Wheat gains major ground in research

In recent years, buoyed by growing worldwide demand for the cereal crop that provides the “staff of life” to millions of people, a growing world population and higher prices, wheat research has gained ground.

It still lags far behind the billions that have gone into corn and soybean research over the past three decades, but interest in wheat and other cereal grains is definitely picking up.

Kansas State University at Manhattan and its western Kansas research station at Hays continue more than a century of wheat breeding research in the public sector. K-State also has a growing number of collaborations with private companies to help advance the pace of wheat research.

Key Points

• Wheat research gains ground as food demand increases.

• Public, private research devoted to improved yields and traits.

• Research includes both GM and traditional breeding.


Private companies, in addition to the vibrant Syngenta program featured on this month’s cover of Kansas Farmer, are also making big investments in wheat research and wheat breeding programs, many of them aimed at finding the “hybrid vigor” that has long eluded researchers.

In the Great Plains, Syngenta AgriPro, Limagrain Cereal Seeds, Monsanto and Bayer CropScience are all researching winter wheat.

All have research plots in Kansas, and some have advanced to the point of having contract growers to establish foundation seed for new traditional varieties.

Hybrids are in the pipeline, and at least some of the companies are conducting advanced breeding researching on genetically modified, or GM, wheat.

DuPont Pioneer and the German company KWS have wheat breeding operations primarily in Indiana.

Limagrain Cereal Seeds will release LCS Mint next fall

Limagrain Cereal Seeds joined the U.S. wheat research world with the purchase of Trio Research two years ago.

Breeder Marla Hall and technician Brent Conrady focus on hard red winter wheat at the research station in Valley Center. Limagrain has three additional breeders working in other parts of the United States on every market class of wheat.

“I treat improvement of yield as my top priority,” Hall says. She focuses on traditional wheat breeding techniques and uses doubled haploids and marker-assisted technology to speed up the process. Limagrain Cereal Seeds will release a new hard red winter wheat variety, LCS Mint, for farmers to plant in fall 2013.

“We are excited about the performance of Mint in university trials last year and entered it in more trials this fall,” she says.

Hall says Mint performs well in acidic soil and is resistant to the stripe rust strain that took a toll on yields last year. It is also drought-tolerant, and has performed well in milling and baking quality tests, she says.

In Kansas State University trials in Ellis County, Mint yielded 71 bushels to the acre in 2012. In Pawnee County, hit hard by drought, yields were 25 bushels; and in Thomas County, yields came in at 64 bushels.

“We’re very excited about the potential,” Hall says. “In 2013, we will have it in trials in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and South Dakota, as well as repeating the trials in Kansas.”

In addition, LCS maintains the Trio lines released earlier by Trio founder and breeder Jim Wilson, who continued to work with Hall until his death in July. Wilson was a hybrid wheat breeder with a long history in the effort to bring hybrid wheat to commercialization.

Hall says Wilson’s experimental hybrid lines are being maintained at the Valley Center research station. She is awaiting direction from Groupe Limagrain, LCS’ parent, on whether a hybrid breeder will be hired to replace Wilson or whether the lines will be maintained and advanced through collaboration with LG Europe and Groupe Limagrain, which does have a hybrid research focus.

In addition to grain varieties, Hall is working to develop forage wheat and triticale for the livestock grazing market. “We had a small number of plots last year, around 10,” she says. “This year, I have 140 different entries in forage. About 80% of those are true triticales; the rest are hybrid winter wheat forage types.”

Hall recently returned from a trip to Australia, where she studied the breeding program of Limagrain’s partner there, AGT.


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FORAGE WHEAT: Marla Hall, wheat breeder for Limagrain Cereal Seeds, stands among the plots of forage wheat and triticale she is growing at the company’s Valley Center research station.

Monsanto leads industry in GM wheat research

Monsanto, which got back into wheat breeding and research three years ago with the purchase of Westbred, says its efforts are divided about half and half between traditional plant breeding and biotech efforts.

“We are not doing hybrid research,” says Monsanto’s global wheat technology lead, Claire CaJacob. “We are sticking to varietal research, using both traditional breeding and biotech research.”

CaJacob says Monsanto made the decision to get back into wheat after being approached by industry leaders and farmers who were worried about declining acres for the crop, as research brought improvement in corn and soybean yields, and made it possible for farmers in more regions of the country to grow those crops.

“We said, yes, we would consider getting back into wheat, but we wanted assurance that the industry was going to support the effort,” CaJacob says. “We got that assurance, and we moved ahead with the Westbred purchase.”

With the Westbred program, Monsanto added research facilities focused on all wheat classes in several parts of the country. The company has a soft red winter research station in Lafayette, Ind.; hard red winter wheat research near Wichita; hard red spring wheat breeding in Fargo, N.D.; hard red spring wheat breeding in Bozeman, Mont.; and durum wheat research in Yuma, Ariz.

Monsanto has spent the last three years steadily adding to the tools needed to speed up research and development. It has developed a wheat chipper to do faster genotyping, and uses gene marker technology.

The traditional breeding program is focused on developing disease resistance and durability of resistance traits. The biotech focus is on yield and withstanding stress, including drought.

In addition to its own laboratory operations, Monsanto collaborates with several university programs and is a partner in Heartland Plant Innovations in Manhattan.

“We also have collaboration with the breeding program at K-State, providing them access to some of our genotyping and chipping technology to use in the development of new varieties. In turn we have access to some of the varieties developed by K-State breeder Allan Fritz. We’ve provided funding for his lab, as well,” CaJacob says.

She says university collaboration is important because wheat advances have been strongly driven by university breeding groups, and farmers have supported those breeding programs for years.

Monsanto has collaborative breeding efforts with K-State, North Dakota State University and Virginia Tech to work with hard red winter wheat.

CaJacob says Monsanto is using biotech tools to help tackle the drought-tolerance trait because the genes that control a plant’s ability to tolerate dry conditions are very complex.

It will probably be a decade before biotech brings a new variety to market, she says, and about five to seven years for new traditionally developed varieties.

“It does take time, and that is why it is important to work on it now. If you wait to the point where development is critical, it will be too late,” CaJacob says.


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RENEWED RESEARCH: Monsanto wheat breeder Sid Perry talks about the company’s research efforts during a wheat tour in May.

Bayer CropScience sees significant market potential to research wheat worldwide

Investing in sustainable wheat production has never been more important, says Rick Turner, Bayer CropScience global market head for wheat and oilseeds.

“Wheat productivity is rising only 1% a year, while demand is rising twice as fast,” he says. “Cereals are considered to be one of the most significant crops for the food industry. To safeguard the supply of food for a growing world population, wheat production must be increased.”

In June, Bayer CropScience expanded its three-year collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization to include the Australian Grains Research and Development Corp. The partnership builds on the discovery by CSIRO of a gene technology that enables up to a 30% increase in wheat yield in glass-house trials.

Wheat is very sensitive to climatic change, Turner says. An increase in 1 degree centigrade will reduce yields by 10%. Large amounts of wheat were lost last year due to excessive heat in Europe. Ukraine, a strategically important wheat-growing area, predicts an 8 million-ton reduction compared to 2011 because of winterkill from the extreme cold.

Given the fact that wheat is grown on the largest acreage in the world — more than double the global soybean acreage — Bayer CropScience believes the market potential for wheat seed improvement to be significant, Turner says.

To advance its research efforts, Bayer CropScience has established collaborations around the world, including significant investment in the United States. The company has collaborations with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for access to wheat germplasm for the Great Plains; with South Dakota State University for access to spring wheat germplasm; and with Texas A&M University for the development of improved wheat varieties.

Worldwide partnerships and a global network of wheat breeding and testing stations covering all major wheat seed markets are also in place.

“The regional and global platforms enable exchange or results and best practices, and are located in the heart of major wheat markets worldwide. The latest addition to the company’s global network is the Wheat Breeding Station in Milly la Forêt, France,” Turner says.

Bayer CropScience expects its first new variety to be launched in Europe around 2015, and others will follow in major markets some years after that.

According to Bayer, the company has a global approach to raising productivity in wheat in major markets worldwide. The company says it prides itself on taking into account local specificities and needs in its breeding programs to meet the requirements of all its local markets.

Demand for wheat in the developing world is expected to increase 60% by 2050.

“Bayer CropScience wants to meet the need for sustainable solutions by increasing yields, increasing nutrient-use efficiency and making plants more tolerant to stressful growing conditions, such as drought or heat,” Turner says. “Wheat accounts for a fifth of humanity’s food. Ultimately, it’s the industry’s goal to feed a hungry planet and contribute to food security.”


This article published in the December, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.