July 15, 2024

Wheat genetics at turning point for yield, protection

Q&A: Mark Christopher

Mark Christopher (right), KWS Cereals senior wheat breeder, leads one of the groups on a tour of the 50-acre breeding nursery east of the company’s breeding facility in rural Champaign, Illinois.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The extensive KWS Cereals wheat breeding program was featured during its open house June 4.

Mark Christopher, KWS senior wheat breeder, detailed the work on the 50-acre breeding nursery east of the company’s breeding facility.

The 50-acre nursery is part of a 150-acre field that also includes 50 acres of corn and 50 acres of soybeans. The three crops are rotated.

“Over those last 13 years we’ve come a long, long way.”

—  Mark Christopher, senior wheat breeder, KWS

KWS has about 100 acres in Champaign County dedicated to wheat breeding.

How many different lines are tested?

Christopher: The total number of different genetic lines that we’re testing in any given year is going to be in the range of a little over 4,000.

What do you look for?

Christopher: We look for yields, disease resistance, standability — certain things are more important for different regions. Generally around here, stripe rust is a little bit less of a concern in the Upper Midwest than it is when you get down into the Deep South. There’s a lot of regionality to some of the things we’re doing.

As we select things, at a certain point we might realize there’s a susceptibility to this disease or that disease, and then we’ll know in this region it’s not as important. We know we can market that variety in that region where it’s not an issue.

In the end, we’re breeding for resistance in totality. All the rusts, septoria, fusarium head blight is by far the biggest disease we’re breeding for, and the king of it all is breeding for yield.

Where do you get the genetic material to start the breeding program?

Christopher: The absolute start for us was about 13, 14 years ago when we came into this market was basically purchasing two small mom-and-pop breeding programs. There were some older gentlemen who started up their own thing, developed some genetics, and we purchased that.

We were on a pretty low level with that wheat germplasm in the beginning. It wasn’t very high yielding, disease resistance was lacking, especially for FHB, and over the years it’s about grabbing the different genetics that we can get our hands on to start crossing that into our program.

Over those last 13 years we’ve come a long, long way. The material we have now is incredible compared to where we started.

It’s a lot of fun. It’s a wheat breeding startup company basically that we started 13 years ago and now we’re starting to really see the fruits of those labors.

Once a high-performance product is developed, is it sold to another market?

Christopher: We develop genetics and then we out-license that to seed companies. We give them the right to produce and market and sell our genetics with their brand.

Breeding for some potential problem several years down the road is a challenge, and it takes numerous years of testing to develop the solution to a problem that may or may not happen, right?

Christopher: The cycles are so big. The material that we’re crossing right now in the greenhouse, it’s going to be seven, eight, nine, 10 years before they’re even pre-commercial or commercial. It takes a long time, but, of course, we have material in every generation of the pipeline. So, there’s always new stuff coming.

But, yes, there’s always somewhat of a tendency to think about the material that is still to come.

We know a lot about the advanced material, we kind of know where it stands and what its strengths and weaknesses are, but we can always romanticize about the stuff that’s still unknown. It’s always exciting.

Where do you see wheat genetics going in the next five, 10 years?

Christopher: I can’t speak for the industry in generally, but, for us, our program is at a real turning point. We’re at the point where we have really, really competitive stuff.

High-yielding material that is also bringing good disease resistance, especially for FHB. Five, six, seven years ago, that wasn’t there.

We could have some lines that were having good disease resistance or lines that were bringing yield, but bringing all together, that’s where we’re at now.

So, over the next few years we’re just going to grow on that. It’s really exciting for us. I think that we’re a breeding company that’s going to be well-represented in the market in the coming years for sure.

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor