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Improving Wheat is Core of University Programme

27 February 2013

US - The wheat growing in the Great Plains today might look about the same as the wheat grandpa used to grow 50 years ago. But more than likely, it is an entirely different wheat variety.

Thanks to wheat breeding programs like the one at Kansas State University, producers have ever-improving options of wheat varieties to plant. Whether it’s improved resistance or increased yields, wheat breeders are creating varieties that meet producers’ changing needs.

“We spend a lot of time chasing the next rust resistance,” said Allan Fritz, wheat breeder at K-State. In a matter of a few years, a variety’s resistance that took so many years to breed begins to fade, and a new variety takes its place, he said.

Wheat breeding is partially responsible for yields more than doubling since the first Kansas wheat crop was planted in Johnson County in 1839. The varieties being planted were mostly from Europe or the eastern United States, and not suitable to Kansas conditions and environment.

While spring wheat dominated in earlier times, the delayed maturity left it vulnerable to rust diseases and the hot, dry conditions of Kansas summers. Yields remained low, averaging less than 20 bushels per acre, until the early 1900s when the K-State breeding program began gaining momentum.

Since then, K-State has released 42 wheat varieties, each a step forward in some capacity over previous varieties.

“The data now suggest that we’re making about a one percent per year gain in yield,” Fritz said. “At the same time, I think we’ve been improving not just the quality, but the stability of quality across environments.”

This improvement is important to Fritz, who wants producers to understand their money is being well spent. The primary sources of funding for the wheat breeding program are provided by checkoff funds from the Kansas Wheat Commission and royalty fees collected by the Kansas Wheat Alliance on K-State varieties. There is also some federal, state and private funding.

“I always say I work for K-State, but I also work for Kansas wheat farmers because they’re the ones funding a lot of what we’re doing,” Fritz said.

The latest wheat variety Fritz helped develop, called 1863 in honor of the year Kansas State University was founded, will be released this fall and coincides with the university’s 150th anniversary. The 1863 variety is a hard red winter wheat that Fritz expects to do well in the north central part of the state. He believes a large benefit of 1863 is its later maturity, compared to Everest, which is an early-maturing variety.

“One of the things 1863 brings to the table is it is a medium maturity variety,” he said. “So if we have a late spring freeze that comes through, producers can spread their risk a little bit.”

The new variety also has good resistance to soilborne mosaic virus, good soil acid tolerance and high baking quality traits, according to Fritz.

“We’re comfortable with the data that 1863 is very competitive on a yield basis,” Fritz said, “and just having different genetics out there in the field really spreads risk for producers.”

The 1863 variety should also be an improvement for millers and bakers on the post-harvest side of the wheat industry.

While growers want high yields and test weights, millers need large kernels that produce more flour and less bran and other byproducts. The baking industry’s needs are entirely dependent on the end product since different strengths of flour lend themselves best to different types of breads.

“Hard red winter wheat, which is what we mainly breed and grow here in Kansas, is mostly used for production of pan bread, or sandwich loaf bread,” said Becky Miller, director of the Wheat Quality Laboratory at K-State. “That’s what our wheats have been selected for.”

The baking industry needs a broad spectrum of wheat strengths from weak to average to strong, according to Miller. Having different strengths available allows millers to blend flours for specific end uses – a weaker flour for pizza crust or tortillas, or a stronger flour for products like French bread.

“In the past, we have had some very strong, excellent bread baking quality wheats,” Miller said. “Those varieties are no longer being widely grown; they’ve sort of aged out. And so our newer varieties have tended to fall more in the average range.”

But after testing 1863 in her wheat quality lab multiple times in recent years, Miller believes it promises higher-quality baking traits.

“1863 meets the quality needs of producers, millers and bakers,” she said, “while at the same time carrying on the tradition and quality of the K-State wheat breeding program.”

TheCropSite News Desk

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