Young MonDak Producers Learn about Beets, Pulses, Precision Ag

Young farmers and ranchers tour dives into agriculture in eastern Montana

Published online: Jun 08, 2018 News Renée Jean
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Source: Williston Herald

Rapidly increasing acres of pulse crops have created a rapidly expanding problem in the MonDak region (eastern Montana and western North Dakota): pulse crop diseases.

Among those getting a handle on the problems that could be brewing in the soil for pulse crops is plant pathologist Frankie Crutcher, with the Eastern Area Agricultural Research Center in Sidney, Mont.

Crutcher is helping rewrite the compendium for pea diseases and pests. She’s also been setting up a disease nursery at the EARC, where she will be able to study not only pulse crop diseases, but also diseases that affect small grains and sugar beets.

She talked about her work during a tour stop for the Young Farmers & Ranchers regional ag tour, put on by the Montana Farm Bureau. Each year, the YF&R tour focuses on a different region of Montana, and this year it was eastern Montana’s turn to share what’s on the cutting edge of agriculture trends for their area.

“The Young Farmer & Rancher Committee of the Montana Farm Bureau is focused on creating opportunities for young members and potential members to learn more about agriculture, plus these events give young members a great opportunity to network with their peers,” said Sue An Streufert, director of member relations for the Montana Farm Bureau. “The committee is always looking for new ways to engage our young members and adding the ag tour to their program of work just gives our members an additional opportunity to learn and grow as leaders for agriculture.”

In addition to the stop at the EARC, participants on this year’s fourth annual tour visited Sidney Sugars and Safflower Technologies, as well as the Intake Diversion Dam near Glendive and the Steinbeissers’ farm and cattle operation.

Inside of Crutcher’s greenhouse were several brown paper bags full of infected seeds that will be planted out for various studies. Earlier, Crutcher had passed around a few Petri dishes full of infected seeds, to show the tour participants her work.

“I recommend not opening these,” she said with a laugh.

Several of the participants held the seeds at a distance as they laughed with her. While they were anxious to pass the seeds along quickly, Crutcher talked about how she is anxious to get them planted. She’ll be putting them in an area in of the field that has been set aside for the disease nursery. While she will be planting them out with care, in that location, the usual grower’s rules won’t apply.

“All the things I’m teaching you not to do, I’m doing them all actually, to encourage disease to happen,” she said.

Overhead irrigation, for example, will help increase humidity—perfect for diseases like fusarium head blight to take hold. Crutcher wants to get a good stand of disease so she can test out various management practices, to determine which might be best for lessening the ill effects of pathogens in an infected fields. Disease nurseries can also be used to help develop resistant varieties.

With sugarbeets, Crutcher wants to look at how well seed treatments and foliar treatments do at controlling rhizoctonia. And she is excited about the opportunity to look at the effects of diseases like rhizoctonia on other crops grown in the MonDak area.

“Disease doesn’t happen in a vacuum with one pathogen,” she said.

With barley, for example, rhizoctonia might cause damping off, or, if the plants escape that, it might cause root rot later in the season.

EARC director Chengci Chen, meanwhile, talked about precision agriculture, which has game-changing potential for growers. Among the devices he showed the tour was a device that can scan a field’s infrared signature to detect things like water and heat stress, disease issues, nutritional deficiencies and other issues.

Chen also talked about the difference pulse crops can make in improving soil, and the improvements roundup ready beets have been to the area.

The latter was also a topic of discussing during the tour of the Steinbeisser farming and ranch operation.

Right before those beets came out, Don Steinbeisser Jr. recalled how the number of acres in sugar beets were so low, that the factory was in danger of closing. Weeds were invading the fields. Chemical control of the time was inadequate to the task, and the labor to grow sugar beet was so intensive, it was no longer profitable.

Roundup Ready beets turned things around, Steinbeisser said, and saved sugarbeet farming in the valley.

The Steinbeisser farm has more recently become a no-till operation, and is seeing a number of benefits to that in its rotation. For example, by planting their beets into barley stubble, the young plants are better protected from the wind, and there’s less blow-off of seeds.

No-till operations are something EARC has been actively researching of late, to figure out best management practices for farmers interested in building up soil organic matter.

Chen explained that tilling exposes soil to more oxygen, which causes the soil microbes to chew up the organic matter more quickly. That can dramatically reduce the amount of organic matter in soil, which in turn substantially reduces the amount of water soil can hold onto.

Another problem with tilling is the loss of soil due to erosion, Chen added. “Strong wind like today is blowing the fine soil away,” Chen said. “The fine particle has most of the nutrition in it.”