MSU spring wheat breeding program responds to a warmer Montana
BOZEMAN – Montana State University’s spring wheat breeding program is working to meet a warmer future.
Luther Talbert, spring wheat breeder in MSU’s Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology in the College of Agriculture, shared research highlights at a January lecture about Montana’s cornerstone cereal crop faring in a variable and warming climate.
The lecture, hosted by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, a statewide institute on ecosystem sciences housed at MSU, focused on traditional wheat breeding techniques that can help Montana grain growers remain profitable despite increasing temperatures and the challenges that come with a longer growing season.
“The goal of the spring wheat breeding program is try to be steps ahead of what’s next,” Talbert said. “There are always pests and diseases, but climate and temperature changes are variable and hard to forecast. What we know for sure is that we need to breed for climate variability tolerance.”
In 2009, Talbert and Susan Lanning, former MSU research associate, analyzed weather data from seven agricultural research centers in distinct locations across Montana. The research centers are part of the Montana Agricultural Experiment Station and are located strategically across Montana’s diverse climatological and agricultural environments.
Data points from the centers reached back to 1950, providing 58 consecutive years of detailed, monthly weather data across Montana. The centers each serve as authorized weather stations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and some have archived climate data that date back to the late 1800s.
According to Talbert, the collated data from the research centers showed that March temperatures in Montana have increased 7-degrees Fahrenheit since 1950.
“It’s was pretty remarkable to see that because we weren’t expecting that much of a change over the years,” Talbert said. “Most farmers know, at least informally, seasonal temperatures have changed over time, but here we had this verified climate data set for Montana and it was showing a consistent uptick in March temperatures each year.”
Warmer March temperatures, according to Talbert, mean an earlier planting season for spring wheat farmers because the ground thaws earlier. The earlier the planting season, the longer the growing season. However, Talbert and Lanning also found that July temperatures were increasing over the years, though not as significantly as March temperatures, based on the weather station data
Talbert and Lanning tracked the yield of a spring wheat variety called Thatcher, which the research centers have been growing since the 1950s.
“The value of Thatcher is that we had a common factor, so we could look at the impact on weather variation on a specific variety over the years,” he said.
By tracking the success and yield of Thatcher alongside climate data, Talbert and Lanning found that a warmer March was a positive element, while a hotter July was not.
“A longer growing season is good news for farmers, but it gets risky when the temperatures also get hotter in July,” Talbert said. “So, on one hand, farmers can get their spring wheat seed in the ground earlier, but on the later end of the growing season, the plant becomes stressed if gets too hot.”
During July and early August, a spring wheat plant is undergoing grain fill, about a four-week process when the wheat kernel increases in size and matures enough for adequate baking and milling. If the temperatures are too hot during this process, the plant can become too stressed to adequately complete its full potential in the growth cycle.
“Basically, if it gets too hot, the plant’s leaves turn brown, photosynthesis stops, the wheat kernel stops growing and you’re not going to have as big of a yield,” Talbert said. “Unfortunately, hotter temperatures during grain fill often go hand-in-hand with drought conditions.”
Last summer, Montana farmers saw one of the worst droughts in recent history, resulting in an estimated reduction in grain yield by about 40 percent, according to the USDA. Wheat yields count for a lot, given that Montana is the nation’s second-highest producer of spring wheat, exporting 75 percent of its wheat to Asian markets, according to the USDA.
“Montana’s calling card in many ways is hard wheat with high protein and strong baking and milling qualities, which global markets want,” Talbert said. “So, essentially, warmer temperatures have the ability to cause an economic impact that will be felt at the farm level first.”
Talbert has worked in MAES and MSU’s College of Agriculture for 30 years. Thanks to funding originating from farmer check-off contributions to the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee, Talbert and his spring wheat breeding program have developed some of Montana’s top-planted wheat varieties, bred specifically for high yield in dry conditions.
One important genetic advancement has been the incorporation of genes that help the wheat plant stay-green longer during the grain fill process. These “stay-green” traits help the wheat plant fight back against July heat by continuing to fill seeds in hot conditions and result in high yields, according to Talbert.
One popular variety with the stay-green trait is named Vida. Vida also has genes that cause a semi-solid stem, incorporated from an earlier variety named Scholar. The semi-solid stem gives the plant some resistance to the Wheat Stem Sawfly, one of the most costly agricultural pests in Montana.
Montana producers planted 2.3 million acres of spring wheat for harvest in 2016, of which 18.8 percent was Vida. It was the sixth year in a row that Vida has been the state’s leading spring wheat variety planted, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Planted acreage data was not available for the 2017 year.
Talbert says breeding for drought tolerance and hotter temperatures will continue to be a priority, as the program strives to insure continued profitability of spring wheat production in Montana.
“Spring wheat just doesn’t do well in hot climates,” he said. “We certainly can’t predict what the future holds for Montana, but we can be sure that we need to keep improving our varieties to remain sustainable in a warmer environment.”