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Research center studies in greenhouse over winter

Research specialist Hannah Worral stands in the middle bay of the greenhouse where she studies pulse crops at North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Center. Shalom BaerGee/MDN

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 26,000 farms and ranches occupy 39.3 million acres of land in North Dakota, 89% of the total land in the state. In a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report on 2020 production, North Dakota was named the leading state in the production of 12 different crops.

The North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Center, located one mile south of Minot, assists North Dakota’s agricultural economy through its study of agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production.

Research continues in spite of harsh winter conditions in the center’s greenhouse. The greenhouse consists of three 20- by 30-foot bays that are kept at a comfortable temperature for plants to grow.

During the winter months, researchers use one bay for weed resistance testing, one for pulse crops — chickpeas, peas, and lentils — and one to grow out crops and weeds to take to meetings for identification or other tests and research ideas.

The center’s seed lines, such as its yellow pea ND Dawn, are developed through lengthy processes of repeated cross-breeding, research, and testing.

Shalom BaerGee/MDN Tiffany Walter, research specialist at North Dakota State University North Central Research Extension Center, shows the spray chamber she uses to spray weed during weed resistance testing.

“It can take seven-plus years to go from the initial cross to having a promising line. Many of the currently available cultivators took 10 years,” said Hannah Worral, a full-time research specialist who studies pulse crops at the center.

This winter, Worral and her team are utilizing their bay in the greenhouse to work on chickpea crosses, among other projects.

Chickpea crossing is particularly difficult because the flowers are extra sensitive to handling and have to be gently opened to pollinate them with another plant, something that doesn’t happen naturally. Chickpea flowers have both male and female reproductive organs, so plants can reproduce with themselves.

“Chickpea, as well as pea and lentil, are all self-pollinating crops. They’re not going to readily outcross. We have to come in and manually do that in order to make new lines,” Worral said. “Otherwise, every single pod that comes on this plant will be essentially identical to this plant.”

Once the research team makes several successful crosses, they will grow out those plants. When there are enough seeds from the successful crosses, they test the performance of each line in the field. After evaluation, they select promising lines for release to North Dakota producers. Proceeds from those sales go directly back to the center, allowing it to continue conducting research. Other sources of funding come from the NDSU Foundation and research grants.

“The primary (desired trait) for everybody is always increased yield, everybody wants higher yielding varieties,” Worral said.

However, there is more to a successful line than just yield, Worral said. The team looks at disease resistance, seed composition, canopy heights, flowering times, and many other traits aside from increased yield. One issue they study in pulse crops is root rot.

“Pulses don’t like their feet super wet,” Worral said. “We have a lot of root rot issues with them, and that’s a very highly complex trait. It’s not one that’s easy to breed out.”

While Worral is trying to get her plants to grow successfully, Tiffany Walter, another research specialist at the center, is working on killing hers.

“I work mainly in weed control,” Walter said. “During the winter, we do resistance testing. We start in January and we’re done by March so it’s a small window of what we do, but it’s very beneficial.”

Producers send samples of weeds from their fields that didn’t seem to respond to their usual weed control methods, and Walter runs tests on them to determine where the issue might lie.

“Did the chemical not work? Is it the environment that it was in? The next year they don’t want to spend money on the chemical if it didn’t control the issue, so we run tests to tell them, next year when you spray, these are your options,” Walter said.

Another part of Walter’s job in the winter is to prepare for Western Crop Scout School, an educational event held every spring to help crop producers and crop consultants learn how to identify weeds in different growing stages.

“We grow about 56 weeds to look at and try and ID,” she said. “During the winter, you kind of forget what some stuff looks like. It’s nice to have that refresher. People get into the fields in April and May, so they have a little refresher on what’s new with not only weeds, but with the growing season.”

This year’s Western Crop Scout School will be held on March 1-2 in Bismarck.

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