Intercropping chickpea with flax: An alternative sustainable way to manage Ascochyta blight of Chickpea

Progress report for SW21-930

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $347,557.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2024
Host Institution Award ID: N/A MSU Internal
Grant Recipient: Montana State University
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Chengci Chen
Montana State University
Dr. Frankie crutcher
Montana State University-EARC
Dr. William Franck
Montana State University-EARC
Dr. Qasim Khan
Montana State University-SARC
Dr. Kevin McPhee
Montana State University-EARC
Dr. Kent McVay
Montana State University-SARC
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Project Information


Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) is the third most produced pulse crop after lentil and dry edible beans in the world. Montana leads the nation in pulse crop (pea, lentil, and chickpea) production. About 70% of nation’s total pulse is produced in Montana. Ascochyta blight, caused by the fungal pathogen Ascochyta rabiei, is the most damaging chickpea disease worldwide which can lead to severe economic losses due to reduced yield and quality. Fungicides are important for controlling Ascochyta blight; however integration of different strategies is essential for effectively managing this disease and delaying the development of resistance to fungicides. Furthermore, in some production systems, such as organic production, chemical fungicides are not allowed.

Intercropping of multiple species offers many benefits, among those is disease management. Montana ranks 4th in the nation for flax (Linum usiatissimum) production. Human consumption of flax seed is increasing rapidly for its high dietary fiber, omega 3 oils, and anti-carcinogenic lignin. We propose to intercrop flax with chickpea as an innovative solution to suppress Ascochyta blight disease in chickpea. We have hypothesized that chickpea intercropped with flax will prevent the spread of Ascochyta blight without affecting chickpea yield and quality.

This proposed research includes field studies at two MSU’s research farms and two farmer’s fields. We will test the health of chickpea seeds, evaluate the compatibility of chickpea cultivars with flax for intercropping, study seeding rate and row configurations, and investigate Ascochyta rabiei spores movement and disease development under sole and intercrops using the innovative spore traps and PCR technology. Finally, chickpea yield and economic analysis will be performed.  Expected outcomes include: 1) selection of chickpea cultivars that are compatible or competitive with flax; 2) demonstration of sustainable ways to manage Ascochyta blight in chickpeas, 3) reveal of the mechanism of Ascochyta blight suppression by intercropping, 4) reduction of chemical fungicide use by educating farmers to adopt intercropping techniques, 5) economic analysis of intercropping systems.

A multidisciplinary team consisting of agronomist, plant pathologist, Extension specialist, and farmers are involved in this project. One statewide Extension specialist is involved in this project to organize field days and workshops at MSU-EARC, SARC and on producer farms. Information will be delivered to producers and scientific committee through field tours, workshops, conference presentations, and publications.

This project will achieve WSARE’s goals to promote the good stewardship by reducing the amount of pesticide (fungicide) application, reducing the risk of crop failure, and increasing land use efficiency. The project will also enhance the quality of life of farmers through diversifying crop productions and increasing farm profitability by adopting intercropping. The health and safety of the farmers and consumers are also protected through the production of high quality and nutritional chickpea and flax. Intercropping for disease management will also prevent environmental contamination from pesticides and reduce the risk of developing fungicide resistant pathogens. 

Project Objectives:

The main goal of this project is to study, educate, and support Montana pulse growers to develop sustainable methods for managing Ascochyta blight disease in chickpea and improve land use efficiency through intercropping.

The specific objectives are:

  1. To select and test chickpea varieties and breeding lines for their compatibility or competitiveness with flax
  2. To study the effect of intercropping on disease severity and dispersal of Ascochyta rabiei
  3. To assess the economic benefits of intercropping compared to mono-culture of chickpea and flax.
  4. Educate growers through field days and workshops.

The project will start on October 1, 2021 and end on September 30, 2024. We will start to collect chickpea seeds and test the health of the seeds in the fall of 2021. We will also purchase materials and assemble the weather stations and sensors in the fall of 2021. Field experiments will start in the spring of 2022. The detailed timelines are listed in the following:

Objective Task Site 2021 2021 2022 2022 2022 2022 2023 2023 2023 2023 2024 2024 2024 2024
Obj. 1a Seed health test EARC                            
Obj.1b Compatibility test EARC                            
Obj. 1c

Intercropping configuration

Obj. 2a Spore collection and analysis EARC                            
Obj. 2b On-station disease spread study EARC                            
Obj. 2c Microclimate
Weather data on-farm Mavencam's                            
Obj. 2d On-station fungicide x intercropping  EARC                            
On-farm intercropping
Obj. 3 Economic analysis  EARC                            
Obj. 4 Education and publishing, EARC                            


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Gary Broyles - Producer
  • Karl Mavencamp - Producer
  • Cody Meidinger - Producer



It is hypothesized that intercropping flax between chickpea rows creates a barrier to reduce spore flow to chickpea plants by wind or raindrop splash. This may limit the in-season spread of disease across the field. 

Materials and methods:

Objective 1: Select and test chickpea varieties and breeding lines for their compatibility or competitiveness with flax

Objective 1a: Screen chickpea seeds for Ascochyta infestation

Before planting chickpea and flax together to screen their compatibility at EARC and SARC, each chickpea cultivar will need to be screened by a seed health assay. First, 600 seeds of each chickpea cultivar will be sterilized in a 1% chlorine solution for 10 min, and then rinsed with sterile water. The seeds will then be air-dried in a biological cabinet for 30 min and plated on potato dextrose agar for 7 to 10 days with 10 seeds per plate. The plates will be examined for the presence of pathogens by viewing the colonies and fruiting bodies at 40X magnification. Finally, the percentage of Ascochyta contamination will be calculated as n/N*100, where n is the number of Ascochyta infected seeds and N is the total number of seeds tested.

Objective 1b: Test chickpea cultivars for compatibility with flax

Our preliminary studies have been conducted to test the complete mixed vs. alternate rows intercropping with different rates. In this proposed project, since flax and chickpea have different seed sizes and seeding depths, we’ll plant chickpea and flax in paired rows with a randomized complete block design with 4 replications.  Multiple commercial chickpea varieties commonly grown in Montana plus advanced breeding lines from Montana Pulse Breeding Program will be requested and grown alone and intercropped with a commonly grown flax cultivar in the field to assess their compatibility and yield potential.  Chickpea will be planted at a full recommended rate of 43 seeds per square meter at 5 cm depth with 23 cm row spacing. Flax will be planted at 50% of the 28kg/ha recommended seeding rate at 3cm depth and 7 cm from chickpea row. The plot size will be 1.5m x 6m. The emergence time and plant density will be measured after plant emergence. After plant establishment, five plants in each plot will be tagged to monitor plant growth and development biweekly including plant height, number of internodes, and number of branches on the main stem. A dual visual and infrared camera and a Green Seeker will be used to scan the crop canopy periodically to measure canopy structure and proportion of flax and chickpea canopy cover. At the seed filling stage, two rows by one meter long of above ground biomass will be cut by hand at the ground level to evaluate the biomass yield of chickpea and flax, and seed pods and seed number of chickpea. The plant vigor index of each cultivar will be calculated and competition be assessed. At harvest, chickpea and flax grains will be harvested by a plot combine and separated. The yield of each species will be determined, and competition will be assessed with competitive ratio after calculating the land equivalent ratio using following equations:

Chickpea LER = Chickpea yield (intercropped)/Chickpea yield (monocropped);

Flax LER= Flax yield (intercropped)/Flax yield (monocropped).

Objective 1c: Configure intercropping spatial distributions for yield and disease suppression

Completely mixed chickpea and flax with different seeding rates has been tested in our preliminary study. In this project, we’ll select two compatible chickpea cultivars to intercrop with one commonly grown flax cultivar at EARC and SARC. The experiment will be laid out as a randomized complete block design with 4 replications. The plot size will be 3m x 10m. The experimental treatments will include: 1) sole crop chickpea, 2) sole crop flax, 3) alternate rows planting chickpea (43 seeds/m2) at 28 cm row spacing with flax (30% recommended rate) planted between the chickpea rows, 4) alternate rows planting chickpea (43 seeds/m2) at 28 cm row spacing with flax (50% recommended rate) planted between the chickpea rows, 5) paired rows planting chickpea (43 seeds/m2) at 28 cm row spacing with flax (30% recommended rate) planted at 7 cm adjacent to the chickpea row, 6) paired rows planting chickpea (43 seeds/m2) at 28 cm row spacing with flax (50% recommended rate) planted at 7 cm adjacent to the chickpea row. These treatments will impose different degrees of competition levels from flax on chickpea. The plant growth, canopy development, and yield will be determined using the same methodologies as in Objective 1b. Disease incidence and severity will be evaluated using the methodology proposed in

Objective 2: Study the effect of intercropping on disease severity and dispersal of Ascochyta rabiei

Ascochyta rabiei has two primary methods of spore dispersal in the field. Ascospores from pseudothecia (a sexual round- or flask-shaped fruiting body) are produced on chickpea residue from the previous season and can travel by wind kilometers from the original source. These spores frequently serve as the primary inoculum for disease introduction into a field. Pycnidiospores from pycnidia (an asexual, flask-shaped fruiting body), produced both in chickpea residue and on diseased plant tissues, are spread short distances through water splashing. Pycnidiospore movement accounts for spread within a field and when weather conditions are ideal can result in large disease foci where there are complete crop losses.

Intercropping chickpea and flax has been found to lower disease within the field, however the mechanism for the decrease is still unknown. It has been hypothesized that this decrease may be caused by 1) reduction of long distance movement of ascospores across a field, 2) interruption of short distance movement of pycnidiospores within the canopy, or 3) a change in microclimate within the canopy which decreases disease severity and incidence. In the study described here, we will explore the effects of intercropping on these three variables as well as determine if fungicide use can be decreased in the intercropping system.  

We will conduct an on-station epidemiological study for two years (2022 and 2023) at two locations: the MSU Eastern and Southern Agricultural Research centers in Sidney and Huntley, MT. In addition, we will measure a subset of disease variables on two on-farm trials planted at Karl Mavencamp and Cody Meidinger’s farms in 2023 and 2024.

Based on our preliminary agronomic data, chickpea and flax planted in alternate rows perform better than when planted in a complete mixture; therefore we will plant chickpea both mono-cropped and intercropped with flax in the alternate row configuration. Furthermore, to minimize yield penalty to the chickpea crop, chickpea must be seeded >70% of the recommended sole crop seeding rate. Therefore, in this study we will plant chickpea at the recommended sole crop seeding rate with 28 cm row spacing at 5 cm seeding depth. The flax will be planted between the two chickpea rows at 50% of the recommended sole crop seeding rate, with a seeding depth of 2.5 cm.

For the on-station and on-farm studies, two kabuli type chickpea varieties (Ascochyta blight susceptible and relatively resistant) will be intercropped with one flax variety, with chickpea only plots serving as controls. The experimental design will be a randomized complete block design with 4 replications. Plots on-station will receive overhead irrigation according to standard practices to encourage disease development. Natural inoculum is abundant at the research sites, so no artificial inoculations will be used for this study. Each plot will be 12 m × 30 m. The experiments will be planted in April and harvested in early September each year.

Objective 2a. Determine if intercropping slows ascospore movement within a field by using spore traps to measure inoculum amounts over time.

Spore trapping has been used to quantify spore dispersal in many crop production systems. We intend to use a modified inexpensive spore trap from a previous published protocol (Quesada et. al. 2018) to measure Ascochyta rabiei spore movement within treatments.

Beginning at flowering, spore traps will be placed in plots 2 ft above the canopy both in on-farm and on-station trials to determine the amount of spore movement within the field. Spore collection slides will be exchanged 1-2 times per week for on-station trials and every two weeks for on-farm trials. Slides will be shipped to the EARC Plant Pathology laboratory in Sidney, MT for spore quantification. Spores will be removed from collection slides and DNA will be extracted using a glass bead disruption and a phenol chloroform method. DNA will be subjected to a real-time PCR reaction using the intergenic spacer (IGS) region specific to A. rabiei as the target amplicon (Akamatsu et al. 2012) and DNA quantified using a previously developed standard curve. In 2020, we tested these protocols in the field and were able to both capture and detect A. rabiei spores. We expect to see the treatment effect on amount of the spores collected and direction of movement after data analysis and mapping.

Objective 2b. Determine if intercropping reduces the movement of pycnidiospores within the canopy by measuring disease foci spread.

Ascochyta blight is usually first detected at early flowering. It typically appears as necrotic spots with rings of pycnidia that resemble a target. Over time these spots will coalesce, causing significant damage to the leaf and eventually infect the pods leading to seed infestation. Under ideal weather conditions, the pycnidia will exude spores which move by water splashing to adjacent plants. It is hypothesized that flax will form a barrier which limits movement of spores through the canopy.

To test this, we will measure disease movement within the canopy in the on-station experiments using a modified protocol (Kimber et al. 2007). At early flowering, plots will be scouted regularly and when disease is first detected, 3-4 potential disease foci per plot will be marked with a colored flag. The spread of disease from the primary focus will be recorded weekly for 5 weeks by counting the number of surrounding plants showing disease symptoms, both in row and across rows. Starting from the focus, infected plants will be counted within 1 m bands using a pivoting 8 m string with 1 m graduations. Spatial distribution of infected plants will also be recorded on a plot map.

Objective 2c. Understand changes in canopy microclimate between mono- and intercropping designs by measuring factors important for disease development; specifically humidity, temperature, and leaf wetness.

Environment plays an important role in the development of Ascochyta blight. Rapid disease development will occur at temperatures between 15-25°C and previous research has found that a relative humidity (RH) of above 86% was required for spore germination and penetration into the host tissue (Navas-Cortes et al. 1998). Additionally, temperature and humidity can have a significant effect on spore viability.

One hypothesis is that flax changes the microclimate of the chickpea canopy so that it is less than ideal for disease development. To address this, temperature/relative humidity sensors and leaf wetness sensors (Onset®) – two of each per plot - will be placed in on-station plots to measure canopy environmental variables over time. For both the on-farm and on-station experiments, sensors for measuring ambient temperature, humidity, rainfall, and wind speed/direction will also be included.

Objective 2d. Measure the impact of fungicide applications in both cropping systems on disease control and seed quality.

Fungicides are an important component of integrated pest management of Ascochyta blight. When environmental conditions are right, multiple fungicide applications are needed to control disease. We hypothesize that intercropping will both decrease the amount of disease in a field and decrease the number of required fungicide applications.

To address this, each on-station 12 x 30 m plot will be subdivided into three 12 x 10 m sections which receive different fungicide treatments. We will include a no fungicide, a minimum spray, and a standard spray treatment. The number of sprays will be dependent on weather and common practices. Because of previously identified pathogen resistance, modes of action will be rotated.

On-farm studies will have a similar design, except the fungicide applications for disease management will be determined by the farmer in order to secure their participation. It is anticipated that after the first year of the on-station fungicide study that the cooperating farmers may be willing to use a lower fungicide application number. Twice during the season, plots will be evaluated for disease by rating individual plants in the field by the same methods listed below.

For foliar disease, trials will be evaluated for Ascochyta blight beginning at early flowering and every two weeks thereafter for approximately eight weeks. Fifty plants per section will be rated for percent of plant tissue covered with disease (percent severity). Incidence will be calculated as the percent of plants showing disease symptoms. Later in the season after pod development, disease symptoms on pods will be rated on a modified 0-5 scale (Roger and Tivoli, 1996). After harvest, seed will be evaluated for A. rabiei infestation using the seed health assay described in Objective 1a.

Research results and discussion:

A preliminary chickpea-flax compatibility/competition study was conducted in 2021.  In the fall 2021 and spring 2022, we have concentrated on preparing for the first field season in 2022. We have finished the design for our spore traps and have finished their construction. We also validated the primers that will be used for detection of Ascochyta rabiei. We have purchased our weather equipment and new boom for fungicide applications of the larger plots. We will be working to calibrate them and construct them for use before May 1st. We have also obtained and treated seed for 2022 field study. Two graduate students have been recruited to work on the project. The PI and co-PI have made pulse growers aware of this WSARE project and will work with the cooperators for on-farm demonstrations.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

For educating farmers, the statewide Extension specialist, Dr. McVay will collaborate with the local extension agents to organize field days and workshops.

One field day per year will be organized at MSU-EARC (Drs. Chen, Crutcher, and Franck) and MSU-SARC (Drs. McVay and Khan). Regional growers will be invited to visit the experimental plots. The research teams and cooperating growers will present the research results and share experience of intercropping to the audience.

Two on-farm trials will be conducted on Mavencamp’s and Meidinger’s farms. One on-farm tour per location will be organized each year. Dr. McVay will work with the cooperating growers and the local county extension agents to organize the field tours. Regional producers will be invited to visit the on-farm trial. The research teams and the cooperating producers will present the results to the audience during the tours. The cooperating growers will also share their successes and challenges with their fellow producers in practicing intercropping chickpea with flax.             

The USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council and Northern Pulse Grower normally organize one grower’s meeting in Montana (Montana Pulse Day) and one in North Dakota (Northern Pulse Growers Annual Conference) each year. The research team will present our intercropping results in these events every year during the project period. The USA Drypea and Lentil Council and Northern Pulse Growers Association will work with the our research team to advertise and educate the growers in the Northern Great Plains and beyond.

MSU Eastern and Southern Agricultural Research Centers have an Advisory Board consisting of growers, industrial representatives, and extension agents. The research team will educate the advisory board members during the board meeting each year and ask for advise from the board members.

We will develop a pre and post project survey in collaboration with the MSU Department of Political Science HELPS Lab to quantify the impact of our efforts with chickpea growers in Montana. The survey questionnaire will be distributed through our network of MSU county Extension agents in winter meetings of 2021 with a follow-up survey to be conducted in 2023.

We will also distribute a standard Western Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program Outreach Survey at EARC field days, SARC field days, on-farm crop tours, Montana Pulse Days, and Northern Pulse Growers Association annual conferences mentioned above. The results will be used to help the team understand what further information and training will be needed for adoption of best management practices for Ascochyta management in chickpea production. 

The research team will also present the research results at national scientific conferences, such as American Society of Agronomy and American Phytopathological Society annual meetings. We will also publish Extension publications and fact sheet to be delivered to growers in paper and electronic forms. Annual reports will be published on EARC and SARC websites. During the project period, we will also publish journal articles to share our results with scientific communities. At least one intercropping workshop will be organized by Dr. McVay during the project period. The MSU-EARC, NDSU, and USDA-Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory organize a Research Summit each year for growers from Montana-Dakota area. Regional growers and researchers will be invited to attend the Research Summit and our research team members will present our research results to the growers and conduct a survey for their knowledge and adoption of this alternate cropping system.

Educational & Outreach Activities

3 Consultations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days
1 Other educational activities: Survey stakeholders online and during the Montana Pulse Day.

Participation Summary:

150 Farmers
30 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

The PI and Co-PIs of this project presented our project to the audience consisting of pulse growers, industrial representative, and agricultural professionals at the Montana Pulse Day in Great Falls, MT on November 9-10th, 2021. The conference was organized by the Northern Pulse Growers Association representing pulse crop growers in Montana and North Dakota. During the conference, a survey questionnaire regarding intercropping chickpea with flax or with other crops were distributed to the audience. At the meantime, the survey was also made available to the stakeholders online. In addition to the hand-out questionnaire, people can conduct the survey through their smart phone or computer. We received 76 responses from the online survey and 15 responses from the hand-out questionnaire during the Montana Pulse Day conference. The information from the survey is very useful for the project team to design the study and educate growers. About 45% of the growers responded to the survey have grown chickpea in the past and 23% growers are considering to grow chickpea. About 59% of the chickpea growers have seen Ascochyta in their chickpea field and 66% of growers are concerned about this disease becoming established in their field, indicting the importance of managing this disease.

The Eastern Agricultural Research Center and the Southern Agricultural Research Center each held a field day in July, 2021. The PI and co-PIs presented this intercropping project to the audience during the field days.  

The PI of this project also interviewed with the local media about the intercropping chickpea-flax project and an article was published in local newspaper. The PI and co-PIs also participated in a regional intercropping forum in 2021. 

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Intercropping chickpea with flax for Ascochyta blight management.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.