By Carolyn King
In the past two years, Dean Spaner’s wheat breeding program has released three new CWRS varieties: PT769, BW947 and PT765, which is now named Coleman. Photo courtesy of Anne Pratt.
In the last two years, three new cultivars have come out of the University of Alberta’s wheat breeding program, and more are on the way. To put that in perspective: from 1959 to 2012, the university released a total of three wheat varieties. The current program, led by Dr. Dean Spaner, may be small, but it’s developing some top-notch varieties.
Spaner started his wheat breeding program about a dozen years ago. His main emphasis is on Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheats, but he’s also doing some work with Canada Prairie Spring (CPS) and Canada Western General Purpose (CWGP) wheats. CWRS wheats are high protein, hard wheats with superior milling and baking qualities, and are often used for yeast breads. CPS wheats have good milling and baking qualities and somewhat lower protein levels than CWRS. And CWGP wheats have higher starch and lower protein contents than milling wheats, making them suitable for uses like ethanol and animal feed.
Spaner’s breeding program draws on diverse breeding material. “Every year we get some germplasm from international nurseries. For example, two of the three lines that we’ve registered in the last two years have had roughly one-third of their germplasm from CIMMYT [International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center] in Mexico, from international sources,” he says. “We also get some germplasm from Canadian and American wheat breeders, and we may start to get some from Europe.”
Funding from the Western Grains Research Foundation and the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, and more recently the Alberta Wheat Commission, has been very important to the program’s success. Spaner has also received funding support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
Three CWRS varieties released
All new wheat cultivars seeking to become registered varieties for use in Western Canada are evaluated by the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale. This committee makes registration recommendations to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Variety Registration Office based on the results of multi-location, multi-year, replicated trials to evaluate agronomic performance, disease and insect pest responses, end-use quality and other traits. The trials follow specific procedures to ensure the resulting information is relevant, unbiased and representative of the candidate cultivars.
The committee recommended Spaner’s BW947 and PT765 cultivars in 2013, and his PT769 in 2014. All three are CWRS wheats that out-yielded the check varieties in their registration trials.
PT765 has been registered as Coleman. Spaner says this high-yielding, early maturing variety has elevated resistance to Fusarium and very good stripe and leaf rust resistance.
Lefsrud Seed at Viking, Alta., has the rights to Coleman. According to Ed Lefsrud, they expect to have very small amounts of seed available by the spring of 2015. “If the variety is as good as it appeared last year, then by spring of 2016 there should be a few townships of seed available.”
Lefsrud likes Coleman’s disease package and its earliness. “In southern Alberta, it was the first to head out this year,” he says. “We’re hoping it will do well in the Red Deer region and north.” He is pleased that Spaner’s program is developing varieties like Coleman that perform well in the Parkland region.
Canterra Seeds has the rights to BW947. The company has picked a name for it, but it is not yet registered with the Variety Registration Office.
“We’re keenly interested in Dr. Spaner’s program, and in BW947, which we think has an excellent fit for Western Canada,” notes Brent Derkatch, director of operations and business development at Canterra Seeds. “His program has been able to incorporate some unique germplasm into BW947, and genetic diversity is important for making positive gains in product performance in wheat.”
BW947 combines great yield potential with early maturity, says Derkatch. “BW947 yields five per cent higher than Carberry, which is one of the leading yield products in Western Canada, and it’s five days earlier than Carberry. It’s not easy for breeders to make yield gains and also shorten the maturity window. So I think this variety could work quite well from Manitoba all the way up into the Peace River area of B.C. and Alberta.”
He also likes this awnless variety’s well-rounded combination of other traits, such as resistance to stripe rust and leaf rust, moderate resistance to stem rust, good lodging resistance and very good quality.
Canterra Seeds accelerated seed production of BW947 in New Zealand in the winter of 2013-14, so the company expects to have Certified seed available in the fall of 2015, for spring 2016 planting. (To meet the demand for seed, seed companies may rely on winter season production in warm climates. This off-season, winter production is commonly referred to as contra season production.)
“There’s an added cost to contra season seed increases, so seed companies are very careful about which products they select for that,” notes Derkatch. “BW947 was one of the first wheat varieties that we’ve chosen for a contra season increase. That’s because we believe it has the potential to become a very popular variety.”
Mastin Seeds in Sundre, Alta., has the rights to PT769. Bob Mastin likes the variety’s “large kernel size, high yields, early maturity, good lodging resistance and good disease resistance.”
According to Spaner, PT769 is one of the earliest cultivars on the Prairies. Mastin says, “I’m always interested in early. I’m on the western edge of Alberta up against the foothills, so I’ve grown up farming in a reduced season area and early is important. I also believe that with the wild weather we’ve been having lately, we’re getting a lot of violent or unseasonable weather in the spring that delays seeding. So I think early maturing varieties will be of interest everywhere, even in the longer season areas.”
He adds, “There were two early spring wheat varieties I was looking to bid on, this one and an Ag Canada variety. I was amazed when I looked at them to see that their data was almost identical, even though they had totally different breeding backgrounds.
“I settled on PT769 for several reasons. One was it had CDC Go heritage. I’ve grown Go, I like Go, and a lot of farmers like Go. I also have never bid on a variety from the University of Alberta and I wanted to become more familiar with their program. And if I can support a local breeder in a smaller breeding program, I’m all for that, and he’s developed a world-class product.”
Mastin expects to have PT769 seed available by spring 2016. He’s currently holding a contest to name the variety. “I’m hoping to incorporate Go in the name so people will want to give the variety a try.” Some of the suggestions so far are Go Early, Go Far, Go Forward and Go West.
Objectives and challenges
Early maturity is a major focus of Spaner’s breeding program. Over the last decade, his group has had various projects with CWRS, CPS and CWGP wheats related to the genetics of earliness.
“We’re the northern-most wheat breeding program, so focusing on early maturity makes sense,” says Spaner. He notes that earlier maturities allow earlier harvesting and reduce the risk of problems like frost damage, pre-harvest sprouting and downgrading of wheat quality.
Resistance to stripe, stem and leaf rust is also a special interest, especially as stripe rust has emerged as a growing problem in Alberta. Spaner’s group is currently working on mapping genes for rust resistance and pyramiding several sources of resistance into breeding lines, to provide more durable resistance to these diseases.
One of the biggest challenges for the program is Fusarium resistance. Spaner explains, “We can screen for all the rusts, bunts and other diseases through our disease nurseries, and we can screen for quality and early maturity, but we can’t screen for Fusarium because we can’t bring Fusarium here [to Alberta]. So we have to do that screening in Manitoba, and getting space in Manitoba [Fusarium nurseries] has been a challenge.”
Developing improved CWRS lines is also challenging. “CWRS is an extremely difficult class to breed in because it encompasses so many traits that have to be pooled together,” he says.
A further challenge for this small breeding program is that it has dual goals. Spaner notes, “As [the operator of] a university program, my mandate is not 100 per cent about breeding wheat. My mandate is also to educate scientists who will in the future be breeding wheat or part of the agricultural scientific community.”
The program is clearly up to these challenges. Spaner currently has, along with the three new varieties, several CWRS lines in the third and second years of the registration trials, and some CPS and GP lines in the first-year trials.