Wheat School: Breeders work to put winter wheat on the map in Western Canada

Winter wheat can yield up to 45 percent more than spring wheat, so why don’t more Western Canadian growers crank up the seeder and get more in the ground before the snow flies?

Winter wheat is grown across the Prairies, but unless there is a large amount of a certain class grown, it’s difficult for the industry to get it to market economically, says Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada winter wheat breeder Robert Graf.

Advances in winter wheat breeding, however, could quickly give farmers the incentive to seed more of the crop and also entice the market to bid on winter production to meet market demand. In this episode of Real Agriculture’s Wheat School, Graf shares his excitement for varieties he sees in the research pipeline and their potential to change the game.

Graf notes winter wheat has come a long way in recent years, especially in terms of disease defence: “We now have a full rust resistance package that gives us resistance to stem, leaf, and stripe rust.” In fact, it’s a winter wheat variety — Emerson — that received the first-ever ‘R’ rating for resistance to fusarium head blight. There’s also resistance to bunt, and wheat streak mosaic virus. “We have the full gamut of disease resistance now and we are continuing to improve that.”

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Graf says many producers shy away from winter wheat because they consider planting in the fall a nuisance. “The flip side to that is those are acres that you don’t have to seed in the spring,” he says. The early harvest also spreads the workload and makes better use of equipment resources.

Breeders are also tackling quality parameters including protein concentration, gluten strength and water absorption. “Over the last few years we’ve definitely corrected the gluten strength issue; we’re gradually increasing protein; and over the next few years we will see lines with even higher protein concentrations,” adds Graf.

The biggest challenge is to increase water absorption. Currently, when you mill the same amount of winter and spring wheat, bakers can make more dough with spring wheat because it has a higher water absorption rate. But that could be about to change: “We have a prototype line in the registration trial right now that has much higher water absorption, very good gluten strength and a bump in protein concentration as well,” says Graf. “We’ll see how the industry likes it and we’ll go from there.”

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