s the top cash crop in Texas, TAES worked extensively to breed plants that fruited early and more rapidly as a method of defeating the boll weevil. One of the first of quick-growing varieties was jointly bred by TAES and USDA in the first years of the 1900s. TAES also introduced TAMCOT, some of the first varieties suited to harsh conditions on the High Plains, and has introduced many new varieties with superior fiber strength. The station did extensive work with mechanical strippers during the first decades of the 1900s, and in 1971 developed a cotton module system that compresses cotton directly to compact field-storage units of ten to fifteen bales, making it easier for farmers to store and transport their cotton. The project was carried out cooperatively with cotton farmers and supported financially by the trade association, Cotton, Incorporated, through producer check-off funds collected on each harvested bale. Wheat, sorghum, corn, and rice are also among the biggest cash crops in Texas, and new lines of each have been developed by the station. The first successful semi-dwarf hard red winter wheat varieties led to higher yields and insect resistance and ability to produce crops late in the year; by 1990 improved varieties were grown on about half of the state's wheat acreage and almost a quarter of all wheat acreage in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. The station developed sorghum hybrids in the 1940s and 1950s that more than tripled sorghum yields by the 1980s and also produced more effective corn hybrids. An example of successful state and federal cooperation resulted from requests in the 1970s by rice producers, who helped fund an aggressive research agenda from TAES and USDA that began in 1982. By 1986, the Texas Econo-Rice initiative had boosted production by some 2,000 pounds per acre, to a state average of about 6,300 pounds, and cut costs to $8.20 per hundredweight from some $13 per hundredweight-far exceeding program goals. In addition, new semi-dwarf varieties enabled producers to grow two crops each year. Similar successes have been achieved with smaller Texas crops. In the 1980s an investment of $10 million from both state and industry sources in onion research yielded the Texas Grano 1015Y onion, a larger, sweeter variety with such a vast market appeal that by 1991 it was worth some $150 million annually to the state's economy, including $42 million in wholesale income alone. TAES had a number of other notable achievements in both beef and dairy cattle research. Among these were the use of electrical stimulation of carcasses to improve tenderness and extensive crossbreeding and feeding studies to improve the productivity of the Texas cattle industry. Because of the high cost of irrigation in drier areas of Texas, particularly the High Plains, water conservation has always been a major area of concern for both state and federal agencies. The effects of different types of plowing, forms of rows for crops, mulches, and irrigation systems were key projects. A major TAES accomplishment was the Low Energy Precision Application irrigation system, the first mobile drip system of field size. Developed in 1976, LEPA achieved irrigation efficiencies that are expected to lighten demands on the Ogallala Aquifer in the Panhandle. TAES research is now carried on at substations throughout the state. The first permanent TAES substation was established on 151 acres near Beeville in 1894, and it was still carrying on research on forage and reproduction of beef cattle into the 1990s. Substations opened and closed over the next seven decades, and beginning in the 1960s, several units were converted to regional research and extension centers. This was partly an effort to improve communication among scientists, extension specialists, and farmers and also to bring together larger groups of researchers for more complex, interdisciplinary projects. There are now fourteen such regional research and extension centers, shared by TAES and the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (both agencies of the Texas A&M University System). Additional TAES research facilities with more limited functions are located in ten other communities across Texas.

TAES substations in Weslaco, Amarillo, Beaumont, and Temple share facilities with the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, which supervises federal agricultural research and allocates research funds to state experiment stations. The oldest of the ARS centers still in use is at Big Spring, where experiments in dry-land crop rotation and tillage began in 1915. It pioneered techniques for using layers of cotton-gin trash to decrease erosion on sandy soils and developed field equipment now used worldwide to measure wind erosion. An ARS facility with similar purposes was established in 1936 at Bushland, near Amarillo, and it has developed improvements in stubble-mulch tillage, water conservation, wind-erosion control, wheat improvement, grass reseeding, and livestock management, including reduction of losses to bovine respiratory disease. In 1931 the ARS established its cooperative relationship with the TAES center at Beaumont to work on rice breeding. The resulting program serves the entire United States with research on cooking and processing qualities of various lines and improved disease and insect resistance, among other projects. Similarly, the USDA in 1932 established a pecan-breeding facility in Brownwood that is the only one of its kind in the world, and added a second worksite near College Station in 1987. The pecan program has introduced nineteen improved cultivars used throughout the country. Three-fourths of the cultivars recommended for planting in Texas were introduced through these facilities. The ARS established the United States Livestock Insects Laboratory in 1946 in Kerrville to conduct research on biology and control of parasitic insects affecting livestock and human beings. Its most notable achievement was development of the process for sterilizing male screwworms, which when released into the environment overwhelmed populations of the flies. Because they breed only once, the screwworms were unable to produce their flesh-eating larvae. TAES, which had studied the problem since at least 1890, played a cooperative role in the eradication, as did producers and several other state and federal agencies. In 1982 the last case of screwworms was reported in Texas. Other accomplishments included development of a cattle-grub vaccine, ear tags that decrease environmental contamination by 98 percent, and microencapsulation techniques used for long-term pest control in livestock. The Food Animal Protection Research Laboratory in College Station, which focuses on solving problems related to food safety in livestock and poultry, has increased understanding of how natural and synthetic poisons affect livestock and poultry and improved methods for eliminating chemical and microbial hazards associated with meat products. Other ARS units in College Station include the Southern Crops Research Laboratory and the Veterinary Toxicology and Entomology Laboratory. The Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory of the ARS, in Temple, has been a leader in controlling undesirable plants that compete with grasses on rangelands, developing new strains of pasture and range grasses, and pioneering efforts to develop computer simulation of agricultural processes. By the 1990s many of its projects focused on computer models and databases used for soil and water testing, geographic-information systems, and other projects based on large sets of data on soils, water, and other natural resources throughout Texas and the world. The Subtropical Agricultural Research Laboratory in Weslaco focuses on national and international agricultural needs, many centered on preventing the spread of exotic pests such as the boll weevil or the Africanized honey bee, which invaded the United States through the Rio Grande valley. The facility's research dramatically improved cotton-production efficiency in South Texas through development of short-season, early-maturing crops planted in narrower rows. Use of high-altitude infrared photography to detect citrus-blackfly infestations and discovery of methods to control tracheal mites, which harm honey bees, are also among its accomplishments.

TAES and ARS also cooperate with other educational institutions and with numerous private foundations and commodity groups. Several universities have extensive agricultural education programs and have carried out successful, smaller-scale research programs, including Texas A&M University at Kingsville (wildlife), Tarleton State University (soil and water), and Prairie View A&M University. Prairie View's Cooperative Agricultural Research Center has specialized facilities for small-animal research and meat research; in addition to poultry and swine complexes and a computerized feed mill, it has greenhouses and other facilities for small-animal research on various crops. Each of these universities is part of the Texas A&M system, and agricultural research at each is supported by TAES funding. Texas Tech University, established in 1925, is not a landgrant university and therefore initially lacked the resources of Texas A&M and TAES. Its plans for agricultural research were hindered through the 1930s by funding shortages, although it cooperated with TAES on several projects. Among the earliest and most important was the work both did in livestock feeding with crops available from High Plains farms. That and other research led to development of the area's extensive feedlot industry. The university organized a farm and ranch research facility in the late 1940s under a lease agreement with TAES and the USDA. Experiments on livestock feeding and additives, digestibility of feedstuffs, and crossbreeding were of primary importance to the area, as was research involving forage sorghum varieties, fertilizers, the use of sewage effluent for irrigation, soils, herbicide tests, seeding of rangeland grasses, the effects of fire on High Plains rangeland vegetation, and the control of greenbugs and aphids. Texas Tech's research in agriculture of arid regions has drawn international attention. A private foundation that significantly added to the state's research effort was the Texas Research Foundation, which began at Southern Methodist University in 1944 as the Institute of Technology and Plant Industry. The institute was founded to solve regional problems that Dallas-area businessmen and others felt received too little attention from existing state and federal institutions. By 1945, fund-raising and demand for research projects had risen enough that the institute was separated from SMU and set up as a private foundation. Originally called the Texas State Research Foundation, it was moved from SMU to 107 acres of land at Renner, which the university deeded to the foundation in 1946. Operating independently, the foundation focused on soil and soil fertility, with an emphasis on using forage grasses and then grains to restore organic matter to the soil in cropping systems. In 1972 the foundation went out of business and turned over its research facilities and a portion of its land to TAES, which closed its Denton substation and moved into the former foundation buildings. This Dallas TAES substation became a center for urban agricultural research, including work related to the multibillion-dollar turf, landscaping, and nursery industries; biological control of insects; and management of fertilizer and other chemicals, both in agricultural production and maintenance of lawns and urban landscaping. A similar effort, the High Plains Research Foundation, was organized near Halfway by area businessmen and farmers with the help of the Texas Research Foundation in the late 1950s and turned over to TAES in 1973. The foundation's initial research laid a foundation for continuing work in soil and water research and equine and crop breeding programs. Businesses have also improved Texas agricultural production through their own research and with financing of public projects. Among the more successful research efforts is that by the Texas seed-sorghum industry, whose High Plains-based firms lead the world in providing hybrid seed. Much of their output results directly from USDA-TAES efforts to collect sorghum varieties from all over the world, which are then interbred for improved disease and insect resistance, yield, and nutritional quality. Seed producers in corn, cotton, and other crops are also among the state's leading exporters of agricultural products.

By the 1980s private firms and commodity groups began playing an increasing part in funding agricultural research and in cooperative public-private efforts. This coincided with a changing role of United States experiment stations, which increasingly began emphasizing research on issues of environmental and consumer concern. By that time, the American public enjoyed the benefits of food that was both abundant and relatively cheap by world standards. However, criticism of the agricultural system increased because of problems of groundwater pollution, soil erosion, declines in rural communities as farming and ranching became more concentrated in larger operations, and other issues. By the 1990s, TAES, ARS and other public and private groups faced these issues and others, including the concerns of animal-rights groups, increasing pressure from regulatory agencies, and increased research costs. The research agendas of these groups reflect those concerns, with efforts focusing on systems to take into account the complexities of modern agriculture. Integrated pest-management systems, for instance, focus on combinations of the best-known methods of chemical and biological control, with decreasing emphasis on chemicals, that would allow high output with low production and environmental costs. Interdisciplinary research, biotechnological methods, sophisticated electronics, and other techniques have become standard approaches in the research effort. Still, agricultural research in Texas has, in some ways, changed little. Though root rot still affects cotton and many other plants throughout Texas, interdisciplinary efforts to understand the fungus causing the disease may lead to more effective methods of controlling it. Research into genetic material that increases yields, resistance to disease, or tolerance of drought in various crops could produce new genetically engineered crops of all types; similar research for livestock may produce cattle that provide leaner, healthier beef that still has the flavor and texture consumers previously associated only with beef containing more fat. Scientists in Texas and throughout the United States are continuing to seek new ways to produce, process, package, and distribute foods that are lighter, fresher, faster to prepare and more healthful. Computer-based information and decision systems are becoming more important in such operations as pest management and irrigation. Computerized tractors and harvesting equipment may soon plant, prune, selectively harvest, and even cool and pack many crops automatically. Two research centers opened in the 1990s and affiliated with TAES and Texas A&M illustrate the use of the new approaches. The Institute of Biosciences and Technology in Houston's world-renowned medical center focuses on links between agriculture, human medicine, and veterinary medicine. Among its initial research projects were basic studies in genetic structure with applications in both human medicine and agricultural production. The Crop Biotechnology Center, located on the Texas A&M campus, was organized to bring together researchers and new technology in genetic identification, molecular biology, and applied plant breeding. Key goals in each of the new centers were to encourage further diversification and provide a competitive edge to the Texas economy. Agricultural research has helped lead to production efficiencies that gave Texas agriculture $14 billion in gross sales in 1991, when one-fifth of all Texans worked in jobs related to the production, processing, or marketing of agricultural products. New technology-intensive approaches were expected to help future Texas researchers continue to find better answers to the age-old questions about how best to feed people and livestock, but with increased emphasis on caring for the environment that supports both. See also AGRICULTURE.

Henry C. Dethloff, A Centennial History of Texas A&M University, 1876–1976 (2 vols., College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1975). Donald E. Green, Fifty Years of Service to West Texas Agriculture: A History of Texas Tech University's College of Agricultural Sciences, 1925–1975 (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1977). Don F. Hadwiger, The Politics of Agricultural Research (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982). Robert L. Haney, Milestones: Marking Ten Decades of Research (College Station: Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, 1989). Cyrus L. Lundell, Agricultural Research at Renner (Renner, Texas: Texas Research Foundation, 1967). Clarence Ousley, History of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (College Station: A&M College of Texas, 1935).

  • Agriculture
  • Education
  • Research
  • Organizations
  • Agencies

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Dudley T. Smith and Steve Hill, “Agricultural Research,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

July 1, 1995