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In the Land of Winter Wheat, Durum Could Fit

Kansas routinely places first in the total number of winter wheat bushels grown by farmers. And while Kansas State University researchers continue to have a robust wheat breeding program, they also are studying winter durum varieties.

“If you go back to the early 1900s, western Kansas was thought to be a good place to raise durum wheat,” says Allan Fritz, K-State wheat breeder in Manhattan, Kansas. “Durum wheat is largely grown in the Desert Southwest under irrigation, and there is concern with the quantity of water left for irrigation. It also is grown in Montana and North Dakota, where head scab can be a concern.”

Durum wheat is used to create pasta and as such, tends to fetch at least a dollar more than Hard Red Winter wheat on the cash market. It has 28 chromosomes, compared to 42 chromosomes in winter wheat and therefore is a different species than winter or spring wheat. Durum wheat varieties produce fewer tillers per plant, although head size and kernel size are typically bigger than those species, Fritz says.

“Yield of the lines in our program are a little lower than winter wheat, but we are early in the program,” he adds. “We are optimistic that we can boost yield of the winter durum varieties.”

Scab, winterhardiness, and head sprouting concerns are three concerns for winter durum varieties in Kansas. Ideally, winter durum would be suited for western Kansas south of I-70 as the primary potential area for production. Durum generally has better drought tolerance than hard red winter wheat, but as a white wheat it is susceptible to head sprouting.

K-State’s durum program is based on varieties that originate from Austria. Most of the replicated test plots are in western Kansas, but Fritz and his colleagues planted several accessions near Belleville in northern Kansas. Lines that survived the winter will be crossbred to the lines in southwest Kansas, in an effort to build winter tolerance.  

“Protein levels in our lines are near the 13% magic number, as long as enough nitrogen is applied late in the season to promote protein. Getting the desirable yellow endosperm color has been a bit of a challenge so far,” Fritz says.

If winter durum is to be produced in western Kansas, it will have to be done as an identity-preserved program. Separate handling will be required since durum is a different class of wheat than hard red winter or hard white winter wheat. Fritz estimates there is a potential market for up to about 250,000 acres of winter durum in Kansas as an IP wheat, should commercially accepted varieties be developed.

“Realistically, we’re 10 years away from having winter durum varieties available to Kansas farmers,” Fritz says.

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