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On-farm variety testing may yield different results

For growers with an eye for detail, there is an opportunity to become involved in early-stage selection of new cereals in Western Canada. Several farms and organizations are aiding Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) by home-testing wheat populations as candidates for a future variety. The lucky few may have a slim chance to develop their own wheat.
How slim? Well, in 2011, 13 individuals and organizations each planted 10,000 seeds that came directly from AAFC’s Cereal Research Centre (CRC) at Winnipeg. On behalf of wheat breeder Dr. Stephen Fox the participants will be making selections from this new material for three years. Fox, working with University of Manitoba instructor Gary Martens and technician Iris Vaisman, offered the seed to volunteers in early 2011. “This is an opportunity for the organic industry to participate and actually contribute to identifying varieties they’d like to have adapted for organic production systems,” Fox says. “We call it Participatory Plant Breeding.”

Fox, Martens and Vaisman traced the idea to a Washington State University wheat breeding program run by Dr. Stephen Jones, and to the organic farming community. “Ownership of food and germplasm is one of the drivers,” Fox says. “Private industry has done the majority of investment and they own the germplasm (for canola, corn, soybean and cotton) and this is one way of dealing with that.

”In time, the program could expand beyond wheat and beyond the organic industry. For now, Fox sees it as a good starting place.

Participatory breeding provides more eyes on the selection process and, in the case of organic conditions, better conditions for making choices. It allows more environments to be sampled early in the breeding process. In a typical breeding program, early work is done in only one environment each year. “Plants are challenged with different things on organic farms,” explains Fox. “Organic work is done differently. It means no herbicides, no insecticides, and sometimes in-crop cultivation when the plants are small. An organic environment offers a challenge the plants don’t usually encounter. You won’t be able to detect plant response until you put them in a place where they can express the advantage, or disadvantage. The genotypes that perform best there aren’t necessarily the same ones that perform best in conventional fields.”

Fox’s research is geared towards finding new varieties of Canada Western Red Spring wheat. It begins with a primary cross between two parent lines, which produces about 45 to 60 seed kernels. When 15 of these are grown out, this material produces 250 to 500 grams of F2 (second generation) seed.

The CRC office distributed seed to nine participating growers and four organizations located in Saskatchewan at Balcarres, Oxbow, Redvers and Scott, and in Manitoba at Beausejour, Brandon, Carman, Grandview, Kleefeld, Libau, Melita, Pine River and Swan Lake. Each participant received packages for three F3 populations.

In addition, seed from several registered varieties was provided so that participants would have biological references (checks) for height, straw strength, maturity and plant disease. These can be used to provide some guidance as to what sorts of plants might be selected. “When I grow my F2 populations – 50 three-metre rows form a population – that’s about 4000 plants. I take about 250 spikes out of each population and send those to New Zealand. These F2 populations also are bulk harvested. It’s a precaution against losing spikes and is providing the seed source for these farmers,” Fox says.

Gary Martens has his own farm, in addition to teaching at the university, and is one of the participants. “Stephen has already heavily exposed these F2 populations to rusts and Fusarium head blight (FHB). Disease-resistant plants that produced more viable seed will be favoured in the F3 bulk. Now we are doing generations three, four and five. We’re selecting in each year and will eventually give it back to him as generation F6,” Martens says.

“Fox will take it through another four generations, to make a few selections worthy of submission into the independent blind testing programs for variety registration.”

Conjuring up the spirit of Seager Wheeler
From their three populations at home, participants will select whatever they believe are the best 250 plants in each of their populations. They will thresh out the seed from these plants and put it into the ground as generation F4 in 2012, and repeat the steps in 2013 as generation F5.

It is the same base process used by the breeder. Now, it is being done in different environments and with more independent eyes than one plant breeder has available. “We all have different ideas as to what is good. It doesn’t take any longer. It may be a more difficult process, but generally the result is better, too,” Martens says. “Stephen’s got a committee looking instead of just himself, for now. Eventually, he’s going to put all these side by side and he’s going to check again for several more years.”

After they collect their F3 harvest spikes, participants can send the selected 250 spikes from each population to the CRC for bulk threshing, or they can thresh them in bulk at home, or they can thresh out each head separately at home. Hand-threshing is not required, but it will enable kernels from a single head to be planted into a single short row. “Seager Wheeler started to grow head rows by himself, and discovered he could start to see differences between these head rows. That’s when he started to make progress. It’s much harder to see progress when you’re growing plots from bulked selections,” Fox says.

Wheeler was a pioneering farmer and developer of cereal varieties. Like Wheeler and other plant breeders, Fox’s farmer-breeders will also want to throw out seed that is damaged, diseased or shrivelled. Eventually, from the original material, Fox expects to grow about 8000 rows of F6 material in his own nursery and continue the selection process. “I’ll go through and discard anything that is too rusty, too tall, too weak, too susceptible to FHB. Then we probably will start measuring protein concentration. There’s still a lot to do before we do a yield test,” he says.

Fox, Martens and Vaisman plan to offer the opportunity again in 2012 and 2013 to other interested growers. It is entirely possible that a few years from now, one participant will be rewarded as a named collaborator in a new variety and as recipient of some percentage of returns from sales. Tracking material returned from each participant will be very important.
Fox says, “I don’t think any other breeders are doing this here. We’re just trying it out to see how it works. There’s really no downside for me. People are doing some selecting work for me. We get more eyes on the material and maybe we get something out of it. From an academic perspective, I’m looking forward to comparing selections from the same populations made by different participants.”

Martens adds, “I think the concept is applicable to all crops.”

February 28, 2012
By John Dietz