Better Beets, Faster Seed Certifications

Published online: Nov 06, 2018 News Renée Jean
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Source: Williston Herald

Seed certification of disease-free stock typically takes several weeks in a lab to accomplish. That’s because the protocol requires actually growing out the seeds, to see whether any diseases are present.

DNA extraction has the potential to dramatically speed the process up, however, and is among projects plant pathologist Dr. Frankie Crutcher and her staff at the Eastern Area Agricultural Center will be working on next year.

Crutcher has already been using DNA extraction in the field to develop a new protocol to speed up cross-breeding efforts.

“Typically, when you do a cross, you take a seed, plant it in the field and wait for it to grow,” she said.

Once the plants are growing, their DNA can then be extracted to look for a particular marker of interest.

However, Crutcher is working on a different approach, one that will let breeders screen their seeds first by extracting DNA from the seeds. That way, they can plant only the seeds that have the desired marker.

“We’re using a non-destructive method that doesn’t hurt the plant embryo at all,” she said.

She soon realized that the same technique might also be useful for identifying diseases present in a seed, which could help speed up seed certifications for things like chickpea.

Agronomist Dr. Chengci Chen, meanwhile, is continuing research into no-till for sugar beet, which he said is showing great promise for area farmers.

“Traditionally, growers have used conventional tillage with sugar beet which takes many passes in a field,” Chen said.

It might take four or five trips across a field just to get it ready for seeding. That consumes a lot of fuel and is time-consuming.

Not only that, however, but after tillage, the wind can more readily blow soil away and irrigation water more readily wash it away. The addition of so much oxygen to the soil also revs up the microbes, causing them to chew up its organic matter much more quickly. All of that leads to poorer soil health than before, and less water holding capacity.

Moving to no-till systems will help preserve soil health, Chen said, and can be done with similar yields and sugar content. Since labor and fuel costs will be much lower, the new approach has the potential to add to profit margins for growers.

Chen and Crutcher’s new postdoc, plant pathologist Dr. Cecilia Peluola, will be among researchers talking about their work in the upcoming 2018 year at the MonDak Ag Research Summit on Nov. 14. The daylong event from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. is free, and will feature presentations from scientists at all three of the MonDak’s research stations.

In addition to Chen and Peluola, biologist Dr. John Gaskin will have an update on rangeland and aquatic weeds, while weed scientist Dr. Brian Jenks of Minot will talk about controlling difficult weeds like horseweed, narrowleaf hawksbeard, kochia, and several others.

Plant pathologist Dr. Audrey Kalil, with WREC, will meanwhile talk about the effects of tillage and rotation on rhizoctonia root and crown rot, and soil scientist Dr. Don Tanaka will talk about the economics and soil health of sustainable cropping systems.

As well as the short discussions of key research, the event offers participants a chance for one-on-one, small group discussions with scientists, to share questions and research needs with them directly.

The summit has been coordinated by the NDSU Williston Research Extension Center in Williston, MSU Eastern Agricultural Research Center and the USDA-ARS Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory, both in Sidney. Lunch is being provided by the Northern Pulse Growers Association.

Chen said that while no till research so far shows great promise, it will also present significant challenges.

“Changing from conventional to no-till, the whole management strategy needs to change,” Chen said. “You have to develop a new system of management that includes nitrogen management, irrigation and weed control. That is the technology we are working on.”

Chen said most wheat and barley growers have already gone to no-till practices because of the soil health benefits, but so far only 10 to 15 percent of beet growers are using no-till.

Helping growers figure out new best practices for no till beets fits in well with EARC’s mission to provide timely, applied research that can help increase the economic viability of family farming operations in the region for years to come.