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Wheat Breeding Program Spurs Economic Development

09 April 2012

South Dakota State University Cooperative Extension Service

South Dakota State University’s wheat breeding program is at the heart of SDSU’s engine for statewide economic development. SDSU is one of only three institutions in the nation to have longterm breeding programs for both winter wheat and spring wheat.

Geographic conditions helped SDSU earn this distinction as South Dakota farmers generally plant winter wheat south of US Highway 14 and spring wheat north of the highway.

While its location helped spur both breeding programs at SDSU, they have earned their success through a long history of collaboration, innovation, and professionalism.

That success is reflected in the new state-of-the-art Seed Technology Laboratory on the northwest corner of the Innovation Campus, a long string of breeding success stories, and a tradition of farmers and industry collaborators looking to SDSU first when they need help.

“There’s not much we do as an island,” says Associate Professor Karl Glover, head of the breeding program for spring wheat.

Both Glover and his winter wheat counterpart, Associate Professor Bill Berzonsky, credit the help they receive from molecular biologist Jose Gonzalez, other faculty colleagues, and a cadre of talented graduate students.

“We’ve been very fortunate from a student standpoint,” Berzonsky says. “We’ve enjoyed the successful integration of research, training, and education of graduate students.” Industry partnerships are also a key factor. Bayer CropScience has signed a non-exclusive agreement for access to SDSU’s spring wheat germplasm. SDSU and Bayer CropScience have also partnered with Ducks Unlimited to expand winter cereal acres in the Prairie Pothole Region to support modern agriculture and benefit waterfowl habitat.

Berzonsky notes the success of the Monsanto Graduate Fellowship in Plant Breeding that has given the program an international flavor with doctoral students from Brazil, Bangladesh, Mexico, Africa, and the United States.

“They’re all working on wheat breeding and genetics,” Berzonsky says. “It affords us the opportunity to do the research and at the same time train the graduate students. They get that hands-on type of experience.”

That experience can be wide-ranging. In addition to working on new varieties of wheat seed, researchers also turn their attention to how the grain that grows from that seed is used.

Professor Padmanaban Krishnan, head of the food science program in the College of Education and Human Sciences, is collaborating on research to seek a better balance of grain protein and starch in tortillas.

“We’re developing a protocol for continually evaluating our breeding lines for those kinds of traits and qualities,” Berzonsky says.

Researching better wheat quality also means breeding plants that are resistant to diseases and insects. That task is made all the tougher by pests and diseases that may spring up quickly while the process for breeding one new line of seed may take from nine to eleven years.

Associate Professors Karl Glover and Bill Berzonsky lead the wheat breeding programs at SDSU, one of the few institutions in the nation to have both spring wheat and winter wheat breeding programs.

“Breeding is such a long-term process,” Berzonsky says. “You can’t shift your breeding approach on a dime.” For Glover, the main disease concerns for spring wheat are Fusarium head blight and bacterial leaf streak. Wheat stem sawfly is a concern in winter wheat, a pest that has SDSU researchers collaborating with their counterparts in North Dakota.

Berzonsky notes that there’s national concern about head blight as well as the threat of stem rust making its way to the United States from Africa.

“Everybody in the United States is concerned about stem rust,” Berzonsky says, adding that SDSU is part of a national initiative to fight the disease. As its part of the initiative, SDSU has shared germplasm with researchers for testing in Kenya.

Breeding wheat that’s resistant to disease or insects means more than a greater yield for farmers. A scab resistant variety of wheat helps producers get a higher quality test weight, but it also helps millers and bakers. “The fungus produces a toxin that millers and bakers absolutely lose money on in the production of flour,” Berzonsky says.

New, better-yielding wheat varieties have a profound impact on the economy in South Dakota and the region. Glover notes two recent spring wheat releases that produced, on average, an increase of 0.72 bushels per acre.

The increased income on roughly 1.5 million acres of spring wheat grown in South Dakota meant an additional $5.4 million for the state economy. Considering acres of these varieties grown in Minnesota and North Dakota, Glover estimates the overall economic impact at $10 million. “It’s generally the goal of plant breeding to make continuous improvements,” Glover says.

Those improvements are also a revenue source for the University as it collects a royalty from the sale of wheat seed. “A portion of those funds will come back to the University to help fund our research,” Berzonsky says.

With so much to be gained from better wheat varieties, it’s no wonder that the farming community plays close attention to what’s going on at SDSU. Glover and Berzonsky welcome their collaboration.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have the support of the South Dakota Wheat Commission,” Berzonsky says. “That’s a reflection of the producers in the state. It’s always gratifying to see the interest they have in our program.”

Wheat Breeders Must Think Long-term

Ambrose Bierce called patience a mild form of discomfort disguised as a virtue. If that’s true, wheat breeders must be really uncomfortable or extremely virtuous. Nothing happens fast in wheat breeding. SDSU’s 2011 spring wheat release, “Advance,” testing as SD4023, got its start in 2001.

“It took ten years for this one,” says Professor Karl Glover, “and often it can take eleven to develop a new cultivar.” He explains that the experimental lines have to be tested in the program for four to five years to make sure their performance characteristics are both useful and consistent from year to year. Then it takes at least three years of field observation throughout the state to make sure the qualities are repeatable and predictable.

“You always want to be in a position to produce the next variety,” says Associate Professor Bill Berzonsky. “I call it a pipeline. It’s critical to keep that pipeline flowing.” Once breeder seed is developed, there’s still a few miles left in the pipeline.

The culmination of seven or eight years of research may yield anywhere from a few pounds to ten bushels of breeder seed. That seed goes from the researcher to the South Dakota Foundation Seed Stocks Division on the SDSU campus.

A division of the South Dakota Crop Improvement Association, the mission of Foundation Seed is to significantly increase the amount of breeder seed. This is done through a labor-intensive process that includes closely monitoring fields and thoroughly cleaning all seed-handling machinery to ensure that the seed maintains its genetic purity.

“Seed expansion is what we do,” says Jack Ingemansen, manager of Foundation Seed. “Varietal purity—that’s the main reason we’re here.”

In two to three years, Foundation Seed may have 500 to 1,500 bushels of the breeder seed, depending on growing conditions. This seed is distributed to growers based on criteria set by the South Dakota Crop Improvement Association.

“We are the curators of those varieties when they’re released,” says Neal Foster, manager of the Crop Improvement Association, which has its offices in SDSU’s Seed Technology Laboratory.

The seeds are planted in fields with verifiable crop histories so that the new variety isn’t subject to carryover from a previous crop. The fields are physically inspected for noxious weeds and to make sure there’s enough separation between fields.

After eight years of breeding and another two or three years of work in the field, a new line of wheat seed is finally ready for release.

“It’s a long, meticulous process,” Foster says. “I don’t think the general public realizes the work that goes into it.”

April 2012

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