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Cropping Systems with Scot Hulbert

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Episode Transcription:

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Drew Lyon: Hello, and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the word of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

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Drew Lyon: My guest today is Scot Hulbert. Scot is the Cook Chair for Cropping Systems Pathology here at Washington State University. He moved back to Washington State University in 2006. He graduated from WSU in 1979 but left the northwest shortly after that. Scot’s first faculty position was at Kansas State University, where he stayed 17 years before he moved back to the northwest. Hello, Scot.

Scot Hulbert: Hi, Drew. Thanks for having me over.

Drew Lyon: So Scot, what brought you back to WSU after graduating so many years ago?

Scot Hulbert: Well, I’ve always liked Pacific Northwest agriculture and Pacific Northwest growers. I grew up farming in Western Washington as a kid. I was at Kansas State for a long time before coming back. I didn’t really plan on staying there that long but I liked Kansas State University. It’s a lot like WSU. But when I saw the job opening here, I thought well maybe it’s time to get back to Northwest.

Drew Lyon: Has that been a good move for you?

Scott Hulbert: Yeah, it’s been good. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed it. I still have brothers and cousins and stuff in the Ag industry and it’s good to be back in the same area.

Drew Lyon: We’re glad to have you. What is your general approach to thinking about improving cropping systems?

Scott Hulbert: My general approach is to try and address problems like soil health or soil degradation or something and think about what a different type of farming would be that might, you know, improve that, kind of an aspirational type of farming approach and then try to figure out why we aren’t using that approach, you know, what the problems with it are and try and find solutions to some of those problems. So I’ll give you an example. The wheat summer-fallow system and our lower rainfall areas are pretty hard on soil, you know, especially due to the tillage that’s done during the fallow season, you know, so what would a solution to that be? One solution might find a way to have less fallow. So, you know, maybe that would be a rotation crop that you would grow every once in a while instead of a fallow that would, you know, be reasonably profitable on one year’s moisture. Another approach might be a wheat line that was easier to plant in the no-till in the low rainfall area, maybe one that performed well when you planted it in November, after the soil moisture got, you know, after it rained a few times. Higher rainfall example might be, you know, why can’t a grower go out into his field and spray out the weeds and volunteers one day and plant wheat the next day. You know, we know that and growers know that when you do that you have a lot of green bridge disease problems on your wheat seedlings. But what if we had a wheat line that was resistant to all those green bridge diseases? You know, then we could do that. So a lot of my approaches are kind of genetic approaches because my training is in genetics. So I try and think of genetic approaches to solving a lot of these problems.

Drew Lyon: Your background is also in plant pathology. Does that come into your thinking as well?

Scot Hulbert: Yeah, yeah, for sure. You know, a lot of the problems we have with things like no-till or direct seeding and stuff are plant pathology problems. So in crops like wheat, you know, reasonably low input, we generally try and solve our problems, our pathology problems by genetics and breeding, and there’s become kind of an expedition like that to have a variety that fixes everything. You know the plant breeders do a great job. They don’t have time to breed for certain problems, you know, especially they don’t have time and energy or resources to breed for cropping systems that nobody’s using but a cropping system that, you know, I wish we were using for some reason, you know. So that is kind of what I feel my role is, is to, you know, see if we can a make a wheat variety that doesn’t get green bridge diseases, for example.

Drew Lyon: So as you think about some of these aspirational systems and some of the alternative crops that might be needed to fit into this, do you have some favorites for our serial crop rotations around here?

Scot Hulbert: Yeah, you know in this higher rainfall area where we’re sitting right now, there’re lots of possibilities, of course. In the lower rainfall areas, there’s a lot fewer. I kind of like brassica, you know the canola crops like that. They’re broadleafs, you know, so it really breaks the disease cycle if you’re just growing cereals. And of course, as you know, you can use completely different herbicides so it helps to kind of diversify that your weed control strategy too. So brassica are among my favorites. Canola acreage is up. You know, the last couple years we’re growing more of that. I like to see that. As you know, I dabble in camelina a little bit too. It’s a crop I like and there’re several of us that dabble in it. But it’s a crop I’d like to see out in the lower rainfall areas. It’s still got some problems. One of them is market, you know, so we’re trying to, as we improve it a little bit, we’re trying to think of how to develop a market too, you know, like we’re working on edible varieties that have oil composition that the FDA is happy with, you know. That would be something I’d like to see happen. We’ve got a line that meets the FDA requirements but, it’s hard to create a market but, you know, I think we’re doing what we can.

Drew Lyon: One thing I noticed coming from the Great Plains myself from Nebraska and crop rotations to control weeds was we had a lot of success introducing a summer crop into what winter wheat-fallow rotation but that’s a lot more difficult here in the Pacific Northwest where we don’t get much rain during the summertime. Have you looked at all at any potential summer crops?

Scot Hulbert: Well, I guess a spring crop is changing it up some in the lower rainfall area. A true summer crop, I think you’re referring to things that you can plant later, like sunflowers, stuff like that.

Drew Lyon: Exactly.

Scot Hulbert: Yeah, that would be nice. Again, the problem is, you know, where do we sell it right now and would we grow enough of it to create some kind of market? But no, I get your point totally.

Drew Lyon: Just my own weed science bias, I guess. Getting back to plant pathology, though, stripe rust is probably one of the most damaging diseases of wheat. Are you doing work on stripe rust?

Scot Hulbert: Yeah, we are. I’ve always liked working on rust. I’ve worked on maze rust and wheat rust and it certainly has been a big problem in wheat everywhere in the country. In the Northwest area, it’s mainly stripe rust. What we’ve been doing is looking for forms of resistance that would be, you know, what we call durable and, as you know, the biggest problem with resistant varieties is they don’t stay resistant. So we say the resistance wasn’t durable and what’s happening is the pathogen, the fungal rust population just evolves. It changes pretty rapidly or at least a little bit every year and eventually overcomes resistant varieties that are grown on a large acreage. And the ones that have kind of held up, you know, a lot of times it’s because the resistance was really controlled by a lot of genes and those type of resistance aren’t really easy to transfer in your new varieties. So it’s kind of a constant battle. What we’re looking for, you know, is a single gene that remains durable, a single gene that’s easy for breeders to manipulate. So we’re looking at one now that’s been durable and we’re trying to isolate it and see what it is so that we can — I think if we could see what it is, we could see if we’re just lucky that’s it’s lasted this long or if it’s really something novel that, you know, and try and learn how to see if it’s something novel, then we would know it would give us an idea how to find more of those type of genes, you know. Another approach we’ve been taking is transgenic approach. You know we’ve got some genes that we put in wheat that we’re evaluating that seem pretty promising. You know the problem with that is I see the big companies that would commercialize something like this aren’t really looking for a transgene right now. So the interest — I’m not sure the interest is there when I talk to them about this next great gene. So, you know, it seems like in wheat, for now anyway, us transgene proponents are losing the battle, I think. I’m starting to — You know, you’re my age. I’m starting to worry about whether — I would like to see something happen before I retire. You know what I mean? And if we’re not — If we’re not growing any GMO wheat, then that approach is, you know, too slow for me. Generally, a GMO is when you put a piece of DNA in the plant, in the wheat plant. These new gene editing approaches are more acceptable, it looks like. They’re not considered GMOs but you’re not putting a gene in there. You’re just kind of tweaking a gene that’s in there a little bit. So we’re looking for a gene that we can do that to that would make it resistant. It’s easier to think of them — It’s easier to find a gene that you can put in there to muck up the rust fungus biology than it is to find a gene that’s in there and just tweak it but we’re looking for one right now and I’m hopeful that we can find something.

Drew Lyon: Very interesting. So if our listeners want to learn more about what you’re doing, is there someplace they can go to find that information?

Scot Hulbert: Yeah, I have a webpage on the plant pathology, WSU plant pathology website. If you look under “People” I’m there.

Drew Lyon: Okay, very good. So we’ll put that into our episode notes so listeners can go find that easily by going to the wheat and small grains website at smallgrains.wsu.edu. Thanks, Scot.

Scot Hulbert: Thanks, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon@wsu.edu. You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu. You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon; we’ll see you next week.

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