Dr. Leah McHale in the news!

May. 14, 2015

Soybean research synergy maximizing checkoff dollars

May 14, 2015
By Matt Reese and Ty Higgins

Ohio's Country Journal / Ohio Ag Net

Though it may seem counterproductive for one researcher to breed soybeans and another researcher to kill them, it is exactly this unique synergy of efforts that is taking place to benefit the profitability of Ohio soybean growers.

“I am a soybean breeder and geneticist so I aim to develop cultivars with a good profile of disease resistance as well as good yield and good quality traits. A lot of the cultivars we develop are for the food grade industry so they need high protein and large seed size,” said Leah McHale, director the Ohio State University Soybean Breeding and Genetics Lab.

“Then I try to kill what she develops, literally,” said Anne Dorrance, OSU Extension plant pathologist. “That is because we want it to grow in Ohio. Ohio has many soil types that are heavy clay and poorly drained so there are a plethora of problems. With that in mind, we screen for resistance in the lab trying to identify the lines that will hold up under Ohio’s tough conditions. We need to grow varieties that can stand up to a whole season to get a high yield and a profit at the end of the season. Especially in the low price years, it is really important to get the highest yield, and that is what it is all about.”

Though they work at opposite ends of the soybean life cycle, both McHale and Dorrance are funded by Ohio Soybean Council checkoff dollars to bring a better soybean seed to the market for farmers to plant in their fields. There is tremendous cooperation required for success — even across completely separate areas of study — for the development of soybean genetics with a strong disease package.

“We first have to identify what sources of resistance should be used. We have to identifwhere the starting point should be. The second part is that we go and develop these populations where we identify the genetic regions to find those markers that are associated with that source of resistance,” Dorrance said. “That facilitates not only the breeding that goes on here at Ohio State but there are also companies using that information as well in the development of their own cultivars.”

In terms of the soybean breeding program at Ohio State, it has been a busy and successful year.

“We released four cultivars this year, which is the most that we have released in any year since I have been here,” McHale said. “These came from disease screening that Anne had done. She screened hundreds of potential breeding lines for us and these four rose to the top as being the most resistant. They also have high yield and two of them are for the food grade market so they have high protein and other traits that are important for tofu production.

“In our yield trials we do not always have the same disease pressure that you’d find on Ohio farms, that is where Anne comes in. We used to only send Anne the top yielding varieties for her to evaluate, but she was killing them all. Now we send her hundreds of lines and she goes through and screens all of those for resistance. We pick the best ones.”

The key diseases being studied in Dorrance’s research include Phytophthora and Pythium.

“In a year we are individually inoculating an acre of plants one by one — that is 180,000 to 220,000 plants. There are multiple things coming out of that effort,” Dorrance said. “We are identifying sources of resistance for future varieties and finding markers associated with the genes so companies can use that to identify genetic regions that are controlling the resistance in their lines. We have multiple purposes for everything we are doing.”

Though they work on different OSU campuses, McHale and Dorrance regularly talk to stay informed about what is happening in their separate labs.

“Everybody can’t be an expert on everything so I take on the breeding and genetics part and Anne takes on the pathology part. We are happy to be experts in our own fields and to benefit from each other,” McHale said. “We meet with each other regularly and work together well. We even finish each other’s sentences sometimes — I don’t hold it against her for killing my plants.”

It takes this kind of teamwork and joint efforts across a wide range of research fields to create a complete portfolio of research to enhance overall soybean profitability. With this in mind, the decisions about what research should be funded to maximize the return on investment of the soybean checkoff require careful consideration.

The funding decisions require a big picture view of the soybean industry, intimate knowledge of the challenges being faced in Ohio crop fields, and an understanding of the details of the specific research projects.

“The whole process is driven by the Ohio Soybean Council Board. We have a request for proposals that goes out periodically to the research community in Ohio,” said Tom Fontana, Ohio Soybean Council director of research and education. “We also have a strategic plan where our farmer leaders develop what they think is important for soybean farmers in Ohio to maximize their profits. We try to address specific areas that will lead to improved soybean operations. We are looking at things like pests and diseases, genetics and breeding, and other yield limiting factors. Another important area is soil fertility and nutrient management. Then various researchers respond with proposals to address the strategic initiatives developed by our Board. Then the farmer Board members and staff review proposals and select the projects that will have the biggest impact for soybean farmers in the state of Ohio.”

The input from the farmers on the Board is a crucial component of the process because they see what is happening in their fields and understand what problems are most in need of being addressed with checkoff dollars.

“For example, the breeding program is focused on things that will help Ohio soybean farmers the most, like diseases and pests that are problems in Ohio and varieties that are useful in Ohio, such as food grade varieties that have been very lucrative for our farmers,” Fontana said. “Our funding goes to things like looking at soybean cyst nematode populations and research on Phytophthora. We need to understand what our problems are out there before we can really try to solve them.”

One important goal is to fund a complimentary set of research efforts in Ohio that are not unnecessarily duplicative.

“We try to make sure the research we are funding works together with nationally funded projects. One example is soybean aphids. The bulk of soybean aphid research comes from the North Central Soybean Research program where 12 states are involved. Aphids affect a wide number of those states and each state is working on its particular area of expertise to contribute to the whole region. We do not fund the same work that the United Soybean Board funds, but we fund some of the same researchers who are participating in United Soybean Board projects,” Fontana said. “There is a big push to eliminate redundancy in research through better communication and a research database that is being developed. With the database, if I get a proposal from here in Ohio I will be able to go and look to see if that same project is already being conducted somewhere else. While there are different climates, soil types and other factors that make some of theses types of studies in different areas valuable, there is also no sense in duplicating some studies either.”

Avoiding duplication, and fostering synergy, maximizes the return on investment for soybean growers.

“Our Board likes to leverage resources. You can do that with researchers working together in Ohio. They are also working with other researchers around the region in bigger projects that make sense and, in total, costs less in checkoff dollars,” Fontana said. “For example, Laura Lindsey, with OSU Extension, is working on yield and quality. She is looking at nutrients, fungicides and other inputs. She has been working on a number of specific things for that project, but she was already in the fields so she was also checking for insect pressure, disease levels, and other things. She gathered more data than for just her project and that helps other researchers like Anne Dorrance in plant pathology and Andy Michel in entomology. There is a whole team of soybean researchers in at OSU — we call them the soybean team — and they get together and talk about what they are doing and what they can do in the future.”

As research results are finalized, the teamwork continues to put the findings to work in Ohio’s soybean fields. The Ohio Soybean Council works with OSU Extension and media outlets to turn the research into practical reality.

“We work with Extension and others to disseminate the research and spread the word about what is happening,” Fontana said. “County Extension educators are often involved in this research and getting projects implemented in the counties in terms of field trials with farmer cooperators.”

For much more, visit the Soybean Rewards web page at http://www.soyohio.org/council/for-ohio-farmers/soybean-rewards/.