UI Wheat Team Focusing on Developing New Varieties, Boosting Yields

Friday, November 8 2013

MOSCOW, Idaho – More than 20,000 individual test plots of winter wheat are seeded in northern Idaho fields and greenhouses, one sign that University of Idaho research on the valuable crop is up to speed.

The plots will help plant breeder Jack Brown assess wheat varieties already released and develop new ones, said Donn Thill, Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station director at Moscow.

The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences filled two other key positions in the past year as part of an initiative with the Idaho Wheat Commission and Limagrain Cereal Seeds to enhance research and extension efforts focused on wheat.

Those two positions are both focused on agronomy, the science of growing crops.

Doug Finkelnburg was hired last year as a Lewiston-based University of Idaho Extension area educator for crops. His job is to assist with regional agricultural research and inform growers of the latest research findings.

Kurt Schroeder was hired in August as a faculty cropping systems agronomist in the college’s Department of Plant, Soils and Entomological Sciences. His job will be focused on finding the most efficient, productive methods to grow wheat varieties.

Wheat generated nearly $800 million in receipts for growers in 2012. The Idaho Wheat Commission announced in January 2012 that it would create two $1 million endowments to support researchers in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

Limagrain Cereal Seeds and the college agreed to share wheat breeding and variety evaluation responsibilities and access to each other’s wheat genetic resources or germplasm.

In his 22 years as a canola, rapeseed and mustard breeder, Brown is a leading producer of new licensed varieties, Thill said.

“He’s a very productive plant breeder, and he has shown those same capabilities with the soft white wheat northern Idaho breeding program," Thill added.

“He has in my opinion taken this program in 10 months from 0 to 60. We’re asking him to wear two breeders’ hats, one for his very productive oilseed program and the other for wheat,” Thill said.

With fall planting finished little more than two weeks ago, Brown’s efforts to evaluate potential new wheat varieties spans the gamut from first crosses, the F1 generation, through crosses that have been refined for seven or more generations, F7-plus, Thill said. The latter build on work launched earlier by former UI wheat breeder Bob Zemetra and others.

In addition to oilseeds and now wheat, Brown’s plant-breeding resume includes potatoes and barley.

Finkelnburg began shifting from his role as a research scientist working on wheat evaluation efforts through the Limagrain Cereal Seeds agreement to working more directly with growers through his new role with UI Extension.

In June, Finkelnburg led field tours near Lewiston and Nezperce to assess the performance of dozens of winter and spring wheat varieties. His hiring refills a position vacated by extension educator Larry Smith’s retirement some five years ago.

Schroeder joins the UI faculty after working for the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Pullman. He has begun a study on the impacts of acidic soils on Palouse wheat yields. He established test plots at the Palouse Research, Extension and Education Center and in cooperator’s fields this fall.

The plots will help researchers and growers better understand the impact of acid soils, and examine calcium carbonate or lime applications to mitigate negative effects, on wheat.

Schroeder is also fulfilling another element of the Limagrain agreement, recruiting a graduate student who will receive a $20,000 annual assistantship funded by the global seed company for wheat-related research.

In all three cases, Thill noted, the work represents a rebound from state support lost as a result of the Great Recession. Brown’s assignment represents a bridging strategy until the college gets funding to pay the salary to hire a full-time breeder or wheat geneticist.

The immediate focus of the Limagrain agreement, with support of the Idaho Wheat Commission, was to focus the first elements of the wheat team on agronomy, field research and extension directly focused on production.

“We’re moving forward, and we have some good people in those positions. I’m personally excited about what the outcomes and the impacts of their research programs will produce for Idaho wheat growers,” Thill said.