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Working for the Sunflower Growers of South Dakota

Thursday, April 1, 2010
filed under: Research and Development

Were there an “association of state university sunflower breeders,” Kathy Grady would need to serve as its president, vice president — and board of directors. The South Dakota State University assistant professor has, for a number of years, conducted the sole university sunflower breeding program in the nation. (The only other public U.S. sunflower breeding program is that of the USDA Agricultural Research Service Sunflower Unit located at Fargo, N.D.)

Along with sunflower breeding, Grady’s responsibilities also encompass the coordination of variety/hybrid performance trials on sunflower, flax and canola. She likewise conducts agronomic research on such production practices as plant population and date of planting as part of her 80% research/20% extension appointment.

With sunflower specifically, Grady’s breeding effort emphasizes germplasm and population development and improvement for such traits as seed yield, oil content, oil quality and stress tolerance (e.g., salinity, drought). She has released several sunflower germplasm lines to the industry through the years, as well as several improved flax varieties.

So how did a “Navy brat” who grew up on the nation’s east and west coasts end up as a sunflower breeder in the Upper Midwest?

Following graduation from high school in Virginia, Grady enrolled at the University of Illinois (her parents were natives of Chicago). After earning a B.S. in agronomy, she went on to Iowa State University, where she received her M.S. degree in plant breeding. In 1980, while she was considering whether to pursue a Ph.D, a job opening came up at SDSU in Brookings. It was a newly created position of research associate in oilseed breeding — specifically, sunflower and flax — under Dr. Chuck Lay. “I’d never seen sunflower other than in a garden — and I’d never seen flax, either,” Grady admits.

Up to that point, the SDSU oilseed breeding program had focused on flax. With sunflower added, Lay concentrated on that crop, while his new colleague spent most of her time working with flax. When Lay left the university in 1987, Grady assumed his sunflower program and worked simultaneously on both crops for several years. Eventually, SDSU concluded the workload was too much for one person, and the flax breeding program was discontinued.

While no longer making any new flax crosses, Grady continued to improve those flax materials already in the program. “I think we finally made our last [flax] release in 2000,” she recounts.

What was the rationale behind South Dakota’s establishment of a state sunflower breeding program in the early ’80s when the USDA program was already in place?

South Dakota sunflower acreage had been increasingly significantly during the latter 1970s. Grady theorizes that university leadership wanted to “up the ante” in the development of new sunflower varieties that contained traits of particular importance to their state’s growers — not only yield and oil content, but also characteristics like maturity range and stress tolerance.

The South Dakota program has never released finished hybrids. Instead, its focus has been on improving populations, developing germplasm lines — and then releasing promising germplasm to private sunflower breeders. Some of Grady’s released material over the years has been used directly in the production of new inbreds and hybrids; other material has been used for crossing purposes only.

One of Grady’s main areas of interest the past few years has been in the development of insect-tolerant lines. On this, she has been part of a cooperative effort with Fargo-based USDA research entomologist Larry Charlet. (Kansas State University-Colby’s Rob Aiken has also been working on the project.) Given the consistently high populations of red seed weevil in central South Dakota, Grady’s work has centered on evaluating breeding lines and accessions for tolerance to this particular head insect. Those trials have been conducted near Highmore, S.D.

The insect tolerance work has become one of the most satisfying projects Grady has been involved with across her three-decade career in sunflower. “If we can get some material out there to the commercial level, that will certainly be valuable to growers,” she says. Though the 2009 Highmore trial was hailed out, the overall effort is revealing significant differences in levels of tolerance among breeding materials, she notes.

Salinity/drought tolerance work also holds promise for South Dakota and other sunflower growers, Grady adds. During 2007-09, she has made numerous crosses using her own developed material, along with breeding lines coming out of the USDA-ARS program. She and SDSU molecular biologist Xingyou Gu, working with a grant from the South Dakota Drought Center, are developing molecular markers associated with salinity.

“Salinity tolerance and drought tolerance are sometimes related,” Grady points out, so she and Gu plan to test salinity-associated markers under drought conditions as well. The long-term result, she believes, will be materials that contribute to enhanced drought tolerance in commercial sunflower hybrids. — Don Lilleboe
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