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Oregon State University Agricultural Research updates

Albino Grain Sprouts in the Columbia Basin

Growing white wheat took on a different meaning this year in the Columbia Basin of Oregon and Washington.

For decades, the region’s farmers have grown soft white wheat, which is used to make pastries.

Woman kneeling with ruler to the grass.

OSU research assistant Sandy Ott points out an albino wheat plant in a Columbia Basin field. Photo: Don Wysocki

Last spring, ghostly white, but apparently harmless, "albino" wheat and winter barley plants sprouted among the young, green plants that carpet the area at that time of the year. This has happened for at least 25 years, at mysterious intervals.

"Albinos make up less than 1.5 percent of the plants in most of the fields they’re in that we’ve looked at," said Richard Smiley, an Oregon State University plant pathologist with the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center at Pendleton. "But they really stand out and the number in a field is easily overestimated."

The albino plants, called that because they don’t have an official name, do not seem to affect yield or cause economic damage. Most albino plants die young and surrounding plants can compensate by growing more vigorously and producing more grain.

But the strange-looking white plants spark curiosity among farmers and the field consultants who work for agricultural firms. Last spring several visited Don Wysocki, a soil scientist at Pendleton who works for the OSU Extension Service, to inquire about the plants.

"Some of the more experienced ones recognize what’s happening," Wysocki said, "but newer ones haven’t seen the condition and it can look like the symptoms caused by Russian wheat aphids and some other problems. They wonder what’s going on."

The last time albino plants showed up in significant numbers was three years ago, according to Wysocki. Their appearance seems to be linked to temperature and the planting date for winter grains, put in the fall and harvested the following summer.

"Last year was a mild winter so we didn’t see it at all," said Wysocki, "but this year in November it went down to 20 degrees and we had consistently cold weather until February."

The OSU soil scientist said tissue samples of normal and albino plants analyzed during the last significant appearance of the phenomenon identified only one difference: a lower level of the mineral boron in the albinos. This year some albino plants had low boron and others did not.

"I investigated the albino plant phenomenon back in 1989," said Smiley. "We failed to reach any conclusion but did seem to exclude some ideas that had been kicked around."

In 1989, samples were sent to researchers in several disciplines at several universities.

"All of that came back negative," Smiley said. "It appeared that it was not linked to a herbicide, to a virus or any disease, to the Russian wheat aphid or to specific seed lots or specific wheat varieties."

People have speculated that cold temperatures and a late fall planting date may trigger a mutant albino gene in some grain plants. Based on his review of scientific literature about studies of albinism in other plants, Smiley does not dismiss this possibility: that an "undocumented genetic and environmental interaction" is the culprit in the Columbia Basin.

For example, in 1998 Chinese botanists studying rice reported that they had learned to create albinism using temperature variations to "turn off" a chlorophyll synthesis protein. Chlorophyll gives green plants their color.

But the OSU researcher isn’t sure nailing down the answer would be worth the effort.

"I believe it would be almost impossible to conduct a full-blown study of this without buying a freezing chamber (a relatively expensive piece of equipment)," he said, "and with no yield impact I question the economy of doing that. It attracts a lot of attention during the spring in eastern Oregon and Washington some years, but it doesn’t appear to be damaging the crop."

Drip Raises Efficiency, Produces Giant Options

Drip irrigation is catching on in eastern Oregon as growers look for more cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways to improve crop quality.

Last year 1,000 acres of onions were grown with drip irrigation in Malheur County, according to Clint Shock, superintendent of Oregon State University’s Malheur Experiment Station near Ontario.

Man walking next to irrigation pipe.

OSU researcher Clint Shock. Notice the small black drip line coming off the main irrigation line. Photo: Bob Rost

Growers in the area are switching to drip irrigation because it promotes uniform growth of very large, high-quality onions and is more water efficient than furrow irrigation or sprinkler irrigation.

"Onions rated as super colossal are the biggest and most valuable," said Shock. "Onions with diameters greater than 4 3/8 inches and with single centers are very popular with the restaurant industry and with food processors because they are ideal for making onion rings" and other specially prepared restaurant items that require a large, well-shaped onion.

Drip irrigation produces good yields of super colossal onions because the system can be managed to deliver moisture directly to the plants’ root zone at a uniform rate throughout the growing season. That allows the best possible growth, Shock explained. Liquid fertilizers can be injected into the system and distributed to the plants through the drip irrigation lines, he added.

In addition, there is little, if any, soil erosion in drip irrigated fields because there isn’t any water flow on the soil surface. This helps conserve topsoil and protects water quality.

A drip irrigation system consists of lengths of drip tape buried a few inches deep in the soil beneath plant rows. The drip tape is a flat plastic hose with emitters (specially designed perforations) every few inches to allow water to gradually seep into the soil.

The drip tape lines are attached to a water pipe at one end of the field. Water pressure in the system is maintained at a constant level to ensure a uniform flow of water to the crop. At harvest the drip tape is taken up before the crop is removed from the field.

"Using drip irrigation systems with onions has been one of our major research initiatives and so it’s good to see more growers adopt the practice," said Shock.

In recent years researchers at the Malheur Experiment Station have evaluated different water application rates in drip irrigation systems, tried different fertilizer rates and studied the performance of different onion plant populations under drip irrigation.

Lynn Jensen, chair of the OSU Extension Service’s Malheur County office, works with growers interested in drip irrigation and with Shock on drip irrigation studies.

"This is wonderful technology and the future is bright for drip irrigation, but growers here will probably get into it gradually," Jensen said.

"There’s a pretty steep learning curve with drip irrigation," he added.

Farrell Larson, owner of Larson Skyline Farms near Ontario, agrees. He recently set up a drip irrigation system in a 380-acre field of onions.

"There are a lot of things you have to get used to with a drip system," Larson said. "For example, you have to decide what type of drip tape to use, what type of emitters to use and what your flow rate should be."

But the benefits are worth the investment in time and money, Larson added.

"You use about half the water and half the fertilizer you would use in a furrow irrigation setup," Larson said. "If you operate a drip irrigation system properly, the moisture and fertilizer you introduce to the soil never leaves the root zone. All of it is used by the plant."

Studies of drip irrigation on onions are continuing at the Malheur Experiment Station. The station also is looking at drip irrigation on potatoes and alfalfa grown for seed.

The Fight's Continuing with Livestock Disease

Pile of diseased cows.

In February, officials in northern England prepare to incinerate cattle and pigs believed to have been infected with foot and mouth disease. Photo: Hulton/Archive

Voluntary precautions and common sense are the main weapons Oregon State University scientists are recommending to prevent the introduction of hoof and mouth disease to livestock at OSU research centers and experiment stations.

The highly contagious foot-and-mouth virus causes a high fever and debilitating ulcers on the mouth and feet of cattle, sheep, pigs and other cloven-hoofed animals.

The painful ulcers prevent the animals from eating. Dairy cattle stop producing milk; cattle rapidly lose weight and pregnant animals suffer spontaneous abortions. Complete recovery can take weeks or longer.

Humans are not susceptible to the disease, but they can be carriers, as the media has reported regularly since an initial outbreak of the disease in Great Britain was first reported Feb. 19 in 27 pigs on a farm near London.

The outbreak prompted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals in the United Kingdom and Europe. Before that, the disease was present in the Middle East, South America and Asia. It has not been reported in the United States since a brief-lived outbreak in California in 1929.

With humans, the hardy foot and mouth virus can live on clothes, shoes and the like for weeks and survives even in the respiratory tract.

Foot and mouth disease is usually not fatal to the infected animals, but it is economically fatal to livestock farmers and ranchers, OSU experts say. In Oregon, for example, ranchers say an outbreak would devastate their $650 million industry.

Whether the United States can keep it out is uncertain.

"We must be on the alert for this disease in order to protect our livestock," said Don Hansen, OSU Extension Service veterinary specialist. "North America and Australia are the only inhabited continents on the planet free of this disease."

OSU students and faculty returning from vacation last spring were greeted with signs posted near livestock areas on campus: "BIOSECURITY NOTICE: No Admittance to this facility if you have been outside of the United States in the last 30 days."

"We’ve had people respect the signs so far," said James Males, head of OSU’s Department of Animal Sciences. "We are hoping our security holds."

Hansen said that in addition to the signs, "we are relying on common sense to guide the many OSU personnel who travel to and from Europe on academic and cultural business trips to not bring the bug back with them."

"I would hope they follow government recommendations for travelers returning from countries that have foot and mouth disease," he said. "That is, shower, wash their clothes, clean and disinfect their shoes before they come back, then shower and disinfect again after they arrive in the U.S."

"We’re asking that no one have direct contact with our animals if they have been in rural areas of the U.K. or Europe within the last 10 days," he added.

Andrew Clark of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, state veterinarian, said any report of a suspected outbreak would prompt the immediate dispatch of a specially trained team of veterinarians with expertise in handling outbreaks of animal diseases.