Nine years ago, a tiny orange bug quietly entered northwestern Montana and began demolishing spring wheat yields. The orange blossom wheat midge has cost spring wheat farmers millions of dollars in lost yields and ineffective control efforts.
By 2007, most producers stopped growing spring wheat and turned to agricultural scientists at the Northwestern Agricultural Research Center, part of the Montana State University (MSU) Agricultural Experiment Station, for help. Two years later, the midge was spread across the state. Extension agents trained farmers in the biology of the midge, how to track it, what insecticide was effective and when and when not to spray.
Seeking a long-term solution, MSU spring wheat breeder Luther Talbert got ahold of the only gene in the world resistant to the midge—SM1. Nine years of plant breeding and research later, his work has come to fruition. Egan, a spring wheat variety containing the SM1 gene, is now available to farmers.
Named after the Egan slough in the Flathead where the midge was so prevalent, the variety has high grain protein, strong yield potential and is resistant to stripe-rust. However, Egan is a little taller than typical varieties grown under irrigation in the Flathead Valley, so lodging might occur under very high yield levels, Talbert says.
Because Egan is so potent to the midge, Canadian and MSU entomologists suggested it be blended with 10% of a non-resistant variety to prevent the midge from developing resistance.
“This gene works so well that it kills nearly every single midge,” Talbert says. “But those very few that survive might have a resistance to SM1. As their generations progress, you’ll end up with significant, resistant populations that won’t be stopped by Egan.”
Purchasing the blend comes with a Certified Seed Only acknowledgement, binding farmers to buy certified seed year after year.
“In a way, producers are sacrificing a small portion of their crop so we never allow a significant population of resistant midges to develop,” Talbert explains. “We’re using nature’s greatest tools against itself—a natural form of resistance.”