Increase in wheat varieties brings newfound optimism
A black swan of sorts flew into the wheat market in early 2008, as the industry faced an unprecedented mix of bad weather and tight stocks. Spring wheat briefly traded for nearly $25 per bushel.
"Very little grain actually moved at that price, but it got a lot of people’s attention," says Jim Anderson, professor of wheat breeding and genetics at the University of Minnesota.
Those exorbitant prices didn’t last, of course, but they didn’t revert to the $3 to $4 range from a decade ago, either. Since the second half of 2010, the new normal range has been closer to $6 to $8 per bushel.
The result—more players are in the game. Universities have stepped up their efforts, as have agribusinesses. For example, Monsanto Company acquired WestBred in 2009. European wheat breeding company Limagrain has made U.S. development a priority. Companies such as Bayer CropScience and Syngenta are developing their own lines of wheat hybrids.
For Anderson and other university wheat breeders, it means a bit more work, but he says they are up to the challenge. The University of Minnesota, for example, has put an emphasis on testing more lines at more locations.
Numbers in farmers’ favor. "Plant breeding is a numbers game. You may do 300 crosses, but only one or two of those will end up as a new variety," Anderson says.
He estimates four to six varieties from public and private sources are being released every year that are adapted for his production region alone.
While no variety is perfect, he says they like to focus on three primary attributes: yield potential, protein content and straw strength. However, researchers do perform quality assessments for many other factors, including disease resistance, heading date, plant height, preharvest sprouting resistance and more. Extensive testing ensures better varieties make it to market, Anderson says.
Wheat farmers, such as Kentucky’s Brandon Hunt, are optimistic about the influx of new varietal choices.
"Demand is good, so companies are putting wheat breeding back on the forefront," Hunt explains. "We’re always looking for new options that maximize productivity and have a good disease package."
Other factors have accelerated wheat breeding in recent years—and added interesting options that might soon be available, says Blake Vander Vorst, an agronomist for Ducks Unlimited.
Marker-assisted breeding has greatly accelerated the pace of research, and hybrid wheat might be the next big trend, Vander Vorst says. It will cost more, but the payoff could be 10% or more in improved yields.
"It will all come back to value," he says. "If companies can produce hybrids that outyield conventional varieties, growers will pay for that seed."