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Dry-land winter wheat is shriveling under a merciless July sun, but spring wheat helped by June rains is coming long.

Those crops, along with barley, corn and sugar beets, at the Montana State University Southern Agriculture Research Center reflect crops grown at many local farms.

“It’s going to be a rough year for winter-wheat production,” says Ken Kephart, superintendent of the center near Huntley.

But the experiment station also has a few not-so-common plants, including plots of lentils, a pea that grows its own chicken-wire-like support and dry-land soy beans.

Experiment stations around the state are on the cutting edge of agricultural research. And, many hope, the stations will lead the effort to pump up the state’s economy.

“Agriculture is the number one industry in the state, and we want to make it stronger,” says Sharron Quisenberry, dean and director of the College of Agriculture and Montana Agricultural Experiment Stations.

Montana has seven agricultural research centers at Huntley, Sidney, Moccasin, Havre, Conrad, Corvallis and Kalispell in addition to the main station at Montana State University in Bozeman. A Livestock and Research Center in Miles City is run cooperatively with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The number of experiment stations in a state as large as Montana isn’t unusual, Quisenberry says.

Idaho has five or six stations.

Each Montana experiment station is in a distinctive geographical zone, allowing scientists to look how crops will fare in different parts of the state.VICTOR ADY/Gazette staff illustration Funding for the stations comes from different sources:48 percent from grants and contracts. Some private companies contract with experiment stations to validate research as an unbiased source.

7 percent federal funds.

32 percent from the state.The rest comes from miscellaneous sources such as interest and the sale of commodities grown at the centers.

The program’s total operating budget is $13 million for the fiscal year that started July 1 and will be $14 million for next fiscal year, Quisenberry says.

The 2001 Legislature also was asked for $6 million for capital improvements at several experiment stations that were beyond the regular building and operating budget. Legislators approved $1 million on the condition that a matching amount was raised through private and other sources.

Quisenberry has been talking with several sources, and she expects to have the matching funds by early next year. She couldn’t comment yet on who those sources are.

Because the Huntley station topped the priority list for capital improvements, it will receive $1.2 million out of the $2 million total that includes $1 million state funds plus $1 million in matching funds.

The remaining amount will go to new buildings and repairs at centers at Moccasin, Havre, Kalispell and Sidney.

Although the experiment stations only got one-sixth of what they asked for, “it’s a good start,” Quisenberry says.

The Huntley station’s priorities in order of their importance are: a new office and dry lab building; a new shop and machine-storage shed; and a new weed-science lab and chemical-storage building.

Kephart’s

JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette staff A monitor measures the temperature and humidity in the crown of sugar beets. The information is used to detect cercospora leaf spot and help local farmers spray for the disease more efficiently.

current office is in a rented trailer on the grounds. The center now has a small dry lab to process grain samples, but a cleaner, less-dusty lab is needed. There is no wet lab for procedures using chemicals. Existing sheds are too small to bring in larger equipment for repairs.

The Huntley center had originally requested $1.4 million for capital improvements. Because the station didn’t get the full amount requested, several things, including a greenhouse, will have to wait.

But Kephart isn’t complaining.

“The Legislature treated us well,” he says.

Legislators also gave the Huntley station a slight increase in its operating budget that has helped offset the increase in energy costs.

During hearings on the appropriations, the support of farmers and Rep. Monica Lindeen, D-Huntley, were a major factor in getting the appropriation through, he says.

In recent years, experiment stations have increased its focus on adding value to Montana agriculture products — such as processing raw products in some way or taking them in the next step toward the consumer — to keep more money in the state.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to do that,” Quisenberry says.

One example is backgrounding animals. Instead of shipping weaned calves to an out-of-state facility to be fattened up, they could be kept in Montana longer to feed and vaccinate them. Illness and mortality of the calves would drop so they could be sold for a higher profits and that money would stay in the state.

The Huntley center is contributing to that effort by conducting experiments on raising high-protein, dry-land soybeans, which might be a good background feed, Kephart says.

Experiment stations will continue research in traditional commodity crops such as wheat, corn and barley. Although their prices are down now, they will come back. Those crops will remain an important part of Montana agriculture, Kephart says.

But bio-based products — plants that can be turned into fuels, lubricants, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals — also will grow in importance.

Some future research will be driven by market demand for those products.

“We need to grow crops and develop markets for them,” Kephart says.Mary Pickett can be reached at 657-1262 or at mpickett@billingsgazette.com.

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