A Positive Trait

Published online: Dec 28, 2020 News Tyrell Marchant, editor
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This article appears in the January 2021 issue of Sugar Producer.

As anyone even passively involved in the U.S. sugarbeet industry could tell you, Cercospora leaf spot is among the biggest challenges facing growers. And just about anyone you ask will tell you the same thing: There’s no simple solution.

KWS, the parent company that produces Betaseed and Crystal beet seed hybrids, is hoping to change that. A newly created trait, referred to as CR+, combines multiple sources of Cercospora tolerance. On top of that, while offering superior protection, it combines performance and productivity, something that has not been accomplished in the past. A lot of growers have felt the frustration of having to choose between sacrificing high yields or protecting their beet crops from the long arm of Cercospora. Pending results from Official Variety Trials and subsequent approvals, growers can expect to see hybrids containing the new CR+ trait for the upcoming 2021 season in the Michigan, Southern Minnesota and MinnDak regions.

Of course, while CR+ promises to offer a simple solution to sugarbeet farmers looking to fight Cercospora while maintaining high yields, the process to get such a trait to market has been anything but simple. KWS breeders have been working on developing the trait for more than 20 years. Margaret Rekoske, director of breeding at KWS Seeds, LLC, is listed as an inventor of CR+, along with other KWS scientists. She says that without KWS’s strong commitment to research and breeding, this trait never would have made it into growers’ fields. (The company prides itself on reinvesting 15 percent of revenue specifically to its research and breeding programs.)

“When you’re looking for a specific trait, it’s basically a numbers game,” Rekoske says. “The more data you have, the better breeding decisions you can make. The company invested in this so we could look at large numbers and find exceptions to that rule of yield and Cercospora resistance being inversely related. You really do need the numbers to find it, and that’s a big investment for the company—without promise of reward. Thankfully, we were rewarded this time in finding this fantastic trait.”

The CR+ trait works in a number of ways to fight Cercospora while maintaining high yields, but Rekoske points to two of its capabilities as specifically being key. The first is that it increases photosynthesis, keeping leaves green and healthy and thereby producing more sugar. The second is that it helps reduce Cercospora inoculum buildup in the soil, providing a safer environment for the following year’s crop.

“We anticipate if there were conditions favorable for Cercospora, beets with the CR+ trait would actually produce more routinely and steadily,” says Rekoske.

Within the next few years, KWS hopes to have its CR+ trait in every hybrid the growers and sugar cooperatives ask for it in. Trials in the MinnDak, Southern Minn and Michigan markets have returned very positive results, and growers have expressed excitement.

“Of course, fungicide application, crop rotations, all those disease management practices will still come into play,” says Mark Schmidt, vice president of sales for KWS. “But this is a really great tool to suppress the disease over time.”

That should be a plus for anybody.