Protecting Minnesota's Sugar Beets Through Integrated Management

When Plant Pathology Assistant Professor Ashok Chanda describes the importance of using an integrated management approach to effectively manage sugar beet diseases, he simply points to his hand.

“If you think about the power of an integrated management approach, think about your hand," says Chanda. You have five fingers integrated into your hand and you can do so much more with your entire hand than you can with just one finger. This same principle applies to disease management. You can be much more effective when you use multiple management strategies at once than you can with just one."

With Minnesota ranking first in the nation in sugar beet production, Chanda’s research at the Northwest Research and Outreach Center in Crookston, MN focuses on keeping this valuable commodity protected from diseases. The primary concern for sugar beet farmers in the Red River Valley are soil-borne diseases Rhizoctonia and Aphanomyces root rot.

Sugarbeet diseasesRhizoctonia and Aphanomyces can cause early season issues by infecting and killing sugar beet seedlings before or after they emerge out of the ground, and can infect the roots of sugar beets later in the season, causing them to rot and the plants to eventually die. These diseases can also reduce sugar yield. Roots exhibiting disease are a problem for sugar factories, as the disease increases impurities present in sugar beets, which reduces the efficiency of the factories.

Not only do these diseases affect farmers’ bottom line, but they also pose management challenges for farmers, since the diseases can survive in soil over the course of years.

“The problem with soil-borne diseases is that they can survive in soil for many years. For example, Rhizoctonia may survive for about three to four years, and up to 10 years for Aphanomyces, so it gets really challenging for farmers to manage these diseases over a long period of time,” Chanda says.

Rhizoctonia also exhibits a wide host range, and can infect crops typically rotated with sugar beets such as corn and soybeans, which may lead to an increase in pathogen populations over time. Since these pathogens persist in soil over the course of multiple years, it is important for farmers to know which pathogens are present in their soils before they plant their sugar beet crop.

“It's very important to know what's present in the soil, but it often isn’t until after a farmer sees the symptoms in their field, and also probably has experienced a yield loss, that they know a particular pathogen is present. We want to provide tools that help farmers know which pathogens are present in their soil so they don’t have to experience significant yield losses,” Chanda says.

Plant Pathology Assistant Professor Ashok Chanda and Research Fellow Jason BratnerOne way Chanda and his research team are accomplishing this is by using a DNA-based detection technology that can take a small sample of soil and identify which soil-borne pathogens are present in a given area. Using this data, farmers can create an integrated disease management plan that includes selection of the most resistant varieties and most effective fungicides.

“In order to most effectively manage these diseases, farmers need to have the location-specific information that educates them about how they can combine varietal selection and fungicides to keep pathogens at a low-level throughout the growing season. Without one or the other, farmers will have a difficult time managing these diseases long-term,” Chanda says.

As a part of his Extension program, Chanda stresses the importance of integrated management approaches across the sugar beet growing region through educational programming and online communication efforts that provide farmers with timely information and best management practices based on their specific location.

Chanda is actively engaged with the sugar beet industry and also acknowledges that growers are very sensible about the importance of funding research that can provide solutions to their problems.

Through his research program Chanda hopes to develop short-term disease management strategies that can be quickly adopted by farmers, and also develop long-term strategies through an understanding of the biological nature of pathogens and their interactions with sugar beets. Chanda also aims to bring these strategies to growers through his Extension program and keep them informed about various disease management strategies so they can be tailored to their approaches.

“Extension is a channel for me to bring myself closer to the growers, consultants and sugar beet industry personnel. The most rewarding part of my job is making an impact on my clientele by helping them make decisions to protect sugar beets from diseases. The sense of satisfaction that I get when I hear from a grower that something I suggested has worked for him or her motivates me every day.”