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Hill and Furrow

Oats research at the Northwestern Research Center

In any given year oats are typically the first crop to emerge at the Northwestern Illinois Agricultural Research and Demonstration Center (NWIARDC) in Monmouth. Oats were planted in 2015 on April 1 and as of April 17 have between one and three leaves (Figures).

For the past 28 years, Dr. Fred Kolb has worked at the University of Illinois as a plant breeder focused on small grain crops including oats and wheat. As with any field crop breeding program, yield is the primary focus of his efforts. However, other traits such test weight (grain weight per unit volume) and genetic resistance to pathogens responsible for economic losses are also targeted.

Spring oats have recently experienced increased demand and popularity as they have been recommended as the ideal crop for inexperienced cover crop producers or those looking for a cold-tolerant cover crop species that will establish quickly, produce a lot of biomass and then terminate over the winter.

Disease resistance. In wheat, Dr. Kolb's program focuses on breeding varieties with resistance to Fusarium graminearum, the fungus that causes Fusarium head blight or 'scab'. In addition to causing yield loss, this fungus is also responsible for loss of grain quality through the production of harmful mycotoxins including deoxynivalenol, a mycotoxin more commonly known as 'vomitoxin'.

Another disease of focus in both his oat and wheat breeding program is barley yellow dwarf virus. More than 150 different grass species are hosts of this aphid-vectored virus. In both oats and wheat, this virus can reduce yield in several ways including through both reduced tillering and flowering.

Oat variety trials. As there are currently no known commercial oat breeding programs in the US, in recent years university plant breeders like Dr. Kolb have been responsible for the development and release of new oat cultivars. As part of his efforts to test his elite germplasm against currently cultivated oat varieties, Dr. Kolb includes approximately 35 of his experimental breeding lines in the oats variety trials that he coordinates at three University of Illinois Research Centers, including the NWIARDC. Also included in these variety trials are approximately 20 cultivars that are currently available to farmers and were developed by Dr. Kolb and other public small grains breeders in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota.