UNL alternative crop breeding specialist begins duties in Panhandle
Looking for new dryland crops suitable to western Nebraska, while improving those already grown here, are among the priorities of Dr. Dipak Santra, the new alternative crop breeding specialist for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the Panhandle.
Santra, who started in November, says his overall goal is "to make dryland agriculture sustainable and more profitable through introduction, improvement and promotion of superior alternative crops in the farming system in western Nebraska and other parts of the northern High Plains."
His first priority is to figure out what needs to be done based on research conducted in the past at this center.
The first and most important research priority will be improvement of proso millet. "My vision is to establish a successful research program on proso breeding and genetics," he said. He is keen to develop biotechnology and genomic tools to complement traditional breeding methods in order to enhance cultivar development. Santra plans to work with the food-processing industry to expand millet markets through development and promotion of novel types of proso for unique use.
Another research priority is identifying and improving existing cereal and oil seed crops for traditional and organic farming. "I will continue working on wheat, the most important cereal in dryland agriculture in western Nebraska, in collaboration with on campus scientists at Lincoln and other universities in the region," he said.
A third research priority is to identify and improve new alternative crops, which have excellent potential for this region.
"My priority here is to identify and establish annual legumes that can be used as forage to supplement the cattle industry in the region, and which can sustain soil fertility," Santra said.
"Annual forage legumes will readily fit into the traditional cropping system," Santra said. Good quality forage will complement the cattle industry. And legumes can convert nitrogen from the air into nitrogen fertilizer, which remains stored in the soil for the next crop.
Since arriving in Nebraska, Santra has been busy attending conferences and workshops and making contacts in the local ag sector. He said western Nebraska's climate and dry, empty and bare landscape is completely different than where he lived in Washington and Iowa. But the people here have given him a warm welcome, he said.
Santra encourages people with views and interest in alternative crops in the region to visit him, call at 308-632-1244, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He replaces Dr. David Baltensperger, who left to become chairman of the Agronomy and Soils Department at Texas A & M University.
The India native came to western Nebraska from Washington State University, where he had been an assistant research professor and postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. He also was a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University, and served as a research associate in the Plant Molecular Biology Unit at the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune, India.
He received a Ph.D. in biotechnology in 1999 from the University of Pune, India, and Washington State University. His doctoral dissertation focused on applying biotechnology to improve blight resistance in chickpea. Santra earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture from Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswa Vidyalaya, India, 1989, and a master's degree in agricultural biotechnology from Assam Agricultural University, India, in 1992.
He said the most significant contributions of his past research are in the areas of disease resistant variety development in chickpea (garbanzo bean) and wheat. During his Ph.D. in India and Washington State University, he worked on chickpea to identify and map the genes for resistance to ascochyta blight and fusarium wilt, the two most important diseases of chickpea. He identified two major genes for ascochyta blight resistance and also developed molecular markers linked to the genes. Chickpea breeders can use these markers to transfer resistance genes easily and efficiently.
At Washington State he identified and localized a major gene for high-temperature adult plant (HTAP) resistance, and found DNA markers linked to the gene for wheat stripe rust, a devastating disease of wheat in the U.S. as well as worldwide. The most economic way to control the disease is to employ genetic resistance into wheat varieties, and Santra's research has contributed to the development of nine wheat varieties that will provide sources of genes for various disease and quality attributes.
Dr. Dipak Santra, alternative crops breeding specialist at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center, in his office at the Panhandle Center. (Courtesy photo.)