Stars align to put this row crop back in the spotlight
For the past 30 years or so, the U.S. wheat yield trend line has kept a slow-but-steady average annual gain of less than 1⁄2 bu. per acre. Although research traditionally favors corn and soybean advancements at the expense of wheat that might be about to change.
In 2012, an international team of scientists finished an initial sequencing of the wheat genome, allowing researchers to identify, categorize and record individual genes and gene-cluster locations. Although it’s considered a "rough map" so far, it is loaded with thousands of new points of interest for future studies.
We have to create genetic gains for wheat to be more competitive
Revitalized interest in wheat research and breeding began before 2012, adds Allan Fritz, professor of wheat breeding at Kansas State University.
"Private industry investment in wheat has increased dramatically over the last four years," he says. "In addition, there are some genetic tools available that have previously only been available in other crops."
One of those tools is the ability to perform genomic selection, Fritz explains. This system is dependent on a large set of DNA markers, which hold genetic information about yield, quality, maturity, disease resistance or some other desired benefit.
Scientists run these markers on early material to make predictions about a new variety’s performance. They now also use double haploid (DH) breeding techniques that can significantly accelerate the development cycle.
"This process takes about a year in wheat and is about 20 times less efficient than the corn DH system, but it’s better than nothing," Fritz says.
The ever-expanding research toolbox is a big appeal for more investment in wheat. The crop’s potential has never appeared so high, says Jeff Koscelny, wheat commercial lead at Monsanto Company.
"Overall, public and private enterprises alike realize there is a lot of value in wheat if we can make the genetic gains," he says. "We recognize we have to create those gains for wheat to be more competitive."
Rollie Sears, senior science and technology fellow at Syngenta, says DH technology is cutting variety development time from 10 to 12 years to six or seven years. This has allowed Syngenta to set its sights on developing commercially available hybrid wheat varieties in the U.S. and Canada.
"We’re applying the same principles we used in developing hybrid barley for Europe to develop hybrid wheat varieties for North America," Sears says. "Hybrid wheat can offer growers yield stability and consistent performance across fields with varying soil types and qualities. Our goal is to release the hybrid wheat varieties to growers by the end of the decade."
Wheat agribusinesses say they are digging in for the long haul.
"We see wheat as a long-term investment," says David Nicholson, head of research and development at Bayer CropScience. "It will take time to deliver products that will have a significant impact."
Koscelny concurs, noting that many companies have set their sights on an initiative by the National Association of Wheat Growers to boost wheat yields 20% by the year 2020.
"We should be able to see significant gains in the latter part of this decade," he says, "but it will take time to ramp up those gains."
You can e-mail Ben Potter at firstname.lastname@example.org.