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Work rocks on black-eyed pea variety for dry growing areas

Texas AgriLife Research scientists hope a drought-resistant trait from a crossbred cowpea soon will be available to producers. So far results look promising.

Though commonly consumed as a food staple, the cowpea (commonly known as the black-eyed pea) has potential to expand into the feedstock sector in both livestock and crop systems, says B.B. Singh, a visiting professor in the soils and crop sciences department at Texas A&M University, College Station.

“Drought is one of the major constraints to agriculture across the world,” Singh says. “The breeders are trying to develop drought-resistant varieties. Screening for this in the field is very difficult. What we’ve done is bring the drought inside the greenhouse, and so far, we’ve seen some very favorable results.”

In a greenhouse at Texas A&M, Singh has been working with scientists to breed a drought-resistant cowpea.

This type of cowpea could be valuable as a food staple in the U.S., Asia, South America and Africa, where high temperatures and little rainfall dictate growing conditions.

Breeding a better pea

“We’ve been working on this with the goal of understanding the physiology of drought tolerance, so we can better breed for it,” says Dave Verbree, a doctoral student in plant breeding and physiology at Texas A&M. “We’re looking at how many genes are involved, and breeding drought-tolerant lines that combine only the best traits for a given environment.”

Verbree is using thermal imaging to help identify the superior genotypes that will be used in the crossbreeding experiments done through conventional methods of breeding.

Singh came to the department as a visiting professor after retiring three years ago from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Africa. He is working with colleagues Creighton Miller, D.C. Sheuring and Bill Payne, using field trials in College Station.

The team also is finding solutions to breeding cowpea varieties that are aphid-resistant in addition to drought-tolerant.

Inside the greenhouse, small boxes with about 4 inches of soil contain test lines of black-eyed peas that were planted last year in mid-November.

“Each were watered enough to germinate and grow,” Singh says. “After that, we don’t water them, and watch response of each line to drought over time.”

16 varieties tested

Some 16 varieties were planted on the same day, Singh notes. Fifty days later and without any watering, the resistant varieties remained green and fully alive, whereas susceptible ones were completely dead with brown leaves and dried stems.

“Our preliminary studies have shown one major gene for drought tolerance,” he says. “We’re trying to transfer that gene into the improved varieties found in Africa, Asia and the U.S. that have good healthful factors and are aphid-resistant. We hope these new varieties will have major impact improving food production in southern U.S., Africa, Asia and Brazil.”

Instead of having a “grazing cowpea” and a “food cowpea,” Singh envisions having an all-in-one cowpea where a producer can get both fodder and food.

Fannin is with Texas A&M Agricultural Communications, College Station.

This article published in the April, 2011 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.