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New UI agronomist eyes water use

University of Idaho has a new agronomist with expertise in water-use efficiency at its Aberdeen Research and Extension Center.
John O’Connell

Capital Press

Published on December 4, 2014 12:56PM

John O'Connell/Capital Press
Xi Liang explains a test she's conducting in a greenhouse at University of Idaho's Aberdeen Research & Extension Center. Liang, a new UI agronomist in Aberdeen, is testing photosynthesis levels of leaves of potato plants infected with zebra chip disease for her colleague, Arash Rashed.

John O'Connell/Capital Press Xi Liang explains a test she's conducting in a greenhouse at University of Idaho's Aberdeen Research & Extension Center. Liang, a new UI agronomist in Aberdeen, is testing photosynthesis levels of leaves of potato plants infected with zebra chip disease for her colleague, Arash Rashed.

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ABERDEEN, Idaho — The new cropping systems agronomist at the University of Idaho’s Aberdeen Research & Extension Center is planning research projects to better understand how crops use water.

Xi Liang, 31, also brings expertise in plant physiology. She’s one of four faculty members the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has hired during the past year to serve Southern Idaho.

Liang will research the region’s major crops including wheat, barley, sugar beets, potatoes and beans.

Born in northeast China, she obtained her bachelor’s degree in rangeland management from Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University in Central China and completed a master’s degree in water management of turf grass at Beijing Forestry University. She finished a Ph.D. in crop physiology at the University of Florida in December of 2013 and spent the next seven months in a post-doctoral irrigation management position at the University of Georgia before starting her current position in September.

Liang has applied for Idaho Wheat Commission funding to test how different wheat cultivars respond to varying levels of water and nitrogen. She proposes to irrigate crops with volumes of 100 percent, 75 percent and 50 percent of water lost through soil moisture evaporation and evapotranspiration from plants. Based on her dissertation, conducted with sorghum, she hypothesizes growers may see a yield boost in certain wheat varieties at the 75 percent rate.

“The theory is a little bit of stress can improve root growth,” Liang said.

The project’s nitrogen component is important because stressed plants don’t take in as much nitrogen as fully watered plants.

“We can also use the data to do the regression and other analysis to see at (a certain) level of irrigation how much nitrogen is optimal,” Liang said.

Liang will soon collaborate with UI’s wheat breeder, Jianli Chen, to evaluate several wheat lines for drought tolerance. She’ll cut off irrigation for wheat at the heading stage, when reproductive growth occurs and plants are extremely sensitive to drought stress. Liang also hopes to do additional research involving cutting off water at different points of the season to determine how cultivars would respond to a range of water-shortage scenarios.

Liang will study the physiological mechanisms in plants that best correlate with drought tolerance to assist with breeding selections.

In Parma, Olga Walsh started in October as a new UI agronomist. Walsh was born in Russia and obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Oklahoma State University. She’s been working on cereal cropping systems for Montana State University for the past three years. Mike Thornton, who will supervise both new agronomists as chairman of UI’s Plant Science South Division, said Walsh specializes in remote sensing of crops, especially with unmanned aerial vehicles. Both new agronomists will soon be hiring technical staff.

UI also recently hired Chris Rogers as a new barley agronomist, helped by an Idaho Barley Commission endowment, and Yi Wang, who will fill a new potato storage physiology position in Kimberly next March.

“It’s just a sign that we’ve recovered a little bit from some of the budget cuts that occurred five to six years ago,” Thornton said.



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