Wheat researcher Scott Haley recently walked through a maze of carefully labeled seed packets in a Colorado State University workroom, knowing that amid the array there just might be a new variety that yields success for state wheat growers.
The cache represents more than 30,000 experimental varieties that Haley and his team have developed and will plant in 14 Colorado test plots in September in their ongoing hunt for wheat that thrives in the state’s harsh growing conditions.
“Plant breeding has been likened to a numbers game because genetics is all about probability,” said Haley, who leads the renowned CSU Wheat Breeding and Genetics Program. “From crosses with just a few varieties, you can develop millions of possible trait outcomes, and that’s what we do. We’re looking for the needle in the haystack that will perform well and become the new variety we release to farmers.”
Haley and his team released two such varieties of hard red winter wheat in August, following more than eight years of development and analysis. Research data suggest the varieties – called “Byrd” and “Brawl CL Plus” – have the capacity to produce higher yields and excellent baking flour, even in the face of Colorado farming challenges, including drought, changing climactic conditions, and newly emergent insects and disease.
The CSU Wheat Breeding and Genetics Program is considered exemplary in research and farming circles for its fruitful 50-year partnership with Colorado wheat organizations – a partnership that has provided critical funding for university research while producing varieties that have helped to significantly boost wheat as a state commodity.
In 2010-11 alone, the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee and Colorado Wheat Research Foundation provided nearly $800,000 to support CSU wheat breeding and wheat-related research. The Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station provided about $1.6 million in state, federal and grant funds. In addition, CSU Extension supports the wheat program with specialists on campus and in statewide offices.
The result is clear: Colorado farmers plant nearly 2.5 million acres of winter wheat each year, and more than 65 percent of this acreage is planted in varieties developed at CSU, according to the Colorado Agricultural Statistics Service. In 2011, Colorado ranked fourth in the nation in winter wheat production, behind Kansas, Washington and Montana, the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee reported.
Indeed, wheat growers and officials dubbed wheat harvested in 2011 a “miracle crop,” due in large part to CSU wheat varieties that overcame a parched fall, winter and early spring.
“With the drought tolerance that CSU has bred into these varieties, they were able to hold on, and when we did get moisture this spring, it was amazing to see the yields around the state,” said Tom Neira, a Bennett wheat farmer and president of the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee.
That’s significant given the vital role of dryland wheat farming in rural communities stretching up and down Colorado’s Eastern Plains, and demand for wheat among both domestic and export markets.
“We have a phenomenal wheat-research program with CSU, and it’s getting stronger,” said Darrell Hanavan, executive director of the three organizations that make up Colorado Wheat. “There is a dynamic relationship between Colorado wheat producers and our land-grant university.”
Haley is almost giddy when he considers the potential for CSU’s two newest varieties. The Colorado Wheat Research Foundation now holds the ownership and marketing rights for Byrd and Brawl CL Plus, according to an agreement that also involves the CSU Research Foundation and the Colorado Seed Growers Association.
In field trials, Byrd has produced 10 percent higher yields than CSU’s popular Hatcher variety, which accounts for 35 percent of Colorado’s total wheat acreage because of its own high, stable yields.
“This is a blockbuster,” Hanavan said of Byrd. “It’s got a 10-percent yield advantage over the No. 1 variety in Colorado. That’s really significant.”
The variety is named for Byrd Curtis, who was CSU’s first wheat breeder and led the university program for five years beginning in 1963, before moving on to a distinguished international career.
“I am just overwhelmed. It is a great honor,” Curtis, of Fort Collins, recently said of the tribute. “I am amazed at the attributes of the variety, and I look forward to learning more about it. I hope it does well for farmers.”
Many wheat varieties grown in Colorado may be traced to those Curtis developed decades ago, Haley noted.
“In naming this variety for Byrd, I wanted to make a historical connection and highlight the importance of long-term funding for public wheat breeding. The CSU wheat-breeding program that Dr. Curtis started is going on its 50th year of continuing activity and productivity,” Haley said.
Brawl CL Plus, meantime, is notable for its tolerance to Beyond herbicide used to combat winter annual grassy weeds in wheat fields, particularly feral rye. “Brawl” alludes to a battle with rye, Haley said.
Among such tolerant varieties, known as Clearfield wheat, Brawl CL Plus is the first publicly developed winter wheat variety that carries a second gene for tolerance to the herbicide. The new varieties are not genetically modified.
For his part, Haley is now thinking about the next wheat variety that will make waves.
“Our biggest challenge is developing varieties that will endure the environmental stresses of growing in Colorado, and those stresses are constantly in flux,” said Haley, a professor in CSU’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences. “We’re also on a quest for higher-yielding varieties because we’ll have a global population of 9 billion people by 2050 and we need to produce more food. So we have to keep working.”