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Hybrid Wheat on the Horizon

Bayer CropScience and Syngenta’s AgriPro brand are plunging headlong into successful commercialization of hybrid wheat lines. Each company should have its products available to farmers by the end of the decade.

Bill Berzonsky, senior wheat breeder at Bayer CropScience, says hybrid wheat offers yield stability that current wheat varieties cannot match. “With hybrids, we expect enhanced stability of grain yield over environment, plus enhanced disease resistance,” says Berzonsky, who heads up the company’s hybrid wheat program near Lincoln, Nebraska.

How hybrids work   

Hybrid wheat lines are created when two pure wheat lines are paired. The result is improved performance due to heterosis, or hybrid vigor. Wheat improvements will come in the form of improved yield, straw strength, or disease and insect resistance.

“Hybrid wheat results in less variation in yield from year to year and field to field,” says Jon Rich, wheat breeder and product manager for Syngenta Cereals’ Central Plains Region.

“Through better root development, better fertilizer-use efficiency, and other agronomic factors, farmers get more consistency with hybrid wheat,” Rich says.

When coupled with a host of new wheat-breeding technologies, improvements to wheat will be dramatic, Berzonsky says.

Many of these breeding technologies have been used by soybean and corn breeders for some time, but three are only just now becoming usable by wheat breeders.

  • Doubled haploid (DH) production. Wheat breeders use DH to create pure lines of wheat much more quickly. Instead of letting the wheat plants pollinate themselves, DH technicians use corn pollen to create pure lines of wheat in one year, rather than five or six years. Traces of the corn pollen are eliminated, leaving pure lines of wheat in one year. DH production shaves four to five years off the development of new wheat cultivars.
  • Genomic selection. Breeders use genetic markers to predict which traits will be present in new wheat cultivars. Formerly, breeders had to proceed with crossing parent lines, a time-consuming and often unpredictable method of creating improved lines.
  • Sensor technology. Seed companies are beginning to evaluate wheat-production systems using sensor and imaging technology. The effectiveness of fertility and crop protection products can be evaluated quickly and accurately with sensors, rather than relying on humans.

Hurdles to hybrids
There are challenges with hybridizing wheat. From a physiological standpoint, wheat is a self-pollinating crop, and it can be difficult to get the pollen to travel long distances. Corn, meanwhile, is self-pollinated, and pollen doesn’t need to travel very far. Berzonsky says other hurdles include lack of seed production on the female side and susceptibility to fungal diseases in hybrid production fields.

These challenges pale in comparison with the added cost of seed. Per unit, hybrid wheat seed will likely cost more, and farmers will be unable to save hybrid seed for replanting. (These are the factors that doomed Monsanto’s HybriTech hybrid wheat unit in the 1990s.) Rich and Berzonsky believe that new hybrid wheat lines will be worth the extra cost.

“In the end, we have to prove to farmers that hybrid wheat is worth the extra investment,” Rich says. “Farmers need to get the extra value out of it.”

Field trials of hybrid wheat are ongoing, and farmers should have access to commercial hybrid lines by 2020.

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