BROOKINGS, S.D. - Oats is nothing new for South Dakota or for South Dakota State University, but an expanded private partnership is giving the oat breeding program new strength.

This summer, General Mills announced it would move its state-of-the-art oat variety development laboratory to the SDSU campus. Jim Kirkwood, vice president and chief science and technology development officer at General Mills, says the move supports his company's goal of purchasing 100 percent of their oats from growing regions that "demonstrate continuous improvement against industry-based environmental metrics" by 2020. If the program is successful, the company will expand its presence.

General Mills moved its laboratory to the Young Brothers Seed Technology Building at SDSU, and the company maintains outdoor plots at Brookings, S.D., and various places in the state. General Mills has a large facility at Le Sueur, Minn., but has been "slowly refocusing the bioscience toward the grain and away from vegetables," Kirkwood says.

Being close-by

The two breeding programs will be separate, but General Mills breeder Paul Richter is working in close proximity to SDSU plant breeders, in the seed technology building, which was dedicated in 2013. General Mills will have close connections to SDSU grain scientists, seed experts, environmental scientists, field station managers and student-researchers, says Kirkwood, who adds General Mills believes oats will have a major place in solving world hunger challenges. About 25 percent of the company's products include oats as a major ingredient, including its famous Cheerios brand.

SDSU President Barry H. Dunn calls the General Mills effort a "powerful shared opportunity to enhance productivity."

Melanie Caffe-Treml, SDSU assistant professor and oat breeder, says the two programs can "do much more by working together and benefit from each other."

General Mills brings quality evaluation expertise. Crop performance testing has been led by John Kleinjan, crop production extension associate, based in Brookings.

Padmanaban Krishnan, an SDSU cereal chemist, is developing new near-infrared calibrations to measure nutritional qualities, such as beta-glucan, a fiber benefit of oats. That project is supported by both General Mills and Grain Millers, a company that has a mill in St. Ansgar, Iowa, but is headquartered in the Minneapolis area.

The SDSU oats program attempts to increase the productivity and marketability of oats, Caffe-Treml says. "We're trying to improve the yield stability, the test weight, the lodging resistance, disease resistance, and also milling and nutritional qualities," says Caffe-Treml, who works on her plots with technician Nick Hall.

30 named cultivars

SDSU's oat breeding research program dates to 1887, when the institution's experiment station was founded. The first named variety of oats, Cole, was released in 1909. There have been 30 oat varieties released by SDSU over the years, including Haden and Natty in 2014. Another is set for potential release in the fall, with crown rust resistance and high test weight.

In the early 1900s, oats were used for feeding horses, making it a major crop that filled many acres. Oat acres have declined significantly in the past 50 years, but in the past five years there has been a small increase. The 2016 planted acres almost doubled, compared to 2012, because of strong demand and advantages of oats in the crop rotation.

Unlike major crops such as corn and soybeans, oats lack the acres to attract large-scale private or commercial breeding funding. More than half of the oats are used for forage, so SDSU is also trying to improve cultivars for animal forage.

The General Mills collaboration is important with breeders like Mike McMullen from North Dakota State University. An oat breeding program at the University of Minnesota was stopped for several years but is resuming this year, with Kevin Smith, the barley breeder in charge. There is no oat breeding program for Montana State University, but there are in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The programs share germ plasm for breeding purposes and test each other's breeding lines, in their own environments, says McMullen, who notes there are some new strong private-public collaborations in Minnesota, too.

"I appreciate General Mills’ input into the breeding program," McMullen says. "It adds to a critical mass to keep oats research viable in the whole region."