Plant pathology research at the Panhandle R&E Center |

Plant pathology research at the Panhandle R&E Center


After the founding of the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in 1910 (then referred to as Scottsbluff Experimental Substation), the first major topic of research here was crop rotation. These experiments resulted in several significant findings related to plant diseases and successful agricultural production in western Nebraska.

Using manure and cropping with alfalfa in rotation both were found to enhance the control of bacterial diseases of dry beans by removing infected plant residues and reducing economic losses from nematodes and other root rot diseases.

The potato became the first subject of plant-disease study in western Nebraska. The first studies focused on root diseases caused by Fusarium and Rhizoctonia, and proved to be very important and useful to the nascent industry. As a result of the crop rotation work, high-yielding varieties of potatoes with disease resistance were developed.

It was also determined that spindle tuber (viroid) and viruses were the cause of the degeneration or “running out” of production, and control measures for it were identified. A rotational system was also created that reduced the threat of scab, and a certified seed program was established in Nebraska that assisted in expanding markets for potatoes.


During the 1920s and early 1930s, University of Nebraska Plant Pathologist Robert Goss, based on campus in Lincoln, tried unsuccessfully to establish collaborative relationships with the investigators in Scottsbluff. At that time the superintendent in Scottsbluff, James Holden, was indifferent to working with UNL personnel as he visualized his role as a USDA, not university, employee. In fact, Goss became so frustrated that he conducted most of his experiments at the newly created Box Butte Experimental Farm near Alliance.

However, the leadership of Lionel Harris at Scottsbluff introduced a different perspective regarding the direction and relationships between the substation and the university. Harris was appointed superintendent in 1935, following Holden’s death the year before. He welcomed and promoted collaborative research with staff members from several departments in the College of Agriculture.

Harris was especially sensitive to the demand for a total research program that was relevant to the farmers and their production systems. He initiated and pursued maximum cooperation with Extension when it strongly emerged in the mid-1950s.

After 1935, projects at the substation involving both USDA and university personnel increased rapidly. For example, the department of plant pathology maintained a full-time position conducting research studies at the substation during the summers for more than 15 years (1944-60). This assignment was accorded to Max Schuster after his arrival in 1946, where he studied soilborne and virus diseases of potatoes, bacterial diseases of dry beans, corn stalk rots and sugar beet root diseases.

Some major accomplishments included finding a new disease of sugar beets caused by a nematode pathogen indigenous to western Nebraska, Nacobbus aberrans (false root-knot nematode), and rust on safflower. This was the first report of a rust infecting through the roots causing root and stem rots on seedlings.

Schuster also identified new color variants (orange and purple) of the bacterial wilt pathogen that are also unique to the Panhandle, and developed a forecasting system for potato late blight for predicting optimal times for making fungicide applications when needed.


The study of two diseases of wheat also provide examples of collaboration between Lincoln-based faculty and those stationed in Scottsbluff. These are the virus disease now known as wheat streak mosaic and root and crown rot, both of which we are still dealing with today. Bill Allington (Plant Pathology department head), Entomologist Bob Staples, and agronomist Charlie Fenster worked for many years on the epidemiology of wheat streak mosaic, and contributed significantly to formulating control measures for the disease.

Root and crown rot was a devastating disease for many years in western Nebraska, but is now managed by planting wheat at appropriate dates for different regions of the state. These recommendations, still in use today, are based largely on results of almost 20 years of research done by Charlie Fenster, Plant Pathologist Mike Boosalis, and Plant Pathologist John Weihing.

Eric Kerr was hired in 1967 as the first full-time extension plant pathologist at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center. Kerr’s research provided the sugar beet industry with guidelines for determining threshold levels of nematode populations required for economically utilizing nematocide treatments. He also studied nematode diseases of corn and the effects of pesticide carryover to other crops grown in a corn-dry bean-sugar beet rotation.

He assisted in the development of a forecasting system for Cercospora leaf spot control in sugar beets, along with Al Weiss (extension climatologist), and also collaborated routinely with Lincoln-based faculty for testing novel control measures for Rhizoctonia root rot in sugar beets, and white mold, rust, and bacterial diseases of dry beans.

Kerr retired in March 1998 and this position was filled in 1999 by Bob Harveson, who currently has responsibility for specialty crop diseases. His research has emphasized root diseases of sugar beets, bacterial diseases of dry beans and sunflower diseases. One of the major discoveries was Aphanomyces root rot serving as a major component of the root disease complex in sugar beets, with rhizomania, Rhizoctonia and Fusarium root rots, and others.

Harveson has also studied the re-emergence of bacterial wilt of dry beans and reported finding of another wilt pathogen color variant (pink) near Scottsbluff which has never been reported from any other location in the world. He has recently published a paper on the first research utilizing new copper-alternative chemicals for bacterial disease management in dry beans, as well as collaborating with the UNL’s bean breeder, Carlos Urrea, to develop locally adapted dry bean and chickpea cultivars with better disease resistance to both bacterial and fungal pathogens.

Lastly, in collaboration with Sam Markell (North Dakota State University) and Febina Mathew (South Dakota State University), mirrored sunflower research trials have been conducted in the three states that have quantified yield damage to due to Rhizopus head rot, and identified optimal time periods for proper usage of fungicides for managing rust and Phomopsis stem canker in the Great Plains. ❖

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