Wheat is one of the world's staple foods and a big crop on the Great Plains, but it has been left in the dust. A corn farmer can grow 44% more bushels per acre than 30 years ago, but only 16% more wheat. That's led many farmers to make a switch.
“Wheat acres have been going down since 1981 or 1982 when they were up around 86 million acres,” said Steve Joehl, director of research with the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG). “I think last year we had a little over 56 million. It’s just a straight trend line down.”
The U.S. used to be one of the top wheat producers in the world, but Joehl says that has been slipping.
“We’ve lost share in world market from 16 to 8 percent of world wheat production.”
Joehl says the way to turn that around is by revitalizing wheat research. NAWG is developing what is being called the National Wheat Action Plan.
“We need more resources applied to breeding, breeding technology, soil health, fungicides, chemistry, weed control,” Joehl said. “We need a lot of work to be done in wheat that’s currently not going on.”
One way the industry could catch up is with wheat hybrids. Hybrid crops are made by crossing two parent plants instead of allowing them to self-pollinate. If they’re compatible, you can see a jump in yield over conventional breeding.
Hybrid corn has been around for about a century. It’s one of the reasons for the big gains in corn yield. Researchers have developed hybrid sorghum, rice and canola, but there is currently no hybrid wheat on the market.
Inventing hybrid wheat
Seed companies have tried to create hybrid wheat before, in the 1970s and 1980s, but University of Nebraska Lincoln plant breeder Stephen Baenziger says the project became too expensive.
“They spent 15-20 years developing hybrid wheats and by the end of it didn’t see enough progress,” Baenziger said.
Now, a handful of university wheat breeding programs including UNL and Texas A&M are putting part of their seed science efforts toward hybrids.
Public breeding programs are a big part of the wheat seed industry. Baenziger estimates 60-70 percent of wheat varieties planted in states like Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska come from university research.
Inside Baenziger’s greenhouse in Lincoln, Neb., tables are topped with rows of potted wheat plants.
“We’re transferring the hybrid system in spring wheats in Australia to hard red and hard white winter wheats that will be grown in Nebraska,” Baenziger said, grabbing a stem and bending down to take a closer look.
After cross-pollinating the plants researchers can start testing hundreds of combinations of wheat varieties to see which ones create a hybrid bump in yield. Corn is easy to hybridize because the male and female parts of the plant – the tassel and the ear – are separate. In wheat they’re packed inside a tiny floret.
“In wheat, the stigma and anthers, the parts that are male and female, are encapsulated in each little floret,” said Amanda Easterly, a Ph.D. researcher at UNL working on the hybrid wheat project. “So when we make crosses in the greenhouse, it’s a painstaking process of clipping each little floret open and removing anthers.”
Hybrid research takes a lot of trial and error, and Stephen Baenziger says wheat is at a huge disadvantage in research manpower.
“There are 120 breeders in wheat in the United States, there are 800 breeders in corn,” Baenziger said. “You would expect greater gains.”
It could be another 5-10 years before there is a breakthrough with hybrid wheat. But if it works, hybrids could be a boost both for farmers and for seed companies. Farmers have to buy new hybrid seed each year, which would be a change for an industry in which many producers save part of the crop to replant.
From hybrid to GMO
Syngenta, Bayer, and DuPont have each said they have hybrid wheat in the works. If they are the first to develop a high-yielding hybrid, it could help them corner the market for wheat seed. Unlike corn and soybeans, which are dominated by just a few companies, wheat seed sales are divided among a broader mix of commercial companies and even universities marketing their own varieties.
Hybrid wheat could also be a first step toward genetically modified wheat.
There is no genetically modified wheat on the market. The National Association of Wheat Growers’ Steve Joehl says part of the reason is conventional breeding is cheaper and biotech traits come with regulatory hurdles. But there are some problems breeding can’t seem to solve, such as a fungus called wheat scab.
“It is probably the one stress we need to crack,” Joehl said. Scientist have tried to breed resistance to the disease. “We can’t get bulletproof resistance that way, and it may mean if we can’t make advancements to it that we’re going to have to rely on biotechnology.”
Are wheat farmers looking for hybrids and GMOs? Michael Thomas farms wheat, soybeans and corn near Ogallala, Neb. He’s seen how research can pay off.
“These corn varieties have certainly made them yield more and get by with less water and it’s fairly miraculous really,” Thomas said.
But Thomas is cautious about going the biotech route with wheat. Given the resistance many people have toward GMOs, even though scientists say they’re safe, Thomas isn’t sure they’re worth the risk.
“I, of course, use biotech soybeans and alfalfa and corn. I don’t have any reservations about the idea of biotech,” Thomas said. “I just don’t know if it’s going to be a magic bullet that’s going to fix some of the issues that we have in the wheat industry.”
The main issue Thomas is concerned about is demand. The gluten-free craze has people eating less bread. That’s hurt wheat prices. Couple that with a research gap and farmers are switching to corn.
How to raise more wheat, and make more money for farmers, is what researchers have to figure out if the industry wants to keep from losing more ground.