Mustang Seeds partners with DSU for unique ag research project

Dakota State University has launched a new research project in conjunction with Mustang Seeds — the first collaborative project between the two, according to Terry Schultz, CEO of Mustang Seeds.

“It’s kind of a first for Mustang Seeds, and it’s a first for DSU to do a project like this,” Schultz said in a phone interview earlier this week.

Andrew Sathoff, assistant professor of biology at DSU, will be conducting an alfalfa disease survey, focusing on Aphanomyces root rot. With information obtained through the survey, producers will be able to select the best variety of seed for their alfalfa fields.

“We’re excited that DSU has a researcher that wants to work in alfalfa research,” Schultz said. “The more information we can provide our area producers, the more efficient they can be on their farms.”

Sathoff is a recent addition to the DSU faculty, having joined last fall after completing his Ph.D. in plant pathology at the University of Minnesota. There, he did research in crop improvement and more or less fell into alfalfa research because that was the primary area of interest for his adviser, Deborah Samac, who is also a supervisory research geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

“It turned out to be a great crop to work with,” Sathoff said. “There’s a lot of work to be done and it’s an important crop, too.”

He said no one is currently doing research on alfalfa in South Dakota, although alfalfa is the third most valuable crop in the U.S., and South Dakota farmers rank second in the nation when it comes to the number of acres they plant.

“My developing research program will try to fill this void and help farmers produce high-quality alfalfa in South Dakota,” Sathoff said.

He explained that while alfalfa is not native to the area, it is a perennial which has adapted well to the climate. Too, it is a high source of protein, making it a good food source for beef and dairy cattle.

“A lot of people grow it in South Dakota for feed,” he noted.

One of the challenges that producers face is Aphanomyces root rot, which functions much like a fungus and will cover a wide area once established.

“It produces spores. They can stay viable in the soil for 10 years. Winter doesn’t kill it. It’s a tough pathogen to deal with,” Sathoff said.

He explained that Aphanomyces affects the plant at multiple stages of life, not only causing root rot in mature plants but also preventing seedlings from growing.

In order to determine whether the disease is found in the soil, Sathoff and a team including two DSU students will take samples from a field in which alfalfa is being grown or has been grown in recent years. Using growth chambers, they will then grow alfalfa under controlled conditions in that soil.

“You grow plants and see if the plants get sick. You use the plants as bait,” Sathoff explained.

DNA extracted from the plants will enable the researchers to determine what strain of Aphanomyces is found in a given area. This will, in turn, provide producers with information that could help them to make better seed choices.

“There are some chemical treatments, but your best approach is to plant disease-resistant seed,” Sathoff said. “If there is Aphanomyces in the soil, your yield could radically increase [with disease-resistant seed].”

Planting disease-resistant varieties will also increase the longevity of the alfalfa once it is established in a field, he indicated.

“One reason they lose productivity is they get infected by Aphanomyces,” he explained. “The plants won’t get infected if you use the resistant plants like that Mustang Seeds sells.”

With a grant of $16,000 from Mustang Seeds, this service will be provided free of charge to interested producers. Sathoff said they will be contacting farmers who have purchased alfalfa seed from Mustang Seeds as a starting point for conducting their research, but the research will not be limited to those producers.

“Right now, we’re just looking in the eastern part of the state, but we hope to sample a wide range of counties,” he indicated. “Ideally, we would go to the field and do the soil survey.”

Sathoff is pleased that DSU students Jenni Giles and Conner Tordsen will be assisting him with the project because they will be learning practical skills that could prepare them for future employment.

The current goal for the research project is to sample 50 fields in the area over the course of the summer. Producers interested in having their fields sampled can contact Sathoff by email at