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WestBred Brings New Technology to Wheat Breeding
Seven years after Monsanto bought wheat genetics company WestBred, the company’s well-stocked portfolio of hard red winter wheat varieties continues to expand.
Sid Perry, lead breeder of hard red winter and hard white winter wheat varieties for WestBred, promises good things will continue to come. “I’m excited about our Wheat Variety Breeding Group. It has blazed a lot of trails in technology and new variety releases,” he said during an interview in Hays, Kansas, on June 16.
Perry works at Filer, Idaho, with his colleagues Mark Newell, breeder for hard spring wheat, and Chris Moore, breeder for white and red soft winter wheat. Monsanto moved all of its wheat-breeding personnel to the company’s Seminis vegetable operations a couple of years ago. WestBred still has scores of testing sites throughout the nation, but the breeding, greenhouse, quality, and logistics are all based in Idaho.
The goal has not changed; WestBred still wants to put top varieties in farm fields. Having Monsanto’s resources at its disposal certainly helps. Monsanto has introduced “predictive analytics” to help breeders find new varieties more efficiently. Rather than visual appraisal of potential new lines in a plot, computer programs can help predict how a specific line will perform in a field setting. That shaves a lot of time off the initial variety-selection phase. The company is already using genetic markers and has doubled haploid technology to find and deploy defensive traits and to speed variety development, respectively.
It also is embracing other aspects of Monsanto’s business, including the company’s work with agricultural biological, with which “…we are just scratching the surface,” Perry says.
That wheat continues to lag behind corn and soybeans in yield acceleration over the years is not lost on the wheat breeder. Yield potential is what excites farmers, but finding a variety that can defend itself against disease and insects sometimes compromises top-end yield. With an array of very good and increasingly less expensive crop-protection products for wheat, Perry wonders if wheat breeders can produce racehorse varieties and let farmers manage them appropriately.
“More and more, farmers are thinking yield first. We won’t put defenseless varieties out there. But maybe we start thinking about yield first and foremost,” he says.
“We aren’t able to use a lot of material that may not contain a defensive trait (like rust resistance, for example), but it has tremendous yield potential. We can provide the support producers need to understand the variety, plus manage for population, nitrogen timing, and seed treatments,” Perry adds.
At this writing, Kansas City hard red winter wheat price is $4.27 per bushel. That’s a far cry from the farmgate price of a few years ago when Monsanto bought WestBred. But Perry and Monsanto continue to be bullish on wheat.
“Wheat is the world’s most important food crop. Its impact globally is huge. Certainly, there is opportunity for this company. There is a lot of potential here and an obligation to contribute to wheat. When we think about food security, that fits right into our core values,” he says.