Tiny variations the key to better wheat at MU research farm [video]

Apr 29, 2013

Each section (marked out in brackets) represents a different variety of wheat.
Credit Cade Cleavelin / KBIA

At MU's Bradford Research and Extension Center, researchers are testing thousands of genetically unique variations of wheat. They'll ultimately insert the best of them into the market as more productive, profitable wheat varieties.

Selective breeding is an ancient practice in agriculture. Whether for crops or livestock, producers have always had to select for traits that help produce more beef or grain, and therefore more money. Now, agriculture all but demands selective breeding.

“I try to combine parents that have traits I'm interested in,” said Anne McKendry, a University of Missouri geneticist working on new and better varieties of wheat. “Out of all the kids and grandkids — all the way down through about eight generations [of winter wheat] — I try to find things that have all of the traits that a grower would want.”

McKendry tests different wheat varieties in four adjacent fields at Bradford. In a space the size of several football fields, she and her students are monitoring 2,500 plots of winter wheat varieties. It's a sweeping mosaic of variation. Each patch of wheat is a small, unique tile just six rows wide and a dozen feet long. Only a few inches separate each tile from the other.  This video, produced by the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, gives an idea of the scale of McKendry's operation:

“This field is for what we call our preliminary yield trial,” said McKendry. “That means this is the first time we've ever seen these varieties which have originated from a genetic cross in a production kind of environment. Genetically, every little patch of wheat is different from every other one.”

Wheat is cultivated in different varieties, like different varieties of apples. Each variety is still the same species, but it’s in the 2,500 tiny distinctions exhibited by each variety that McKendry is interested. It has taken her the better part of 20 years to cultivate a gamut of wheat varieties to this scale.

“We have about 23,000 of these rows out here, so in these two fields alone we have about 2,500 different … things” said McKendry, referring to the young varieties still active in her current trial. “I'll come through and look at each one of them and see if I don't find anything that looks good enough to advance. If I like what I see, we’ll take a row and replant it the next year for more testing.”

It can take anywhere from three to seven years for a new variety of wheat to receive McKendry’s seal of approval. In that time, over 95 percent of the original trial varieties will have been discarded. You have to be ruthless, she says. Otherwise, studies like this can become overwhelming.

“Maybe one percent will actually get to a grower,” she said. “If I'm giving a farmer a variety, I want to be sure that they got the performance I got out of that variety, and I can't know that until I evaluate over several years.”

Over the course of her research, McKendry has introduced six new wheat varieties in the Missouri market. But it takes a long time, and constant supervision to get from seed to market.

“We'll let it grow up, and we’ll let the diseases come in, and we'll walk through the plots and assess how susceptible each plant is,” she said. “We'll assess every single one.”

McKendry has replicated her research in the Bootheel and in Missouri’s southwest to get a broader indication of how her wheat is faring.

The data McKendry collects is exhaustive and undergoes thorough statistical analysis to complement her observations. One of her primary goals is to increase the amount of wheat the seeds can actually grow, but the ideal variety is also resistant to common diseases, pests and drought conditions.

“You have to have acceptable levels of everything before you give it to a farmer,” said McKendry. “And, it has to be better than what the farmer already has in at least one thing. Otherwise, why bother?”