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A Shot Of Rye: Breeding A Tougher Winter Wheat

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Canada’s top winter wheat breeder has been awarded a $600,000 grant to continue his work – even though he’s winding down his breeding program.

But University of Saskatchewan plant scientist Brian Fowler says new winter wheat cultivars from his breeding program will continue to appear for years to come. For example, a new cultivar named Moats (in honour of pioneering winter wheat supporter Lee Moats) will be going out to breeder seed growers this fall.

And Fowler won’t be leaving the scene, instead he’s shifting his energies to understanding winter hardiness in cereals, particularly wheat.

The grant – $200,000 per year for the next three years – comes from Ducks Unlimited Canada and Bayer Crop- Science, and was announced at the Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission AGM during the opening day of Crop Production Week in Saskatoon.

“This important funding shows DU Canada’s continued support in finding new and improved winter wheat varieties on the Prairies,” said Paul Thoroughgood, regional agrologist for Ducks Unlimited Canada.

The non-profit organization has funded Fowler’s winter wheat research since the early ‘90s, and over the years has seen him become a world leader in the field, said Thoroughgood.

Long history

Fowler’s varieties have occupied the majority of winter wheat acres on the Prairies for more than a decade.

He hopes his new research efforts into cold hardiness will also produce significant results.

“Improving our understanding of how plants adapt to cold and which genes are responsible will help future plant breeders develop more winter-hardy varieties,” said Fowler, a professor in the department of plant sciences.

Fowler added that a better understanding of cold hardiness is needed in order for research in the recently finished Genome Canada project, which looked at winter cereals such as wheat, rye, and barley, to move forward.

Cold tolerance in rye is well established, he said, but transferring those traits to wheat – even though they are closely related enough to hybridize into triticale – has been a major obstacle.

“Even when we use the most cold-tolerant rye mixed with winter wheat, we always end up with winter wheat cold tolerance,” he said.

It’s believed that somehow wheat genes suppressed the cold-tolerance abilities of rye genes when they are crossed over – even though other rye traits, such as hairy neck, are easily crossed. Fowler wants to more closely study the complex interactions of these genes, and then find a way around it. That won’t necessarily involve the kind of “silver bullet” genetic modification that raises hackles with green groups, however.

GM won’t work

Past experience shows that traditional GM techniques won’t work, said Fowler.

“I have no evidence that we’re going to be able to take a gene out of a fish that lives in the Arctic and put it into wheat and expect that we’re going to get cold hardiness,” said Fowler.

“If we could find out how rye adapts to cold, it could be that we could make adjustments in the wheat itself to amplify it, or turn down the ones that are preventing the full expression of the cold hardiness.”

That would be a key breakthrough. Producers who don’t grow winter wheat say poor winter-survival rates are one of their main reasons for not growing it – although experts say when recommended management practices are employed, the risk of winter kill on the Canadian Prairies is not much different than primary winter wheat growing areas of the United States.

More winter wheat acres would also please Ducks Unlimited Canada and Bayer CropScience.

“Investing in winter wheat is part of our efforts to make food production more sustainable in Prairie Canada,” said Paul Thiel, a spokesman for Bayer.

Winter wheat is good for birds and farmers, says Ducks Unlimited, citing increased profitability, increased yield, and earlier harvest for producers while creating a winter nesting habitat for wildlife. The organization says waterfowl that nest in winter wheat are 24 times more productive than those who nest in spring-sown cereals.


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