Hybrid wheat has been hovering like a promise for most of Mark Birdsall's farming career. The benefits of combining strong parents to make a more vigorous progeny has long been recognized in commodities such as corn. However, hybrid wheat has remained difficult to produce on a commercial scale because of its genetic complexity.
Those fortunes appear to be changing for farmers such as Birdsall, who farms and operates a seed business near Berthold, North Dakota.
This year, Syngenta Seeds will offer limited acreage of F1 spring wheat hybrids to Northern Plains growers. Associated seed growers are expected to plant from 5,000 to 7,000 acres in anticipation of a commercial launch in 2024 under Syngenta's AgriPro brand.
Other seed companies such as BASF, Bayer, Corteva Agriscience and Limagrain Cereal Seeds are also in the race to bring hybrids to market with timelines that range between mid- to late decade or beyond.
Birdsall has been planting experimental AgriPro hybrids for the past few years. So far, he's noticed slight yield benefits and more robust plants. But, what has him excited is the fact that genetic improvements might come at a faster pace in hybrids compared to varietals, which often take generations and years of development.
"These first hybrids are just on the cusp of what is to come," he believes. Yield stability, nitrogen-use efficiency, fungicide reductions and the ability of hybrids to outcompete grassy weeds are a few of the benefits hybrids could deliver if the concept gains firm ground.
WHAT TOOK SO LONG?
Wheat is a self-pollinated crop with three complex genomes. Changing it to a system that allows pollen flow between male and females was, and still is, challenging. Genetic markers and other genetic tools allow tweaks that weren't conceivable decades ago, says Stephen Baenziger, professor emeritus of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska, who specialized in plant breeding and wheat cultivar development.
"Some really clever plant breeders were able to make successful hybrids through trial and error," points out Baenziger, recalling the early history. However, they were costly to produce and didn't have what he calls "the multiplier effect" realized in hybrid corn, for example. Wheat is seeded at much higher rates than corn, and seed companies couldn't spread production costs out over as many acres.
Farmers immediately saw the benefits of corn hybrids and never looked back. "In wheat, there was never that distancing between hybrids and varieties. A wheat hybrid cost a lot to produce, and new and improved varieties kept coming to close the gap. It meant farmers could always buy cheap seed," Baenziger explains.
While farmers buy a lot more wheat seed than they once did, some bin-run seed lingers on the landscape. "Investment and interest in development wanes when commodities get cheap, too," he adds.
While excitement about hybrid wheat has germinated again, wheat hybrids are still in their infancy.
Geoff Graham, global plant breeding lead for Corteva, says the benefit of hybridity to enhance performance has never been in question. "The difficulty has been figuring out the system to make the hybrids reliably," he says.
A variety of sterility systems have been used over the years. Chemical hybridizing methods proved environmentally difficult and expensive. More recently, companies have moved to cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) methods using sterile females and male restorer genes.
"It sounds like a simple thing, but one of the biggest challenges is that wheat pollen is heavy and falls to the ground quickly," Graham says. "We feel comfortable about making sure we can create those sterile females that are going to be high-yielding. But, we are also working hard on a production system that makes sure that pollen gets transferred."
If hybrids are going to be successful, Graham observes, it will mean delivering a consistent, reliable product in every bag and demonstrating value to the farmer. Benchmarks will be offered as the company moves hybrids closer to market, but he says internal data documents hybrid yield benefits and more robust plants able to better endure stress.
Paul Morano, head, North American Cereals for Syngenta Seeds, says the company has the advantage of having experience producing hybrid barley at scale for 20 years. While wheat is genetically tougher to tame, those learnings in barley are helping guide first-generation wheat hybrids in the United States (the company has some European experience).
Spring wheat was chosen for the first hybrid efforts because it's faster to kick in gear, Morano explains. Two generations can be gained in one year by taking seed production to warmer climates during winter months. Eventually, winter wheat will be part of the Syngenta hybrid program.
Wheat-management practices aren't expected to change much for farmers, although companies do say seeding rates could be lowered to 80% of normal. Growers can expect increased seed prices, but if it is to work, seed price will be offset by higher yield (value) and lower risk of crop losses.
Morano sees two scenarios shaping up. "I hope hybrids lead to more farmers planting wheat as a profit crop. The goal is for yield consistency to move wheat to a different level so that it is competitive with other crops rather than something planted mainly for rotation," he says.
"If I'm talking to a 100% wheat farmer, I'm going to say hybrid wheat should be tried on their tougher acres because of that resiliency and consistency hybrids offer. Faced with adversity, hybrid wheat is going to find another gear where a varietal might not," Morano notes.
Jeffrey Koscelny, Bayer's commercial lead on wheat, says the National Wheat Yield Contest illuminates how wheat growers are already pushing the envelope on yield with the genetics and inputs available. "We see a real opportunity to speed up the introduction of important native traits and other production traits into the hybrid parents," Koscelny says. "There are some reports globally of the plateauing of yield performance with varietals, hence the increased interest in hybrids by plant breeders to effectively enable enhanced genetic tools and techniques."
Birdsall says bare grocery shelves of recent years have sent a wake-up call to the public, and wheat needs to be part of the solution. "The connection between farmers and processors and consumers is more important than ever," he says. "It seems like a great time to bring on a technology that addresses growing more, especially in challenging environments." The idea of hybridization is also more palatable to consumers than genetic modification.
"Spring wheat desperately needs this boost to stay competitive," Birdsall continues. "Right now, we've got other crops that have the advantages of these built-in technologies competing for every acre."
10 BIG THINGS ABOUT HYBRID WHEAT:
-- increased yield potential
-- heterosis/hybrid vigor
-- yield consistency improvements field-to-field and year-over-year
-- lower seeding rate (80% of normal)
-- speeds up breeding for agronomic and quality traits
-- non-GMO (genetic improvements without the time and expense of regulatory approvals)
-- no special marketing channels
-- management similar to high-value variety production
-- required hybrid seed stewardship agreements (no saved seed)
-- increased wheat seed prices
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