Following is a roundup of some of the major wheat research and breeding projects across Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan that address priority areas such as increasing yield, improving disease and pest resistance, agronomics and tolerance to drought and excess moisture, as well as end-use qualities.
Better wheat under stress
Two projects are looking at improving the quality and winter hardiness of winter wheat. The first, at the University of Saskatchewan, seeks to accelerate the development of ‘resilient winter wheat’ cultivars with greater cold hardiness and winter survivability, through identifying genes that confer low temperature tolerance. This project is jointly funded by AWC, Winter Cereals Manitoba Inc., Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission and the Western Grains Research Foundation.
Over at AAFC’s Lethbridge Research Centre, another project is seeking to develop winter wheat varieties for western Canada with CWRS-like quality characteristics while maintaining or increasing yield, winter survival and disease resistance. The goal is to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, the price differential between spring and winter wheat to increase adoption of this environmentally friendly alternative to spring wheat.
The University of Alberta is working on a three-year project to develop plant growth regulators that will increase wheat grain yield under both biotic and abiotic stress conditions. While AAFC Lethbridge and Concordia University are collaborating on research to improve water use efficiency and biomass production in wheat under drought stress, by tweaking development of stomata — the small openings found on plant surfaces that control the amount of carbon dioxide intake and water loss.
Planting into cold soils is often a fact of life in Western Canada, so also at AAFC Lethbridge is a project exploring whether early plantings of cold tolerant spring wheat cultivars, coupled with optimum agronomics, will extend the growing season and improve spring wheat yields.
After record hail events in 2016, a timely, Alberta based project is looking at crop management decisions in hail damaged crops with the aim to identify potential management strategies that could improve crop growth, harvestability, and yield after they have incurred hail damage.
Excess moisture has certainly been a major a concern for many Prairie producers over the past few years and various projects are looking at excess moisture management strategies for cereal production, including one at the University of Manitoba. The project is looking to bring together an advisory group to collate existing information on what tools, techniques and management options are available that can maximize yields in the presence of excess moisture conditions in Manitoba. A GAP analysis based on the group’s findings will hopefully recommend where additional research work is needed to help producers cope with excess moisture conditions.
A three-year project at the University of Alberta will identify which varieties of wheat, oat and barley are affected by synthetic Plant Growth Regulators and whether they are useful for lodging resistance.
Also at the University of Alberta is a three-year project to quantify the effects of long-term nitrogen and sulfur fertilizers on crop nutrient use efficiency and N2O emissions on sulfur-deficient, prairie soils. The goal is to identify the importance of balanced fertilization to soil nutrient cycling processes and greenhouse gas emissions.
Other researchers at the University of Manitoba are trying to assess what influence wheat genotype, weather, growing environment and crop management has on gluten strength in CWRS wheat, which determines bread-making quality. The aim is to better understand the nature of wheat quality variation across the Prairies, so that producers and the value chain in general can meet customer requirements for quality bread products.
Around 50 different management systems will be tested to try and maximize yield and harvestability in wheat and feed barley during an extensive, multi-year project conducted by Sheri Strydhorst with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. The study will try to determine if stacking multiple agronomic practices, such as plant growth regulators, supplemental UAN, Agrotain, and/or foliar fungicides will increase yields and economic returns of wheat and feed barley.
Research at the University of Saskatchewan is looking at whether enhanced efficiency nitrogen fertilizers can mitigate nitrogen losses in single-pass seeding operations.
Manitoba Agriculture researchers should soon have data from a 2016 project that looked at the effectiveness of different nitrogen management practices on wheat yields and protein quality. The University of Manitoba is also conducting a two-year study into determining the most effective and efficient combinations of nitrogen timing, placement and source for midseason top-up applications to drive yield and protein in spring wheat in Manitoba conditions. Another University of Manitoba project hopes to develop hormone based genomic tools to enhance pre-harvest sprouting tolerance in wheat and barley, and reduce economic losses, especially in wet years.
Researchers at Lethbridge are working on developing new soft white spring wheat CPS and general purpose wheat varieties specifically for various growing regions in Alberta that have early maturity, higher yield potential and better disease resistance packages. The University of Alberta has a similar program to develop high yield CPS and GP wheat varieties for the milling, animal feed and ethanol industry in Alberta.
Pests, weeds and diseases
There are many projects underway related to management of pests, weeds and disease. One, at the University of Alberta, will monitor the incidence and severity of stripe rust in Alberta, and identify new sources of resistance. Another project at AAFC in Lethbridge is developing a highly sensitive, specific and rapid detection system for stripe rust spores in the field. Detecting the spores before symptoms appear could give producers more opportunity to take control measures earlier.
Other University of Alberta research is looking at combining glyphosate and pyroxasulfone to provide an integrated approach for controlling both established and seedling foxtail barley. Synthetic food bait traps are being developed to monitor multiple cutworm pests, but not bee pollinators.
Orange wheat blossom midge is one of the most damaging wheat pests, causing around $60 million in annual losses across the Prairies. Research at the University of Manitoba is seeking to enhance genetic wheat midge resistance in spring and durum wheat.
Aster yellow is a common disease in cereals but is often not detected, and there has been little research into the impact of aster yellow on seed production and quality. A project at the University of Saskatchewan is looking to fill the gaps in knowledge about aster yellow and develop tools to predict yield losses and develop an economic threshold.
Alberta producers have yet to see the levels of Fusarium graminearum infection in their cereal fields that Manitoba or Saskatchewan producers have, and they aim to keep it that way. That’s why AWC is funding two separate research projects with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry with regards to fusarium head blight (FHB) management. The first study is a comprehensive survey to determine how much of an issue the disease is in Alberta wheat and corn crops. The second will investigate an integrated approach to FHB management using readily-adoptable agronomic practices alone or in combination that have the greatest impact on FHB severity and losses in southern Alberta conditions.
Similar work is being done in Manitoba, where researchers from AAFC, Manitoba Agriculture, and the Canada-Manitoba Crop Development Centre are evaluating the impact of various seeding rates, variety selection, fungicides timing and applications on FHB management, with the aim to develop integrated strategies to manage FHB in spring wheat in Manitoba. Over at the University of Manitoba, a project is underway to support further development of FHB resistant cultivars through enhanced FHB screening.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan has several projects underway that are attempting to minimize or eliminate the risk of fusarium infection in wheat. Researchers with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) in Saskatoon are looking to develop genotypes with increased FHB resistance, and possibly better ergot resistance, by developing fully cleistogamous wheat and associated markers.
Another project also underway at the NRC will see the development of a rapid, accurate, and cost-efficient diagnostic platform to detect the presence of vomitoxin or DON, which is commonly found in FHB infected wheat. This project, which was funded by Sask Wheat and the Agricultural Development Fund (ADF), will also lead to the ability to identify and quantify additional FHB mycotoxins.
Another three-year project aims to upgrade a low-cost, paper-based, mycotoxin testing platform developed at Carleton University that will provide producers, elevators and processors with a fast, reliable and inexpensive testing technology for mycotoxins, which is simple to use on-site, without specialized expertise.
Crop protection alternatives
A project at the University of Alberta is looking at whether naturally occurring antifungal lipids could be used as an economically viable alternative to fungicides in crop protection.
Dr. Doug Cattani of the University of Manitoba is leading a perennial wheat program that has established two intermediate wheatgrass nurseries in Carman to try and understand the potential for perennial wheat in Manitoba. A similar project is being conducted at the Lethbridge Research Centre by Jamie Larson of AAFC.
Now that the wheat genome has been sequenced and genetic markers are becoming available to breeders and scientists around the world, genomic research projects continue in a number of areas. They include a four-year project involving researchers across Canada and in the United States and Germany, which is looking to identify and develop improved genetic resistance to stem and stripe rust in wheat.
Work is continuing at the University of Alberta to screen Canadian and international spring wheat germplasm for FHB resistance using DNA markers and in-field methods, and University of Alberta wheat breeders are trying to understand the genetics of early maturity in Canadian wheat to try and develop early maturing, high yielding, hard red spring wheat varieties for the Prairies. Another project is evaluating whether resistance genes for abiotic stress and diseases such as stripe rust and FHB in intermediate wheatgrass could be transferred into wheat.
Plant molecular geneticists at the NRC are using genome editing technology to increase yield and harvest index in wheat through manipulating the cellular carbon flux. Benefits of the project include making Canadian Prairie wheat more competitive in global markets by improving wheat yield and productivity using a novel, but non-GMO molecular approach.
Metagenomics is a branch of genomics which is a way to measure and access the genetic content of entire communities of plant organisms. A project at the University of Saskatchewan is looking to use metagenomics as a way to improve yield, water-use efficiency and heat-stress tolerance in major Canadian crops.
Increasing research capacity
Expanding wheat research capacity is a focus for all provincial wheat commissions, and AWC is funding a project at the University of Alberta supports the continued research and development activities of the Canadian Western Hard Red Spring Wheat breeding program, and that will, over a five-year period, train and educate three graduates in breeding, agronomy and related disciplines.
Sask Wheat has also developed undergraduate and graduate scholarships for University of Saskatchewan students in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources. Sask Wheat provides $10,000 in undergraduate scholarships and $100,000 in graduate scholarships annually. The first four graduate students receiving the Sask Wheat scholarships were announced in 2016, with three of the four students working on projects that have a significant focus on fusarium.