New varieties rescue wheat crop

Much has been said about soil moisture reserves, but better genetics also saved crop yields from drought this year

Somewhere between $300 and $325 million — that’s how much the latest spring wheat varieties with superior water use efficiency may have added to Saskatchewan’s production this year.

Farmers in many parts of Saskatchewan have been surprised this year by their crop yields, including spring wheat yields, because soil conditions have been exceptionally dry for months.

A fair number of growers have said on Twitter and in anecdotal reports that spring wheat yields are exceeding expectations.

“Though we are hardly harvesting a bumper crop, I think it is safe to say that our crops are yielding better than we had anticipated,” said Bill Gehl, chair of the Saskatchewan Wheat Commission chair and a farmer near Regina, which received 1.8 millimetres of rain in July, the second lowest amount on record.

“The droughts that we experienced in Saskatchewan in the ’80s … certainly produced much lower yields.”

Other wheat growers near Gehl’s farm are also reporting decent to strong yields.

“I’ve got shareholders in that Regina area, where they got less than two inches of rain, they’re combining 60 to 70 bushels of wheat when they were expecting 40,” said Rod Merryweather, chief executive officer of FP Genetics, a pedigreed seed supplier.

The story is similar in other parts of the province.

Brent Flaten, who helps compile the provincial crop report for Saskatchewan Agriculture, said spring wheat yields are highly variable but also higher than predicted.

“(There are) quite a few areas in the south where there is more yield than what they expected, considering the lack of rainfall,” he said.

“On a provincial basis it might be average … but there are definitely some wrecks out there.”

The five year yield average for spring wheat in Saskatchewan is around 42 bu. per acre.

A number of agronomists and growers have attributed the better than expected yields to excellent soil moisture in the spring.

Richard Cuthbert, an Agriculture Canada wheat breeder in Saskatchewan, figures that better wheat varieties also played a significant role in preserving yields.

“How much did it (genetics) play this year, with such water limited situation? I’d be fairly comfortable saying at least half,” he said.

“I would be comfortable saying at least half came from genetics.”

Field experiments at Swift Current, Sask., and other Agriculture Canada research centres show that the latest wheat varieties are more tolerant of drought than older varieties such as Katepwa.

AAC Brandon, AAC Viewfield, which will come to market in 2018, and AAC Carberry all performed well this year in the arid conditions.

“They’ve shocked me because they are semi-dwarf varieties (with smaller roots),” Cuthbert said.

“(They’ve) either found water in the ground or held onto (the) water. A breeder would say that’s water use efficiency…. A very preliminary analysis of some of the new lines, like AAC Viewfield in particular, it’s looking like it’s around 17 percent higher yielding than Katepwa this year in a very water limited situation.”

The additional spring wheat production in Saskatchewan may be substantial, assuming that new and popular varieties such as AAC Brandon are yielding 15 percent more because of improved drought tolerance:

  • Saskatchewan produced an average 9.14 million tonnes of spring wheat from 2012-16.
  • If yields were 15 percent lower, 1.37 million tonnes of spring wheat would be missing from the 2017 crop.
  • The 1.37 million tonnes is equivalent to 50.376 million bushels.
  • At a selling price of $6 to $6.50 per bu., that represents $302 to $327 million in value to farmers.

Ron DePauw, a former Agriculture Canada wheat breeder who is now science adviser with Secan, said there’s no doubt that improved spring wheat genetics preserved yields during the hot and dry summer.

“I think we have an incredible level of improved water use efficiency and nitrogen use efficiency (in spring wheat), but we’re not running around speaking about it,” said DePauw.

Wheat breeders like DePauw didn’t target drought tolerance and water use efficiency in spring wheat. Instead, it became a side benefit of a different breeding strategy.

It’s well known that wheat yields are inversely related to lower protein. Raise the yield in a new variety and protein usually declines.

Over the last few decades, DePauw and his colleagues deliberately selected spring wheat varieties that yielded more but maintained the same protein.

To achieve that trick, the plants had to become more efficient at acquiring water and nutrients, storing moisture and moving the water and nutrients to the seed.

“What we have (now) is plants that have much better water use efficiency and better nitrogen use efficiency,” DePauw said.

“So what we were doing (was) building a better factory.”

Another factor could be improved waxiness on wheat plant leaves through breeding, which allows the crop to retain more moisture.

As well, varieties were selected that offer stable yields in a wide range of conditions from hot and dry to cool and wet.

“The Prairies are huge … and we really want varieties that a farmer in Swift Current can pick and grow and a farmer in the Red River Valley can grow,” said Cuthbert.

The superior water efficiency in the newest wheat lines suggests that farmer check-off contributions and government support for wheat breeding are worth the investment.

The $300 to $325 million in additional spring wheat production is a rough estimate, but that sort of payoff is possible when farmers support research.

“Some years it may not seem like the sexiest funding (for wheat breeding),” Cuthbert said.

“It (the return on investment) comes ultimately from sustained funding from producers.”

DePauw added that the surprising yields of 2017 illustrate why continuous research is critical for Canadian agriculture.

“You can’t have breeding programs starting up and shutting down,” he said.

“There has to be this long-term commitment and focus to wheat development and it would be preferable if it was de-linked to the political process.”

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