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Investing in Research

Thursday, January 1, 2009
filed under: Research and Development

By Larry Kleingartner
Executive Director / National Sunflower Assn.

The National Sunflower Association (NSA) is embarking on a major investment in the future of sunflower research. The NSA Board of Directors decided at its recent budget meeting that now is the time to move public research forward in an aggressive way.

The USDA Agricultural Research Service Sunflower Unit located in Fargo, N.D., is the key sunflower public research group in the United States. This unit is comprised of seven scientists from various disciplines. (A detailed story on the unit appeared in the October/November 2008 issue of The Sunflower.)

One of the key missions of the ARS unit is to release improved breeding lines to the private seed industry for inclusion into commercial hybrids. Seed companies do a great job of developing new hybrids with improved yield, oil content and confection characteristics. But most have limitations in identifying desirable production traits such as disease and insect resistance. For example, Sclerotinia resistance requires multiple genes. The identification of those genes is a long and exacting process requiring a considerable investment in time and dollars. The potential payoff for a commercial company is long into the future, with no guarantees.

Thus, it is necessary that the public sector fund research that the private sector cannot justify economically. Most often, that relates to matters like disease, insect and drought tolerance.

A mounting problem within public sector research is the lack of funding. Within the USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit, funding per scientist has declined to the point where programs have been severely limited. That leaves items like equipment improvement on the far “back burner.” The unit’s plot planting equipment, for instance, dates back to the 1960s. Depth control and planting various seed sizes is an obvious challenge with such outdated equipment. The unit’s staff overplants plots by 200% and then “hand-thins.” This inefficiency is costly in labor and seed — especially when working with breeding lines, which often have a limited seed supply. And now there is a crying need for more plot work.

The need for more field testing is growing dramatically. The ARS group’s geneticist, Dr. Brent Hulke, is placing greater emphasis on confection sunflower, which is adding new volumes of material for testing. The unit’s molecular geneticist, entomologist and pathologist are all working on projects that need field testing.

Dr. Steve Knapp at the University of Georgia (who also was featured in the October/November 2008 issue of this magazine) is doing a great deal of genomics work on sunflower. This material also needs field testing to confirm lab findings — a scale of field testing that is not possible, given the present equipment situation.

The genetic material identified by these various scientists needs to be field tested — or, in the absence of field testing, it will simply be left on the shelf until adequate funding is in place sometime in the future.

Because of the equipment limitations, the ARS unit has been limited to plot locations within easy reach of Fargo. The Fargo location offers challenges of its own. It is located in the heart of the Red River Valley, noted for its heavy clay soil and water-holding capacity. This environment is not conducive to sunflower plot work. Also, weather conditions in the Fargo area are not typical of most of the sunflower production region — which is located in more-arid sections of the country. For example, it is difficult to do drought tolerance testing in Fargo, where rainfall often averages well above the regional norm.

Purchasing a new plot planter will retire a planter that, as noted previously, was purchased in the 1960s. The new planter will be have up-to-date GPS and all of the electronic gear necessary for seed placement, depth control and seed cleanout. A new plot harvester will also retire equipment from the early 1990s. The existing combine is not well suited to sunflower. It requires three people to run it, including one feeding sunflower into the machine. It is dangerous and inefficient.

Munich, N.D., grower Don Schommer, newly elected NSA board president, recognizes that getting funds from the federal government to buy this type of equipment is not going to happen for a long time. “We could spend years trying to get this equipment funded via Congress. We want the equipment in place in time for the 2009 growing season. So it is up to us as an industry to put the equipment in place and ‘get the ball rolling’ ” Schommer states.

The National Sunflower Association has now committed $200,000 to get the new planter built in time for the 2009 season. The funding will also allow the ARS unit to hire a qualified technician in time for the spring season.

The NSA board is hoping that contributions from NSA members (industry and individuals) will help defray the remaining cost, which is estimated to be another $200,000. Specialized and sophisticated plot equipment is expensive.

Contributions can be made to the NSA ARS Equipment Fund, 4023 State Street, Bismarck, ND 58503. The gift can be deducted as a full business expense. Several entities have already indicated they want to support this initiative.

Potential Impact

What does this mean for the future of sunflower genetics? It means enhanced yield potential with new stacked traits and reduced time to commercialization. Expanded field testing in multiple environments will add greater accuracy to the entire breeding process. Plant breeding has always been considered a numbers game — “The more you test, the greater opportunity for finding good material.”

“The challenge is to take promising production traits like disease or insect resistance, put them into advanced breeding lines and test them in various environments,” says Brent Hulke. “Once we know what we have in the lab, with markers, and in the field through observation, we will get the developed lines to commercial breeders for incorporation into their finished hybrids.” That will reduce the time required for getting material out to the grower. “So a combination of reduced time and increased accuracy will greatly aid farmers at the end of the day with better hybrids and increased yield. That alone is well worth the investment,” says NSA’s Don Schommer.

Hulke will be ready to go in the 2009 growing season. He anticipates taking one field plot to western North Dakota for drought tolerance testing, another to central South Dakota for drought and insect tolerance testing, and a third to a central North Dakota location for disease testing. The following year, in 2010, he is hoping to develop plots in additional areas. University locations in other states have already volunteered land space and staff time for additional test sites.

Dean Sonnenberg, NSA board member and Sterling, Colo., farmer, says this is the kind of research effort that can pay off handsomely. “It brings groups and people together into one common cause — and that alone builds momentum and produces progress,” Sonnenberg emphasizes. “It also is a strong message to our customers that we fully intend to meet their needs.”

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