Fall is a time of reckoning, discovery, excitement, disappointment and challenge for the researchers that toil diligently to bring new and better wheat varieties to farmers. It is the season when results from commercial fields, quality labs, demonstration plots and test fields get tallied.
For the researchers dedicated to Syngenta’s goal of hybrid wheat by 2020 in Junction City and other wheat sites, this has been a year filled with valuable data on the performance of some of the most promising lines in the research pipeline as weather challenges from drought to freeze to flood to late-April blizzard, hail, high wind and torrential rains have struck.
“For the most part, I’d say we are still on track for 2020,” says Darcy Pawlik, cereals product marketing manager with Syngenta. “Mother Nature is still a variable, and it could shift timelines over the next few years, but so far, we still expect delivery in 2020 or 2021.”
Pawlik says one of the challenges to getting a hybrid wheat on the market is less about finding a hybrid with great parentage or hybrid vigor, and more about being able to scale production up predictably to provide a quantity and quality of seed year after year despite the weather, pests or other challenges.
“It’s one thing to make a cross and get a good hybrid, but it’s another to scale up and defeat all the typical things like heat, drought, flood or hail and get past all of those variables and produce the seed you need to grow to reliably supply it to the farmer,” he says.
He says the road to hybrid wheat success also involves education in best management practices for successful growing.
“The wheat industry has tended to lag behind other crops like corn or soybeans in the amount of management that becomes routine. As you get into hybrids, it becomes ever more important to make sure that farmers understand the pest and disease pressures and how to make sure you are managing the crop to maximize your results,” Pawlik says.
A big advantage for farmers as hybrids come on board is that some of those diseases may actually get easier to manage as the genetics for resistance can be made more robust.
“You have sources of genetics instead of one,” he says. “In combining those two parents you have the opportunity for stacking resistance genes like wheat streak mosaic resistance, various rusts and fusarium head blight and others from different parent lines, thereby potentially broadening the spectrum of diseases to which the line has a level of resistance.”
He says Syngenta has a couple of advantages in the race to develop hybrid wheat.
One is its success with hybrid barley in Europe, he says. “Our work with barley has given us quite a bit of insight into what to expect. And we are seeing that in many circumstances hybrid wheat does react a lot like hybrid barley.”
Another advantage is a long history of successful wheat breeding and marketing.
“We’ve been in wheat for 80 years, and we have great sources of both domestic and global germplasm pools that are complimented by genetic markers,” he says.
That said, the common challenge in developing hybrid wheat, whether it is a hybrid or a variety, remains balancing the milling and baking quality of the hybrid with the agronomic characteristics and yield potential.
A great year for taking notes
The 2017 wheat-growing season has been filled with opportunities for learning, Pawlik says.
“Riding around doing customer visits in May and June, we saw places where whole fields were hailed out, where torrential downpours caused flooded fields, and then there was the April blizzard and several high-wind events. We took some phenomenal notes. One thing we learned is that you can’t have too many test sites. We have hybrid wheat test sites in all the major wheat-growing regions of North America.”
What Syngenta saw at its hybrid test sites this year was that some genetics do seem to be more resilient to dealing with weather and disease challenges. “We saw some of our new lines straighten back up after the blizzard,” he says. “It was pretty amazing.”
He says researchers have also been taking notes on the physiological differences between lines. “If you put down more N, in some varieties you get a yield bump while in other varieties or lines, more N goes to protein production or to grain fill and test weight. They’ve been documenting how we can achieve different results, and we are hoping to apply those lessons to recommend the best package possible when we release those first hybrids.”
Researchers this year also had a unique opportunity in the Dakotas to get real-world data on plant survival under extreme drought conditions.
“We got to see the breaking point in day-to-day observations,” he says. “In some areas, nothing survived, but we got a chance to see how much longer some lines could stay green. Now we have to look at why they lasted longer. Where does the resiliency come from? Naturally, we see this happens from hybrid vigor across crops, but we really want to get into it and start understanding it.”
A sizable bump in yield while maintaining acceptable milling and baking qualities is essential to making sure the technology gets widespread adoption by farmers and end users, Pawlik says.
“What we believe is that the effect of combining the genetics of two parents could bring an amplification of characteristics. We are looking for a boost in pathogen resistance, extra growth and vigor, bigger root mass, better tolerance to drought and other stressors,” Pawlik says.
He says that Syngenta is very proud of the first-generation hybrids that its world-class R&D team is bringing growers. “We are keeping our eye on the prize and making sure to take a long-term view, but are excited about the progress being made.”
He says the second-generation hybrids in early field tests are promising. “We are clearing different hurdles and seeing improvement every year,” he says.
Pawlik says Syngenta is determined to make sure the effort is successful.
“We don’t want to make any promises we can’t keep, but our goal is that hybrid wheat will bring more stability to yields, consistent availability to processors and increase farmer return on investment. We are the ambassadors of hybrid technology in cereals and will be responsible leaders as we introduce this game-changing technology to the wheat industry.”