The South Dakota State University wheat breeding program and research is dedicated to developing new varieties for South Dakota producers, made possible by a licensing agreement with the South Dakota Crop Improvement Association.

South Dakota wheat faces some unique growing challenges, making it vital to keep developing and creating new varieties matched to the state’s conditions. The SDSU wheat breeding program plays an essential role in the research and release of new wheat varieties.

Small grains, which include spring wheat, winter wheat and oats, take about 10 years to develop a new variety, says Daniel Scholl, director of South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station and associate dean of research for the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences at SDSU.

“These are very labor intensive and expensive programs,” he says.

Funding sources to make this possible include state matching funds, check-off sponsors, competitive research grants and return of royalties of seed sales revenue.

“This is a great example of why it is valuable for federal and state government to continue to support and enable land grant universities,” Scholl says.

Research funding

The wheat check-off, administered by the South Dakota Wheat Commission, is a major sponsor of wheat research in the state.

Reid Christopherson, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission, says approximately one-third of the annual check-off funds are invested in research projects at SDSU. These include spring and winter wheat breeding, pesticides, entomology and more.

“South Dakota is somewhat unique, as it is evenly split in winter and spring wheat acres grown, creating a necessity for research in both,” Christopherson says. “Also, compared to other grains such as corn and soybeans, wheat is still primarily public genetics.”

The research benefits producers on an annual basis by providing crop performance trials to give producers an opportunity to look at future varieties, as well as varieties from other states and private companies. Six testing locations in the state allow wheat to grow under conditions closest to field conditions, evaluate yield and test wheat resistance to disease factors, as well. Averages are reviewed after every year of performance trials to review data and determine potential for a new variety.

“I am excited that a decision was made to release two new spring varieties,” Christopherson says. “These varieties will take two years to reach producers, and will be ready for the 2017 cropping year.”

He says the local program is especially beneficial as varieties are developed and tested under South Dakota conditions, and certified seed is grown close by.

“The program has a tremendous track record and good qualifications,” he says.

Sunish Sehgal, SDSU Plant Sciences Department assistant professor, and a winter wheat breeder and researcher, determines the breeding objectives according to what is important to South Dakota producers. Commonly, this includes winter hardiness and survival, yield, quality to ensure profitability, and ability to tolerate weather, stress, drought, heat stress and pathogens.

Developing a new winter wheat variety begins with determining traits a germplasm contains and what it is lacking. Germplasm are developed in a nursery, then goes into a complex trait selection process. From there, yield trials develop best lines, and top lines will then be tested statewide and proposed for a seed increase.

“The breeding of a new wheat variety is a long, tedious process,” Sehgal says.

Wheat research is an ongoing process, important to growing income and profitability for farmers. Challenges year to year are not always the same, but, higher yield with the best package of desirable characteristics is the end goal. With winter wheat, winter survivability is vital, as there is approximately a 30 to 35 percent loss during the cold seasons.

An improvement to benefit South Dakota wheat producers is the availability of insurance for winter wheat, says Sehgal, adding it has recently been approved by U.S. Department of Agriculture for the state.

“Growing winter wheat brings several advantages,” Sehgal says. “It is the only winter crop, utilizes fall moisture, uses nitrogen, prevents soil erosion by wind and runoff, improves soil health, helps environmental carbon levels and provides the opportunity for a cover crop. Now, with insurance, it is a better option for producers than ever.”

Sehgal says the wheat breeding program has been in place at SDSU for more than 65 years.

“We just keep on trying new things and educating students and farmers to keep improving,” he says.

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