Sugar beets

Reneé Jean • Williston Herald

Researchers at the EARC examine sugar beets growing in a green house. Among projects at the center is one examining whether plant growth hormones can ramp up sugar beet defenses against springtails.

SIDNEY — Plant growth hormones might do more than just prime roots for growth. Some of them might also raise up natural defensive shields against pests and pathogens, helping the plant fight them off on its own. That in turn could be useful against an annual root muncher in the beet fields, namely springtails.

Research into the effects of plant growth promotion regulator, or PGPR, is just one of many projects ongoing at the Eastern Agriculture Research Center in Sidney to tease out better management practices. EARC is one of three research centers in the MonDak whose collaborations are strengthening agriculture region-wide. The three plan a research summit from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Richland County Event Center in Sidney. The summit is open to the public.

Editor’s note

Research in the MonDak is made stronger thanks to collaborations among three centers, the Williston Research Extension Center, the Eastern Agricultural Center and the USDA-ARS unit. The latter two are in Sidney, Montana. In this occasional series, we go behind the scenes at each. 

The three centers are joining forces in November for a research summit that will provide both a snapshot of current research and offer a chance for the area’s growers and producers to talk about their research needs and ideas. 

The summit is set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 15 at the Richland County Event Center in Sidney, Montana.

Part of the Montana State University System, EARC includes two programs, one on agronomy and one on plant pathology. Exciting projects are happening in both.

On the agronomy side, research agronomist Dr. Chengci Chen, who is directing that program, said research into no-till sugar beet is showing several advantages that are promising, all without affecting sugar beet yield or sugar concentration.

“No-till sugar beet is going to be good to the farmer, because it reduces the cost,” Chen said. 

Machinery, labor and fuel costs are all reduced significantly with no-till management. Not only that, but there is less erosion of soil, and organic matter will stick around longer if there is less oxygen being mixed into the soil.

“Based on our research, sugar beet yield is about the same, and sugar content is about the same for till and no-till sugar beet,” Chen said. “That means you can do no-till without reducing yield, and save some costs and preserve soil quality. So there are going to be a lot of advantages.”

Another crop with a lot of advantages for the farmer could be new pulse crops. Chen, being from China, has grown up with some of these alternative pulse crops and is excited about their potential for the MonDak region as a whole.

Among these are mung beans, favored for making bean thread noodles. Supplies of the crop, however, are often short. And that is also one reason why yellow pea prices have been trending upward. Yellow pea starch is a suitable substitute for making the noodles. 

“Mung beans are showing potential here,” Chen said. “They are promising. For now, we have only grown them to see if it can produce a seed, but I saw pretty good results.”

There wasn’t enough seed to assess yield accurately, Chen said, but he hopes to do variety trials next year. This will help determine whether the warm-season crop is economically feasible here.

That’s important,” Chen added. “It’s not just can we produce a crop, but can we make money with it.”

Yellow peas, meanwhile, readily break down into a high-quality protein and starch, and that’s the subject of other research at the center, looking at which factors can boost protein in peas. Chen believes there will eventually be a premium for high-protein peas, just as there is for high-protein wheat.

Cereal crops like wheat are the other major crop group the center studies.

In addition to all variety trials for all three groups of crops, plant pathologist Dr. Frankie Crutcher has projects looking at the best ways to beat various pests and pathogens that affect these crops. 

She has recently set up a disease nursery in the greenhouse. The space will be useful for testing out various strategies to beat fusarium head blight and other diseases. She’s also working to create a faster test for detecting pathogens in pulse crop seeds, to help keep them disease free.

A soil sterilizer has recently been installed at the center, to ensure diseases in the nursery can’t escape, and to sterilize incoming soil for the greenhouse and new hoop house, to keep diseases from being introduced to these controlled environments.

The hoop house will demonstrate the benefit of season extension for growing common vegetables like tomato and green pepper. Williston Research Extension Center has also been working with hoop houses at Nesson Valley.

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