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First fusarium-resistant spring wheat now in pipeline

Launching two new Canadian Prairie Spring red (CPS) wheats, including the first fusarium head blight-resistant spring wheat bred for western Canadian farmers, is a great way to cap a 40-year-long career in planting breeding, says Doug Brown.

Ten years in the making, HY1615, which is resistant to the yield-crippling fusarium, and HY1610, which is 10 per cent higher yielding than other CPS wheats, were both recommended for registration by the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT) at its annual meeting Feb. 28.

“I’m just thrilled,” Brown said in an interview March 22. “These varieties offer a lot of potential. I hope farmers get some real value from them.”

But as pleased as the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada cereal breeder was to see his varieties get the nod, he also unabashedly admits he almost let what is now seen as a fusarium resistance breakthrough slip through his fingers.

“My emphasis through the breeding program, whether it was oats or wheat, was yield. It had to have decent quality, decent agronomics and decent disease resistance, but I was always looking for yield,” he said.

HY1615 wouldn’t have made the cut if it weren’t for the eagle eyes of his co-worker, technician Mary Meiklejohn.

“I might have thrown it out if it hadn’t have been for one of the technicians who is part of the wheat-breeding team. She said, ‘Look at its fusarium resistance.’ She had a good eye for that.”

Brown said it simply reinforces the reality that plant breeders need a good team around them. Meiklejohn, for one, had previously worked for Brown’s predecessor and mentor Ron McKenzie, who retired in 1995.

Both HY1615 and HY1610 are resistant to the orange blossom wheat midge and to Ug99, a new race of stem rust which originated in Uganda. The varieties could be available commercially to farmers by 2016.

“I can’t emphasize enough that this line (HY1615) is the first spring line to be resistant to FHB,” said AAFC oat breeder Jennifer Mitchell-Fetch, speaking on behalf of Brown during the PRCWRT meeting. “It’s got good yield, it’s got a good agronomic package and disease package and midge resistance. I think it’s a good one.”

HY1615, which is adapted to eastern Prairies, yielded 12 per cent more than the check 5700PR in three years of co-op testing, Patti Rothenburger, an agri-genetics specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, said in an email.

HY1610 yielded 10 to 34 per cent more than the checks, Mitchell-Fetch told the committee. It has intermediate resistance to fusarium.

As a class, CPS has had its ups and downs over the years and currently only accounts for two to three per cent of the wheat acres in Western Canada. Its future as part of AAFC’s breeding program is now is in limbo.

After floundering in search of a marketing niche for years, however, CPS wheats have recently surged in popularity among farmers and processors, increasing demand for varieties that fit its quality parameters.

Stephen Morgan Jones, director general for the Prairie/Boreal Plain Ecozone, with AAFC, said the department is reconsidering the CPS class’ status in the breeding program due to the renewed interest.

IF AAFC doesn’t continue with CPS there are alternatives, including the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre and Syngenta. Sometimes CPS wheats also come out of the Canada Western red spring (CWRS) breeding program, Morgan Jones said.

Brown has been working under contract with AAFC’s Cereal Research Centre, based in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba, since he officially retired in 2011. That contract ended March 31. Brown’s position had been cut as part of the federal government’s decision to close the Cereal Research Centre.

AAFC will make a decision by year’s end on the position, but if it does continue to develop varieties, the breeder position will be based in Brandon, Morgan Jones said.

— Allan Dawson is a reporter for the Manitoba Co-operator at Miami, Man. A version of this article appeared in the April 4, 2013 issue.

A co-operative wheat

The recent Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale (PRCWRT) meeting also marked the first time a feed wheat developed by the Western Feed Grain Development Co-op was recommended for registration.

The variety, WFT603, is a Canada Western General Purpose wheat.

“The unique thing about this is any farmer in Western Canada can be a member of the co-op and have equal ownership of the variety,” said co-op chair David Rourke. “I think that could be fairly important as we get into contractual laws that prevent seed from being grown again. We’d like to keep the option available for farmers to own some of their own seed.”

The 100-member co-op, formed in 2005, was established to develop cereal varieties specifically grown as feed wheats, rather than counting on inclement weather or disease to determine the supply of feed grains for Prairie livestock producers.

“By developing feed wheat cultivars, livestock producers will have a continuous, predictable supply of grain without compromising high-value grain for feed,” the co-op’s website says. “New high-yielding cultivars with low fusarium and low protein will increase feed value, lower feed costs, increase farm gate revenues, as well as reduce the reliance on imported feed grains, both provincially and internationally.”

WFT603, which is higher yielding than the checks, is aimed at the livestock feed and ethanol market. It’s well suited to the eastern Prairies with a good disease package, Rourke said.

Seed should be available to co-op members in two years. — A.D.

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