Wheat Cluster

  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Offering Strong Options for Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) Wheat in the Western Prairies

Written by: Michelle Boulton

Looking at the 2022 numbers for insured commercial acres of Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat, Richard Cuthbert can’t help being confident his research program is offering producers excellent varieties. Cuthbert is a wheat breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Swift Current Research Development Centre. He points out that 8 of the top 10 CWRS varieties were developed by his group with support from the Canadian Wheat Research Coalition.

Reflecting on the current funding cycle, he says two of the most notable are AAC Wheatland and AAC Starbuck. Registered in 2018, these two were available to farmers last year and have already seen strong uptake.

“AAC Starbuck (at 9%) would be the third most popular; AAC Wheatland (at 8%) would be the fourth most popular. Together, they feature about 1.1 million insured acres in their first year of commercialization,” he says.

Both are semi-dwarf CWRS varieties with excellent grain yield, high protein, good straw strength, and tolerance to orange wheat blossom midge. AAC Starbuck also provides fewer fusarium head blight (FHB) symptoms and lower deoxynivalenol accumulation in the grain.

More recently, AAC Hockley was approved for registration, but is not yet available to farmers. It’s not midge-resistant, but has an excellent disease resistance package, including best-in-class FHB resistance. Cuthbert says it performed significantly better than the check (AAC Brandon) in variety trials this year.

“It’s finding a following all over the prairies, but specifically in irrigation areas because it is very strong strawed and has such good FHB and stripe rust resistance,” he says.

According to Cuthbert, Canada’s registration system promotes the advancement of adaptable varieties. “It takes up to three years in trials to achieve a support package to present to the committee,” he explains. “Typically, with at least 12 sites per year, you’ll see lines that have very strong adaptation across a range of environments and growing regions.” He credits the registration system for the high uptake in his program’s varieties.

“We can’t predict what the environment will be in any given year, so it’s hard to tailor a variety to that,” he says. Instead, “we try to build in as much genetic resistance as we can to prevent prevalent diseases without having to use chemical inputs for control. A large part of our research breeding is reducing the business risk for farmers and processors.”

He anticipates proposing four CWRS lines for registration this winter: three are bred for drought and heat stress, and one is a solid stem variety that looks promising. Two (BW5089 and BW5090) are non-midge resistant, showing very strong yield and excellent disease resistance to all priority one diseases and loose smut. There’s one (BW5095) with midge resistance that’s very high yielding and has a very good disease package.

He says the solid-stem line (BW5104) “is a little early to bring forward for registration but, given the recent challenges with wheat stem sawfly in the brown soil zone, the industry needs a new CWRS variety to provide control against this devastating pest.” They have 22 sites of data and require 24 sites to propose the line for registration, so they plan to keep this line in registration trials for one more year to confirm performance and end-use quality.

These will be the final outputs from this round of funding, which came from Alberta Wheat Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission, Manitoba Crop Alliance, and Western Grains Research Foundation.

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Pre-Breeding and Development of Breeding Tools to Diversify Disease Resistance in Bread Wheat

Written by: Ellen Cottee

Lead Researcher: Dr. Colin Hiebert, AAFC – Morden

For much of history, farmers have been interested in growing the best crops possible. Starting in the 1800s, they realized saving seeds of their best performing plants would give them a higher yield – a primitive version of the selective breeding practices common in the industry today.

Many years have passed, and producers and researchers are living in the future – a world in which a stalk of wheat can be reduced by its genome, giving incredible insight into the genes that help it survive, thrive and even fight off disease.

As a wheat geneticist, Dr. Colin Hiebert of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Morden has long been fascinated with the minutia of the important crop and how it can be improved for Canadian growers. His latest undertaking, Pre-Breeding and Development of Breeding Tools, is designed to take findings from the lab to the field.

Part of the 2018 – 2023 Canadian National Wheat Cluster, the project has three components: pre-breeding, DNA marker development and new resistant gene activities. Each of these contribute improved wheat breeding processes, especially in the areas of resistance and diversity.

“What motivated me to put in this proposal – and my proposal for the next cluster – is to try and fill some of the gaps that exist in the research continuum,” Hiebert explained. “You want to make certain that those [genetic] discoveries end up in the breeding programs and in the farmer’s field.”

Pre-breeding activities in particular are designed to bridge this gap. Genetic research into wheat relatives produces many interesting findings on disease resistance, performance and more – but these crops aren’t adapted for cultivation, nor are they practical for traditional breeding programs to use.

Through pre-breeding, those genetics can now be distilled into germplasm ready to be crossed with domesticated, tried-and-true wheat varieties for breeders to work with, creating new varieties with specific desired traits.

In addition, DNA markers, which indicate the genes specifically responsible for traits such as disease resistance, allow pre-breeding researchers to select or ‘stack’ genes that can increase resistance in the crop. Breeders can also use these markers to better select parents for crossbreeding and assessing which resistance genes made it through the whole breeding process.

“What we’re trying to do is develop markers that have a high predictive value, so you can use it in different ways,” Hiebert says. “DNA markers are really useful tools.”

Hiebert and his team have focused specifically on identifying genes resistant to common wheat diseases, including stem rust, leaf rust and ergot – and the results are promising.

Through genetic mapping and testing of a wheat line from Kyoto University in Japan, the team discovered a gene broadly effective against both North American and exotic races of stem rust.

“A gene like that is interesting because it gives us resistance to pathogens present today, and gives us some risk mitigation in the event that some of these exotic strains of the fungus end up being inadvertently transported to North America,” Hiebert explained.

As the current research cluster comes to a close, the team has germplasm ready to share with breeding programs and even more knowledge of the wheat genome. While pre-breeding and other genetic research doesn’t always result in an immediate in-the-field solution, Hiebert maintains it is critical to the future of plant breeding.

“Having the support of producer groups and other funders, for them to have that foresight to invest money now even when the payoff isn’t immediate, is great,” Hiebert said. “We know we need tools down the road, and if we don’t start now, the well runs dry.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Development of Field-Ready Cultivars of Canada Western Soft White Spring Wheat

Written by: Ian Doig

Since he joined the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research and Development Centre in 2007, Harpinder Randhawa has participated in the development of nine wheat varieties and one triticale variety for use in Western Canada.

While its production levels are low in Western Canada, Randhawa’s considerable wheat breeding efforts include Canada Western Soft White Spring (CWSWS). Farmers who grow it typically praise its robust agronomic package and high yield. It is a wheat class with great potential.

Many may not realize CWSWS is not a new class. It has been successfully and lucratively grown on the Prairies since the 1950s, especially in southern Alberta said Randhawa. “Farmers make a good economic margin with it. It may fetch a lower price per tonne as compared to CWRS or CPS wheat, but this is compensated for by its higher yield. These varieties generally tend to yield 10 to 15 per cent higher than CPS and CWRS varieties.”

Lower in protein than CWRS varieties, CWSWS is used in the production of baked goods such as biscuits, cookies and crackers, but primarily grown under irrigation for ethanol production in central and southern Saskatchewan and southern Alberta. Its high-starch and high yield make it a particularly desirable feedstock. These qualities also make it an excellent livestock feed. “It’s very, very good for making silage,” added Randhawa. CWSWS is also a good rotational pairing under irrigation with high-value crops that include canola, beans, potatoes and sugar beets.

Funded in part by the most recent five-year Canadian National Wheat Cluster, the Development Centre’s CWSWS variety development program focuses on continued incremental improvement of quality, disease and yield characteristics.

For CWSWS varieties, the most pressing goal is to improve disease resistance. Existing cultivars produced by the program are moderately susceptible to Fusarium head blight (FHB). Randhawa and his team work to improve FHB resistance as the disease can have a heavy impact on yield. They also concurrently work to boost leaf and stem rust resistance because new and evolved pathogen races inevitably invade the Prairies.

Known as pyramiding, multiple genes that confer resistance to these diseases are incorporated within the genetics of these varieties. “In gene pyramiding, we stack multiple genes to arm the plant against pathogens,” said Randhawa. “For example, if we deploy one rust resistance gene, down the road it may break down very quickly as the pathogen evolves and mutates and defeats that gene. With multiple resistance genes for the same disease, the pathogen has lower chances to overcome and defeat the plant’s defences.”

“Similar to CPS, CWSWS constantly faces new threats to production,” said Randhawa. “It’s coming through biotic stresses such as new pathogens or new insects. At the same time, we look into abiotic stresses such as heat and drought. We’re constantly screening new germplasm and trying to find traits that have a good level of both biotic and abiotic stress resistance and applying those into new cultivars.”

While this constant improvement is welcomed by established growers of CWSWS, it also makes a strong case for broader adoption of this already appealing wheat class.

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Development of Canada Prairie Spring Red Cultivars for Western Canada

Written by: Ian Doig

Canada is the fifth largest wheat producing nation in the world, and most of the nation’s crop is grown on the Prairies. As wheat represents such a foundational part of the region’s farm economy, the importance of cultivar development is self-evident. “It’s very, very critical to continuously develop new varieties of CPS wheat for Western Canada,” said Harpinder Randhawa, research scientist and wheat breeder with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Lethbridge Research and Development Centre. CPS breeding and end-use quality has evolved over the years, he added.

 “We do three levels of cultivar improvement,” said Randhawa. “We look into their economic performance, disease package and resistance to various biotic and abiotic stresses. We also either maintain or improve the functional quality and use quality of wheat.”

 CPSR varieties have typically exhibited protein, hardness and gluten strength in the medium category. While protein and hardness characteristics have remained in this desirable range, the development of various types of bread by grain purchasing nations has changed market requirements for gluten characteristics. Demand has pushed breeders to increase gluten strength to where it is on par with CWRS varieties and even beyond.

HY2090 is a Canada Prairie Spring Red (CPSR) cultivar Randhawa and his AAFC team have developed with supplementary funding under the most recent five-year Canadian National Wheat Cluster. Now in the seed production stage, it has been given the name AAC Westlock. The moniker is a tip of the hat to the town of Westlock, which is located north of Edmonton where CPS acreage is particularly high. It exhibits the qualities end-users demand as well as a strong agronomic package. AAC Westlock is six to seven per cent higher yielding than control variety AAC Penhold. A semi-dwarf cultivar preferred by farmers, it has excellent straw strength. The variety’s very good disease package includes resistance to FHB, leaf rust, stripe rust, stem rust and common bunt as well as to stem rust varieties not yet prevalent in Canada. In the aggregate, these positives add up to an economic win on a farmer’s balance sheet.

Notably, AAC Westlock was developed with the assistance of the double haploid breeding process and genetic marker technology in a mere six years, whereas 10 years has been more typical. “Genomic selection is one of the tools that we have,” said Randhawa. “We try to deploy all the breeding tools that are available to us to aid in making selections or predictions for development of new cultivars.” The new variety will be marketed by SeCan and is expected to be available for purchase by farmers in 2024.

As pleased as he is with this latest breeding success story, Randhawa emphasized that cultivar improvement is an ongoing process that responds to the evolving needs of farmers and end users. The low moisture conditions experienced during the 2021 and 2022 growing seasons seriously impacted crops in various regions of the Prairies. In response, the AAFC breeding program is now examining its germplasm stock for traits that can boost the resilience of crops in the face of harsh summer conditions. “The last couple of years, we have been hit very hard with drought and heat, and we are looking into germplasm that can help us develop cultivars that are resistant to abiotic stresses, especially drought,” said Randhawa.

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Development of Improved Winter Wheat Cultivars for Western Canada

Written by: Ian Doig

In April 2022, Harwinder Sidhu took the reins of the winter wheat breeding program at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Lethbridge Research Centre. For the full year prior, he worked with now-retired head breeder Rob Graf on the transition. Sidhu’s first year with program coincided with the final field season for its winter wheat cultivar development under the most recent five-year Canadian National Wheat Cluster.

Sidhu plans to maintain the program’s track record as a producer of valuable, new CWRW varieties with a focus on improvement to yield and quality as well as pest and disease resistance. “You always want to keep improving your germplasm and your varieties,” he said. “New or evolved pathogens arise that render your previous varieties either susceptible or no longer the best fit. Updated varieties are our best bet to ensure wheat production on the Prairies is robust.”

 The program will see two lines move to registration over the next two to three years. The most recently registered line, W614 has been named AAC Overdrive. As its name suggests, the variety exhibits qualities that go above and beyond. “It’s one of the most disease resistant winter wheat varieties to come out of this program,” said Sidhu. “Our goal is that every next line that is supported for registration strives to match its disease resistance profile so farmers can trust that their lines will perform well in the field under high disease pressure.”

While spring wheat breeding can be sped up by contra-seasonal cropping in locations such as New Zealand, this is not possible with winter wheat, which remains dormant in the soil over winter. The program will also work to adopt new genotyping tools and processes to reduce cost and speed up the variety development pipeline that now takes 10 to 12 years. For instance, this will include the use of drone sensor and software technology to conduct field work such as measuring the height of field plots over the course of hours rather than days as is the case when done manually. Such processes speed up the rate at which germplasm with unfavourable traits is discarded, which accelerates development.

Part of its ongoing work, the Lethbridge program has built an extensive germplasm bank to support breeding activities. This allows breeders to target diverse traits that include disease and drought resistance, and its solid-stem germ plasm may aid the fight against wheat stem sawfly.

Sidhu emphasized the AAFC winter wheat program works for farmers. He welcomes their input, which he said shapes the direction of breeding targets. “This is their own program. We produce varieties that work best for them.”

The crop has well-known inherent strengths as a rotational option, but Sidhu emphasized continuous variety improvement will ensure this remains the case. “We will continue developing varieties that increase the confidence of farmers in growing winter wheat and also providing them options for different market classes. We will keep targeting our key areas of yield improvement, resistance and quality, but also foray into new tool exploration and development and see how we can improve winter wheat breeding even further.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Delivery of an Innovative Winter Wheat Agronomic Package to Achieve Sustainable Wheat Production in the Canadian Prairies

Written by: Ian Doig

In 2016, winter wheat yielded substantially higher than spring wheat across all three Prairie provinces. Statistics Canada pegged the numbers at six per cent in Alberta, 26.5 per cent in Saskatchewan and 25.4 per cent in Manitoba. This alone makes a compelling case for increased acreage, but there are many reasons farmers should grow more winter wheat, according to Brian Beres, a senior research scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Lethbridge Research and Development Centre.

It is resilient to climate challenges, performs ecological services and simply makes business sense, said Beres. His research project conducted for the latest five-year wheat cluster sought to improve winter wheat agronomic management. While field work wrapped in 2022, certain aspects will remain ongoing.

The crop’s competitive lifecycle is certainly central to its high yield potential. Seeded in fall, the young plants capture early spring sunshine and moisture that fuels their growth. As they out-compete weeds and avoid certain insect cycles, this may reduce the need for inputs. Further, winter wheat can be employed like a cover crop that anchors residue in the fall and produces a harvestable crop rather than requiring termination. Early harvest also benefits cashflow. Generating dollars earlier in the year allows for better business management. With field work spread over the year, sowing winter wheat can also reduce capital expenditure on equipment. All this while it provides habitat for waterfowl and upland game birds.

Because it requires fall seeding, farmers are often reluctant to take on the logistical challenge of additional field work. Beres is adamant it’s possible and cited the example of farmers who sow winter wheat in the morning and harvest crops in the afternoon. In fact, Alberta winter wheat farmers have their practices nicely dialled in, said Beres. He has spent much of the past 25 years on management improvement while AAFC Lethbridge breeder Rob Graf, now retired, handled the genetic side. “The way science works, it’s not always sexy, transformational innovations,” said Beres. “Together, we incrementally improved the system to the point where it has become harder and harder for somebody say, ‘Well, the practices and the genetics just aren’t there.’”

His work now focuses on the wheat phase of crop rotation. Because canola maturity has become progressively later, his team has developed ways to better sequence it with winter wheat. And there is work yet to be done on yield with an increased focus on yield stability. “It’s great for us to demonstrate improved yield, but can you bring that yield up and maintain it from field to field, year to year, province to province?” Ongoing research will also examine new and emerging crops for their potential compatibility with winter wheat. An additional component of the project is a long-term rotational study to measure potential advantages in the substitution of winter wheat for wheat classes such as CWRS, CPSW and CNHR.

This farmer-funded and driven line of study continues to generate innovative management practices, said Beres. “This project is going to give farmers further confidence they can adopt winter wheat and be successful at in their area.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Developing Canadian Western Red Spring Varieties for Northern Areas

Written by: Ian Doig

On the northern Prairies, diseases and growing conditions, including soil type and climate, differ considerably from those to the south. Funded by the Canadian National Wheat Cluster, Santosh Kumar and his team at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Brandon Research and Development Centre develop CWRS wheat varieties in line with the unique requirements of northern farmers.

With the short growing season and colder nights, plants have less time to complete their lifecycle, said Kumar. “Plants must have certain unique traits to survive the northern Prairies. We do additional adaptation testing on the northern area to acclimatize the plants, so they can survive these pressures but also yield premium quality CWRS wheat.”

Growth conditions are not uniform within the vast parkland region that extends from northeastern British Columbia to northern Manitoba. While northern CWRS varieties are tested in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and B.C.’s Peace River Country, northern Alberta is the focus of breeding work. “We target our lines where maximum acreage is located, because that’s where the maximum benefit to the farmers is,” said Kumar. Primary variety crossing work is carried out at the AAFC Beaver Lodge Research Farm. “We grow and select the early generation germ plasm there, so it is screened in the region where it is targeted.”

Further development is carried out in Brandon, where the resistance package is broadened to include pests and diseases not prevalent in the north. This increases the resilience of northern varieties in the event these threats invade the region. This versatile resistance package has seen northern CWRS varieties adopted beyond the region. For example, though developed for the north, AAC Redwater has been grown by farmers across Manitoba for its early maturity as well as Fusarium and midge resistance.

Two years ago, Kumar’s team improved upon AAC Redwater with the release of AAC Redstar. Though it is northern-specific, with its maximized resistance to Fusarium, it can be grown across the Prairies. The team also recently developed early maturing, highly midge resistant AAC Darby and its refuge pairing AAC Hassler.

Farmers are the biggest motivators of this breeding program. Their input has identified three focus areas, said Kumar. With older varieties, northern farmers often produced feed wheat. “We took that to heart, and we said, ‘OK, what do we need to improve?’” Paying close attention to falling number as a quality indicator, Kumar worked to improve resistance to pre-harvest sprouting by pyramiding multiple genes that have this effect. “Sometimes farmers are harvesting when it’s snowing,” he said. “So, if the temperature is low and moisture conditions are high, AAC Redstar does not lose the grade.”

Stripe rust resistance is also critical to northern varieties. This, too, was strengthened in AAC Redstar. Thirdly, southern semi-dwarf varieties tend to grow taller when seeded in the north, so the team introduced ultra-semi-dwarf genetics to discourage lodging and promote yield over the growth of the plant body.

“We incorporated these three major traits, so farmers get a consistent yield advantage, disease protection and the quality profile they expect from CWRS,” said Kumar.

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Breeding Field-Ready Canada Western Red Spring Cultivars for the Eastern Prairies

Written by: Ian Doig

Santosh Kumar develops CWRS wheat varieties for the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Brandon Research and Development Centre. The Canadian National Wheat Cluster is a key funder of the breeding work he and his team conduct. Paired with internal AAFC funding that advances breeding technologies, the creation of new varieties can be done quickly, efficiently and cost effectively, said Kumar.

 “Five-year cluster funding helps us make new breeding populations while taking the advanced breeding populations from previous clusters and finishing them as field-ready cultivars,” he added. “We continue to work from one cluster to another.”

 The development of cultivars for the eastern Prairies is one of two CWRS projects Kumar leads. Its central objectives are to improve CWRS quality traits, increase potential for high yield and boost priority-one disease resistance. In this geographic area that stretches east from Saskatoon to Ontario’s extreme west, good soil and long growing degree days are ideal for high-yielding varieties. However, the area experiences a very high incidence of Fusarium, rusts and bunt diseases due to high moisture and warm weather conditions.

 In this region, CWRS competes with soybean and corn for acreage. Kumar noted with increased global wheat demand over the last couple of years, CWRS acres have increased here.

 To minimize the amount of straw CWRS varieties produce under warm, moist conditions, the team develops semi-dwarf varieties. These tend to channel nutrients into grain yield rather than plant material. Their high stem strength prevents lodging, a valuable physical asset against Prairie winds that can result in serious harvest difficulties and quality downgrades.

 While these varieties deliver very high yield that ensures profitability, protein content must also align with the CWRS quality profile wheat buyers expect. “Its quality profile makes CWRS the king of wheat globally,” said Kumar. This includes high milling yield and gluten strength as well as adequate falling number, which Kumar described as paramount to good wheat grading results. The baking qualities of the dough must also be excellent.

 The creation of a broad disease package adds challenge. “Because we are public breeders funded by farmers, we go beyond the five priority-one diseases,” said Kumar. Disease resistance additionally includes loose smut and leaf spot diseases.

 The eastern Prairies region also has a high prevalence of orange blossom wheat midge, which can cause up to 15 per cent yield loss and grade loss due to kernels that are shrivelled and scratched. “We focus on that quite a bit in the eastern Prairies because it’s a problem in this area,” said Kumar. One of nine varieties developed since 2014, the breeding program’s latest is the midge tolerant AAC Hodge.

 The list also includes AAC Cameron, AAC Jatharia, AAC LeRoy, AAC Magnet, AAC Prevail and AAC Warman. These nine varieties hold solid track records, having performed very well while climatic conditions have varied greatly. “That tells us the varieties are consistently making good quality wheat through drought years or high rainfall years,” said Kumar. “Farmers can expect the best package that we can build for them.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Pre-Breeding Platform for Canadian Wheat Improvement

Written by: Ellen Cottee

Lead Researchers: Dr. Sylvie Cloutier (AAFC – Ottawa) and Dr. Curt McCartney (AAFC – Morden)

With a global population of nine billion expected by 2050, many in the agriculture industry are interested in finding tactics to keep up with the growing demand for food. For Canada, feeding the world means growing and exporting even more wheat, a crucial crop due to its nutrient and calorie density.

One response to the call for improved and increased wheat production includes pre-breeding – a process that identifies key characteristics and genes in plant materials other than domestic wheat, and transfers them to materials breeders can work with to develop new varieties.

 Wheat geneticists are the first step in this process, narrowing down genetic data to find DNA markers and germplasms that show promising disease resistance and crop resiliency. Despite doing critical research, however, their findings don’t always see the light of day.

 “I found the work [geneticists] were doing fascinating,” said Dr. Sylvie Cloutier, principal research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Ottawa, “but often, they were working in isolation or with one breeder, and their discoveries were not being taken up.”

 Building upon past research and discussions, Cloutier and her team received funding under the 2018-2023 Canadian National Wheat Cluster to bridge this information gap, setting out to create a database where wheat geneticists can share all their findings.

 “We needed to have a platform that was national in scope, that was fully open, where material and data is publicly available to everybody,” Cloutier explained, “and the chance to have it taken up would be greater.”

The platform is home to DNA markers and germplasms containing desirable traits, with the majority of current data focused on resistance to fusarium head blight and common fungal diseases. Instead of raw data, the database will also have search functions for breeders to narrow down traits of interest as well as a curator to assist with the addition of more information in the future.

Creating new wheat varieties through pre-breeding happens in three steps: discovery, transfer and deployment. This project focused on the first phase, compiling the important information geneticists find in the germplasm and DNA of wheat relatives. Cloutier said she hopes to move their work forward to the transfer phase in the upcoming 2023 – 2028 research cluster.

Adjacent to the creation of this platform, Cloutier received funding from Genome Canada to research wild wheat genetics – another key component of the pre-breeding process. These ‘cousins’ of cultivated wheat have genetic properties desirable to wheat breeders, growers and exporters, presenting an opportunity to further the genetic diversity and resilience of cultivated wheat varieties.

Looking to the future, Cloutier plans to progress the platform to the transfer phase of varietal development through the upcoming 2023 research cluster. Above all, she hopes her work contributes to – and helps to grow – Canada’s stellar wheat reputation.

“My goal is to make sure Canada continues to produce the best wheat, and we never lose that edge,” she said. “Canadian agriculture feeds the world, and I want us to stay there.”

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  • 2018-2023 Wheat Cluster

Investigating Crop Management Options to Lessen the Impact of Fusarium Head Blight in Wheat

Written by: Ellen Cottee

Lead Researcher: Dr. Kelly Turkington (AAFC – Lacombe)

Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) has long been an enemy of wheat producers across Canada. Emerging heavily in Manitoba in the early 1990s and spreading through the prairies in the late 2000s, the fungal disease causes kernel damage and wheat grade detrimental to producers’ bottom lines. In the worst-case scenario, FHB causes deoxynivalenol (DON), a mycotoxin dangerous to animals and humans if ingested.

Previous research on FHB focused on better understanding the pathogen and breeding new wheat varieties for resistance. While important in the ongoing fight against the disease, this approach neglects on-farm management options producers are able to implement themselves.

“It really has been a complex issue,” Dr. Kelly Turkington, researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada – Lacombe said. “It’s a challenging disease for farmers to manage and in terms of research.”

Long interested in the prevention of FHB in wheat crops, Turkington launched two new projects under the 2018 – 2023 Canadian National Wheat Cluster to examine the impacts of crop management choices on the presence of FHB.

The first of Turkington’s projects focuses on how seeding rates could improve fungicide efficacy with fewer applications. Lower seeding rates lead to a wide window of head emergence, complicating the current fungicide recommendation of application at 75 per cent head emergence.

“That means you still have 25 per cent of the heads still in the boot, not directly protected by fungicide,” Turkington explained. “Once those heads emerge, they have no protection from the pathogen.”

Increased seeding rates can provide more uniform crop development and therefore more uniform targets in fungicide application. Trials combined different seeding rates with various fungicide practices, allowing Turkington and his team to see the larger picture. In the future, Turkington said research will likely integrate external factors, such as weather and pathogen forecasts, to build out recommendations for seeding rate and fungicide best practices.

Turkington’s second project examines the direct impact of crop management practices on FHB presence. One trial in the project focused on residue management – removing and treating all crop residue, including the chaff of the wheat, in order to reduce the amount of inoculum returned to the field following harvest.

Extended crop rotation periods, described as more than one year of a non-host crop before planting wheat, also showed success in trials. More time between the planting of susceptible varieties and crops allows for the inactivation of pathogen residue left on the field. While good news, Turkington clarified that the drought conditions of 2021 may have impacted the team’s assessments and they will need to collect further data this spring.  

With the final public report slated for release after the cluster closes March 2023, Turkington said he hopes his projects, along with future research, will give producers more FHB-fighting power.

“There are tools available, and I think we can tweak those tools,” he said.

“With the work we’re doing under the current cluster program … we have strategies – and perhaps some refinements – that will greatly help producers achieve better management of FHB on an annual basis.”

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