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Wheat technology catching up

Jeff Caldwell 02/28/2013 @ 12:02pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

When it comes to yield-improving research, wheat's long been considered a laggard to typically more profit-bearing corn and soybeans. But, with factors looming like an expected crash in water supplies in some key wheat-growing areas, the push for wheat technology -- which industry experts say hasn't been lagging as much as is commonly thought -- could be getting a jolt soon.

The development of improved water and nitrogen use efficiency, pest and disease protection and drought resistance are all key research areas in the next few years, but the real need still lies in the crop's competitiveness in the overall crop mix.

"At the end of the day, you have got to improve the yield potential of that wheat," says Monsanto U.S. WestBred Commercial Lead Jeff Koscelny.

Corn and soybeans offer mammoth profit potential compared to wheat, at least in the last few decades, and that's spawned a lack of research focus for the crop. That's the bad news. The good news is the research tools in the row crop sector are now being used to develop new wheat varieties and traits. That's especially true for the current research at Syngenta, where GreanLeaf head of key account management Paul Morano is leading an effort to make hybrid wheat a more cost-efficient option for farmers looking for a wider, more consistent scope of key seed characteristics.

"It's a yield step. But, we're looking at more consistency in the attributes of the wheat that you want," he says. "If it's resistant to a disease, hybrid wheat will make it more consistently resistant.

"Why do it now? The technology's more advanced. We have marker selection and varieties with double-haploid technology. With this hybrid technology, the big thing is a reduction in production costs," Morano adds.

But, not all pro-yield developments will require this type of technology. Koscelny says Monsanto is still utilizing traditional variety development. The difference between that development today and the same work in decades past lies in the process of trait discovery.

"We've chosen to focus on traditional breeding, but now we're using marker technology and making the right crosses," he says. "We believe we can bring traits to wheat similar to how we've taken them to other crops."

Regardless of how the private or public sector reaches its variety and hybrid offerings, there are a couple of key traits for which "everyone's in the race," Morano says: water and nitrogen efficiency. The latter's a matter of the cost competitiveness for wheat versus row crops; the former's a matter of necessity for farmers in an area where it could be in extremely short supply in the not-so-distant future.

"Water is just huge. We all have to go down that road to get that water use down," Morano says. "Will it compete with corn? Not now. We're not competing, but on the overall farm level, if we can cut back 25% to 30% on water, it still makes it attractive.

"If water gets so expensive and limited in the future, we could see definite gains in return on investment," he adds.

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