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Wheat hybrids possible but are benefits big enough?

Some wonder if the money would be better spent on open-pollinated lines while 
finding better ways seed companies can get financial returns

Bayer CropScience is working to commercialize hybrid wheat for the Canadian market, says Marcus Weidler, Bayer CropScience’s head of seeds in Canada.

Bayer CropScience is working to commercialize hybrid wheat for the Canadian market, says Marcus Weidler, Bayer CropScience’s head of seeds in Canada.
photo: Allan Dawson

It seems commercializing hybrid wheat has been just over the horizon for years, but it’s now on the market in Europe and Marcus Weidler, head of Seeds Canada, for Bayer CropScience, says the company is developing hybrid wheat for Canada.

“Hybrid wheat in Europe is a commercial reality,” Weidler said in a Dec. 15 interview.

“The company (which is not Bayer) producing hybrid wheat in Europe is having a hard time keeping up with the demand. It is sold out every single year.”

Around a million acres of hybrid wheat are seeded annually in Europe — mostly in France and a lesser amount in Germany, he said. Typically it’s grown where farmers face more production challenges, Weidler said.

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But the biggest advantage of hybrids over open-pollinated crops, is heterosis, where a crossbred individual demonstrates qualities superior to both parents, with the goal being higher yields.

More yield is also essential to offset higher hybrid seed production costs, especially for wheat, which is normally self-pollinating and has heavy pollen that doesn’t travel far.

Hybrid seed production and distribution costs are the main reasons for commercialization delays. But Bayer CropScience has developed several small-scale systems that work and is confident they can be expanded.

“The volumes are so huge it takes a long time to scale this up and also to have it reliably working is key…” Weidler said.

“The system has been tried before by many other people, but we got it working.”

Rob Graf, a winter wheat breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, said at a meeting in Ottawa last year that the money being invested on hybrid wheat would probably be better spent on inbred lines and innovative methods could be developed so breeders can collect a return from their varieties.

Rob Graf, a winter wheat breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, said at a meeting in Ottawa last year that the money being invested on hybrid wheat would probably be better spent on inbred lines and innovative methods could be developed so breeders can collect a return from their varieties.
photo: Allan Dawson

Hybrid wheat is expected to yield 10 to 15 per cent more than open-pollinated cultivars, he said. Is that enough? That’s the question Rob Graf, a winter wheat breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, asked during his presentation ahead of a panel discussion on wheat research during the 3rd Canadian Wheat Symposium in Ottawa Nov. 23. Weidler was one of the panellists.

The upper range of the hybrid wheat yield projection is for feed wheats, Graf added.

“In quality wheats the heterosis is much lower,” Graff said.

Based on average Saskatchewan wheat yields, a 15 per cent increase translates into 5.4 more bushels an acre, he said.

“Not bad, but is it enough?”

In Manitoba 15 per cent more yield adds another 8.7 bushels an acre.

“I would say in essence hybrids, when they come, if we have that kind of yield they will be used, but they won’t be for everyone,” Graf said.

Jim Anderson, a wheat breeder at the University of Minnesota, said with the exception of Nebraska State University and Texas A&M, most publicly funded American breeders are taking a “wait-and-see approach.”

“If they are successful that is great for the industry, but if not, the public will still be there developing those inbreds,” Anderson said.

“I think there is a good chance for some success there but the key is to having that economical (hybrid) seed production and then working with the seeding rates so the growers don’t have to purchase quite so much seed to put into the ground.”

The rate of hybrid wheat yield gain will not keep pace with inbred lines, Graf said.

“The main reason for that is with hybrids the lines that are males to females must incorporate many more traits that make them ideal female lines,” he said.

“The rate of (yield) increase in hybrids, after that initial boost in heterosis, will actually be slower and so in essence what will happen is over time inbred line breeding will meet and surpass the yield of hybrids.”

It’s partly because there are so many genes involved in wheat breeding, Graf said.

Wheat breeders in the past complained about a yield drag because of kernel visual distinguishability (KVD) — a prerequisite for registering new western Canadian milling wheats, which ended in 2008.

“In fact with hybrids you are probably adding far more trades than with KVD,” he said.

Hybrids are primarily a way for breeding firms to get a return on investment, he said.

“And I don’t think it is a secret to anyone that there are very definitely major challenges ahead for hybrids. I am not saying that it can’t be done, but there are significant challenges.”

Seed grown from a hybrid crop lacks heterosis. As a result a farmer must buy new seed if he or she wants to grow that variety again.

Variety developers need a return on investment, but instead of investing in hybrids innovative ways to capture value should be found, Graf said.

“If we can move the investment that may be going to hybrids (and) put it into line breeding long term I would suggest we would be better off,” he said.

Improved yield is Bayer CropScience’s main motivation for hybrid wheat, not capturing revenue, Weidler said later. A slower rate of yield gain hasn’t been the case with hybrid canola, he said.

“We have also seen in canola the last 10 years the average yield increase is 4.4 per cent, which is unmatched anywhere,” Weidler said. “Other crops show me that there might be good reason to believe that the breeders can manage this and come up with the same yield gain or maybe better yield gain than when you have line breeding.”

The cost of producing and distributing hybrid wheat seed is the biggest challenge, Weidler said. Not only does wheat have a bigger seed and is bulkier than canola, the ideal wheat field plant population is four times that of canola. Contrary to the production of hybrid canola seed, to serve western Canadian farmers hybrid wheat production needs to be decentralized.

“It means we will have a big number of partners to help us produce the right amount and the right quality of seed for a specific geography,” Weidler said. “There is no way to have central production, absolutely no way. But to be clear, we do not have all the answers. We are in conversation with a lot of people to get this done. Nobody has done this before.”

Hybrid wheat production is also complex and time sensitive, he said.

“No. 1 is to synchronize males and females,” Weidler said. “And the second challenge is a chemical hybridization agent, which has to be applied in a very tight window to the females so they are male sterile. If you can’t get into the field because it is too wet, or it has been too dry and you don’t want to stress the plants, that can be a challenge.

“The key in hybrid wheat is to come up with a sustainable, easy-to-use hybridization system to produce it.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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