Natural-breeding techniques highlight CSU wheat program

Variety may be the spice of life, but for dryland wheat farmers it can also be their bread … and maybe even their butter, through crop-testing programs run by Colorado State University.

“What really makes our wheat program work is we’ve got one of the best breeders in the country,” said associate Prof. Jerry Johnson about his CSU colleague Scott Haley, who runs the university’s wheat breeding program. “He has created some varieties of wheat that are absolutely perfect for our state.”

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More four decades of the CSU Crops Testing Program show that the time-honored natural breeding techniques — as opposed to genetic modification — have an important place in today’s increasingly competitive agriculture economy. While Johnson’s program tests most of the major cash crops, wheat varieties are especially financially interesting because of the crop’s economic importance and reliance on dryland farming in Colorado.

CSU has created more than 35 improved wheat varieties since 1963. Today more than 60 percent of the state’s wheat crop is planted under these varieties, which marketed under the PlainsGold brand and have returned more than $2.6 million to research coffers from the small royalty collected on the seed.
Progress on developing and testing these varieties continues, each year providing farmers with improved information regarding what variety best performs under the vulgarities of farming, including drought, insects and disease.

Johnson said that each year’s testing provide some surprising results, including the PlainsGold variety Antero, a hard white wheat variety released in 2012, that ranked first in a three-year test under highly variant environmental conditions, such as the extreme drought in southern reaches of the state. While Antero showed only medium height and maturity, it had extremely good drought stress tolerance, good test weight and very good resistance to stripe rust (a rapidly emerging wheat disease).

“It’s been tested under a (extremely differentiated) environmental conditions and it has the highest yield,” Johnson said. The second ranking variety was also a PlainsGold variety, Byrd. This hard red wheat also has excellent drought-stress tolerance and milling and baking qualities, though relatively small kernels, compared to Antero.

“Most farmers will spread their risk, but the hard red varieties are most commonly marketed here,” Johnsons said. Hard white varieties, at this time, don’t have as much shipping and storage support.

Each variety in the Crops Testing Program for wheat is planted in about 45 small randomly selected test plots across the state, but CSU also supports more real-farming testing to buttress those results under the Collaborative On-Farm Testing (COFT) program. CSU varieties are tested alongside popular seed companies varieties in this program, but in larger strips more compatible to farming techniques, usually about a quarter-mile long and 50- to 60-feet wide.

Both programs test CSU-generated varieties alongside popular varieties provided by seed companies, with two-thirds of the tested seeds coming from commercial seed companies and the remaining third coming from CSU. Still the CSU varieties appear to provide the best results, and Johnson said that there are varieties that have also been bred to deal with difficult situations, such as quickly growing grasses that can decrease wheat production in spring months.

Planting with the Snowmass or Brawl CL Plus can allow for herbicides to be applied while minimizing damage to the wheat crop, Johnson said, and farmers can also get a premium from Ardent Mills (based on protein content) by planting the Snowmass variety.

To learn more about the different varieties tested and available, please visit