Wheat is second on the list of the 10 most important crops in the world, just after corn. Wheat covers more of the earth than any other crop with global production topping 650 million tonnes annually.
Even so, wheat demand is growing at about double the rate of wheat productivity, says Marcus Weidler, head of seeds for Bayer in Canada. “We need significant investment in wheat improvements now to address the growing world population.”
With this challenge in mind, Bayer officially opened its new wheat breeding centre in June, 2016. The new $24 million facility, located near Pike Lake, south of Saskatoon, is part of a $1.9 billion investment over 10 years in global wheat breeding. It’s one of seven research stations in Bayer’s global network that will offer farmers locally adapted seed.
Bayer is currently the market leader when it comes to crop protection in cereals, especially wheat, says Weidler. “We would like to offer our customers, our growers, a more complete solution.” And that’s something the company hopes to achieve through the development of new wheat varieties.
Unlike traditional wheat breeding programs, Bayer plans to release hybrid wheat seed. Hybrids are the offspring of two genetically distinct lines, explains David Bonnett, head of Bayer’s hybrid wheat breeding efforts in North America.
It’s a more complex way to breed wheat, he adds. There’s the biological challenge of developing a female line that doesn’t produce pollen along with developing a pollen producing male line. And that pollen must travel far enough to fertilize the female line.
There’s also the question of sourcing germplasm — living tissue from which new plants can be grown — given that wheat is developed through inbreeding. “With available global germplasm resources and the technology we have, we’ve been able to identify a lot of those important lines and bring them together into adapted wheat for this region,” says Bonnett.
Focusing on hybrids boosts yield and increases yield stability across environments, he adds. And hybrid wheat shows substantial increases in vigour, a big advantage given the short growing season in western Canada.
Wheat breeders will also be able to develop new varieties in less time in a hybrid program, Weidler says, adding that with current line breeding programs, breeders have to put everything into one line, and that line has to be stable. “With hybrids you can have two lines, bring them together and test what comes out.”
In Saskatchewan, wheat breeders are already working on new hybrid spring wheat varieties. Researchers first make the crosses in Bayer’s greenhouse, located at Innovation Place in Saskatoon, says Tom Zatorski, wheat breeder. The material is then moved to the field, where researchers assess the plants and increase seed. This year, he says, Bayer has about 6,000 plots on site, and 44,000 head rows.
When developing new hybrids, yield isn’t the only criteria breeders look at — plants must be able to withstand diseases such as fusarium head blight, leaf spotting pathogens and rusts.
Technicians in Bayer’s quality lab also ensure that the hybrids have good enduse characteristics. Rhett Kaufman, a wheat quality manager based in Lincoln, Nebraska, says that staff in Saskatoon will be analyzing material early on to make sure it meets a range of criteria, such as protein specs, loaf volume and gluten strength.
Kaufman expects to test thousand of samples a year between the quality labs at Pike Lake and Nebraska. The idea is to cull any lines that don’t meet quality specs before yield testing for potential parental lines, he explains. Bayer aims to develop varieties that fit into Canada’s CPS and CWRS classes.
Details still need to be worked out on seed production and distribution, Weidler says. The company will be working with seed growers across the prairies to produce the hybrid seed needed every year.
“It will have similarities to the InVigor model, but there will also be some aspects that will be distinct and different.” says Weilder, adding that Bayer sells about 1.1 million bags of InVigor each year and that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the sales volume expected with hybrid wheat seed.
So when can Canadian growers look for hybrid spring wheat varieties from Bayer? Bonnett says the company expects to have a marketable hybrid within eight years.