Traditionally, soft white spring wheat has been grown under irrigation in southern Alberta as milling wheat for flour for cakes, cookies and pastries. Over the past few years, though, there’s been a shift in the industry, as it has focused more on developing cereal varieties for general purposes, especially ethanol production.
“Soft white spring wheat fits very well because its lower protein and relatively higher starch content as compared to other cereals or wheat classes,” says Harpinder Randhawa, research scientist at the Lethbridge Research Centre. Furthermore, soft white spring wheat has a yield advantage of up to 15 per cent over hard red spring wheat varieties, so it is a good choice in the wheat market as well.
Randhawa, who has been at the centre for about two years, manages the soft white spring wheat breeding program. He is also involved in establishing a triticale breeding program for biorefining. While the breeding program will continue for traditional soft white spring varieties, research is now targeting the development soft white spring wheat varieties for wider adaptation areas, higher yield, early maturity and disease resistance.
Soft white spring wheat is typically exclusive to southern Alberta under irrigation, but new wheat varieties for biofuel purposes will be grown on dry land and as close as possible to the processing plants – hence, the need for varieties with the ability to adapt to new growing areas.
GENERAL PURPOSE CLASS
Another property researchers are selecting for is high starch content, as many of the new types of wheat will be used for the biofuel industry and livestock feed. These “industrial” varieties will fall under the Canadian Grain Commission’s newest wheat class, Canada Western General Purpose, which was created two years ago to meet the needs of the feed and industrial sectors.
AC Sadash, a new milling variety of soft white spring wheat will be available for farmers next year, is high yielding with superior end-use quality, with a better disease resistance package than AC Andrew. Randhawa says millers will prefer this variety but it can also be used for general purpose.
Some challenges remain the same for all breeding projects, including breeding for disease and pest resistance. Leaf rust, stem rust and stripe rust are some diseases of concern, as well as fusarium head blight, which is an emerging disease in Alberta.
The two major pests that breeders are battling are wheat stem sawfly and wheat midge. So far, breeders have been able to develop solid stem varieties to restrict wheat stem sawfly larvae movement. While wheat midge is more of an issue in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, breeders here are looking at ways to develop genetic resistance to the tiny pest.
“Plant breeding is always about building upon existing varieties,” says Randhawa. “There won’t be a silver bullet – that is, one variety that has everything.”
In order to work with two crops in one year, Randhawa and other spring wheat breeders in western Canada collaborate with a research centre in New Zealand. That way one crop can be planted in western Canada during the spring and summer and another one can be planted in New Zealand over the winter.