A wheat research program could combine the superior end-use qualities of hard red spring wheat with the higher yield and environmental benefits of winter wheat within the decade.
Robert Graf, a research scientist responsible for the winter wheat-breeding program at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, says he and his team are developing winter wheat varieties for Western Canada that will have ‘CWRS-like’ qualities.
They’re getting close to starting to deliver some of those advancements, he said in a interview in early November.
“I’m confident we can achieve those goals,” he said. “We’re at the point now where, while we don’t have a variety that fits the bill yet, we’ve got all the pieces. The challenge now is to put it all together.”
His team has its first prototype into registration trials and, though not yet of CWRS quality, it demonstrates major progress and is a platform for future advancements.
Getting this far has been no small feat. It has taken years to bring together the characteristics and inherent advantages of the Canada Western Red Winter (CWRW) and Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat classes.
One of the major challenges has been finding suitable winter wheat parents, Graf said. Despite looking at germplasm from around the world and studying thousands of wheat lines in search of sought-after qualities, there were no winter wheat lines that combined all of the improvements that were needed.
However, by methodically crossbreeding these lines he has gradually incorporated the desirable traits and developed a select number of parent lines.
This is about increasing winter wheat’s protein concentration, gluten strength and flour water absorption, so that it might also possess the desirable baking qualities of CWRS. Right now, because those qualities aren’t as good as CWRS, winter wheat is predominantly used by processors in products that require less gluten strength, such as French-style breads, various types of noodles, flatbreads and steam breads.
However, due to those traits, CWRW doesn’t garner the premium price in world markets of the more popular CWRS, with its superior dough handling and baking qualities.
The goal of this research is to reduce the price difference between the two types of wheat, and improve returns to farmers, Graf said. Winter wheat varieties that incorporate CWRS characteristics would be the best of both worlds, and, ideally, fetch a higher price in the market.
“My overall objective is to make farmers in Western Canada more profitable,” he said.
“The idea, of course, is that if winter wheat receives a price at the farm gate that is comparable to our premium-quality spring wheat it would entice farmers to grow the crop and benefit from many of the other advantages that it brings.”
Winter wheat yields about 25 per cent more grain than its spring wheat counterparts, plus it already possesses exceptional milling characteristics producing desirable qualities such as a high percentage of bright-white, low-ash flour.
Winter wheat’s other distinct advantages are its considerable environmental benefits; the fall-seeded crop helps reduce wind- and water-based soil erosion, and it conserves fuel because fewer field operations are required. It’s also a crop that helps sequester carbon and planting winter wheat disrupts annual weed growth cycles that have adapted alongside a predominantly spring-sown crop rotation.
Despite the advantages of winter cereals, acres have been on a downward trend in recent years, due largely to challenging fall planting conditions and the lure of other crops such as hybrid rye, and advances in spring wheat. Statistics Canada shows winter wheat acres on the Prairies were at 335,000 acres in 2018. That’s down from 535,000 in 2017, and an all-time high of 1.52 million in 2008.
Graf is hopeful that new lines eventually coming into the future may turn that trend around again.
“My hope is that with this initiative, as well as the new varieties that we’ve developed and are just now entering commercial channels, we’ll see acreage rebound to levels that we saw a few years ago, and, hopefully, even exceed that,” he said.