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MSU student develops learning tool to help manage wheat streak mosaic virus

MSU student develops learning tool to help manage wheat streak mosaic virus


Uta McKelvy. MSU Photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez

While studying to earn her Ph.D. at Montana State University, Uta McKelvy looked at wheat streak mosaic virus and the toll it can take on producers. As a result of her research and in collaboration with MSU researchers, Mary Burrows, Tim Seipel and Robert Peterson, McKelvy has developed an online learning tool that can help growers assess their potential risk for the detrimental disease of wheat and other small grains.  

Born, raised and educated through a master’s degree in her home country of Germany, a series of serendipitous life events led McKelvy to MSU. A passion for plant sciences and a dedication to learn more ultimately funneled McKelvy to have Extension plant pathologist, Mary Burrows, as her advisor.

McKelvy joined MSU and started her program in 2016. During the summer of 2016, there was a severe wheat streak epidemic in the state and McKelvy accompanied Burrows on several emergency field days to northern Montana. She remembers the epidemic being so bad that wheat fields in May where turned entirely yellow by the virus.

“This epidemic year showed us how devastating wheat streak mosaic virus can be for wheat growers in the state,” McKelvy said.

Wheat streak mosaic virus is not anything novel. In fact, it is quite the opposite, having been known and studied in the U.S. for a century. McKelvy and her colleagues soon picked up that it was not a lack of knowledge about the disease, but more likely an over-stimulation of heavy, scientific information that was leaving growers overwhelmed and unsure exactly what to do about it.

Being that it is a viral disease, and a complex one at that, once a plant is infected with wheat streak mosaic virus there is nothing that can be done to cure it. Anticipating the virus and ultimately preventing an infection is the only way to manage it.

“We realized this might be a challenge for growers in Montana, to anticipate when risk is high, and then prevent their crop from getting infected,” McKelvy stated.

McKelvy decided to focus her research on better understanding how management practices commonly applied to small grain production in Montana influenced the risk for wheat streak mosaic virus. Further, she wanted to develop a tool that would allow growers to input different variables associated with their small grain production, and from there, use the data to better decipher how different factors play into their risk of having wheat streak mosaic virus occur.

Assessment of Wheat Streak Mosaic Risk (AWaRE) was the major outcome of McKelvy’s research. The online learning tool consists of five questions pertaining to common production variables. To answer the questions, growers select the most fitting response from a drop-down window. There is a risk score associated with each response, so after all the questions have been answered, the numbers are tallied and an assessment of low, moderate or high risk for wheat streak mosaic disease is given.

McKelvy emphasized that wheat streak mosaic virus is very sporadic in Montana and as luck would have it, the years following the state’s 2016 epidemic were dry and therefore not conducive for the disease. As a result, she was not able to get as much quantitative data for this program as would have been ideal.

“The tool is qualitative and that is why we call it a ‘learning tool.’ It is not that the factors we included in the tool aren’t true, but it’s just that we couldn’t exactly quantify their relative contribution to disease occurrence,” she added.

Initial feedback from growers who have used AWaRe has been positive, and just as importantly, working on this tool and developing it right alongside Montana growers has made McKelvy realize just how much she loves working in Extension. She is quick to point out it takes a village to raise a Ph.D. student and without her advisor, research colleagues and the generous Montana producers who allowed her to do research on their land, none of this would have been possible.

In addition to becoming a research assistant professor at MSU since graduating with her doctorate degree last fall, McKelvy is also now an associate Extension specialist. Going forward, McKelvy plans to keep working on issues that directly affect Montana growers.

“For me, research just becomes way more fun and important when I actually have a specific audience that I feel my work will benefit,” she said.

Growers wanting to know more about wheat streak mosaic virus are encouraged to check out the MontGuide written on the subject. To have further questions answered, please feel free to email Uta McKelvy at

The AWaRE learning tool is free to anyone and can be found online through this link:

The Prairie Star Weekly Update

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