Wheat ranks third among U.S. field crops in planted acreage, production and gross farm receipts, behind corn and soybeans. However, production has dropped off in the past decade. USDA estimates farmers planted 46 million acres to wheat for the 2017/18 growing season, down from 50 million in 2016/17 and 63 million in 2008. In contrast, farmers planted more than 89 million acres each of corn and soybeans this spring.
Market fundamentals certainly influence crop mix, but steady gains in corn and soybean yields also have helped motivate farmers to plant those crops while gains in wheat yields have fallen behind.
A shortage of research funding for wheat breeding plays a key role in yield trends, says Steve Joehl, director of research and technology at the National Association of Wheat Growers. Private-sector seed companies account for the lion’s share of funding for corn and soybean research, while most funding for wheat projects comes from USDA or state wheat checkoff programs, Joehl says.
Two key barriers have limited progress in wheat-breeding research.
Wheat, like corn, is self-pollinating, but hybridization lags behind corn. Farmers potentially can plant saved or bin-run seed for years with minimal decline in yields, unlike corn, where farmers need to purchase certified F1 hybrid seed every season to capitalize on hybrid vigor and produce cost-effective yields. This makes it difficult for seed companies to justify the cost of developing new wheat varieties, Joehl says.
That could change in a few years as researchers develop systems for producing hybrid wheat seed, a more difficult task than producing hybrid corn, but possible. According to Texas A&M University wheat breeder Amir Ibrahim, breeders can cross inbred wheat lines to create pollen- or seed-producing plants that result in more resilient, higher-yielding hybrids.
Commercial wheat hybrids have seen limited use in Europe, and at least three seed companies have indicated they will launch commercial wheat hybrids by the early 2020s. Researchers believe lower seeding rates and higher yields will account for higher costs for hybrid wheat seed.
Joehl also notes wheat, almost exclusively a food crop in the U.S., experiences more scrutiny over genetic engineering than corn and soybeans, for example, which are used mostly for livestock feed. Resistance to GMOs in food crops has slowed progress in addressing production challenges such as grain quality, weed management, insect and disease resistance, cold and drought tolerance and yields, he adds.
Those pressures were evident when Monsanto developed a glyphosate-resistant GMO wheat variety several years ago. The company received FDA approval but withdrew its EPA application to market the seed in 2004 due to resistance from customers. The issue received more negative publicity in 2013, when testing confirmed the presence of the unapproved GMO variety in an Oregon field.
To break down the cost of using bin-run wheat seed, visit bit.ly/wheat-seed-selection