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Wheat's up

Companies focus research efforts on developing new varieties, hybrids.

The introduction of new wheat products signals a regrowth in research and development for the small grain. For many seed companies, wheat sat on the back burner while research focused on corn and soybeans. But attention is shifting as companies look to sell products worldwide. Wheat is grown on more acres in the world than any other crop.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International just announced a new, scab-resistant winter wheat, representing one of the first disease-resistant wheat plants to be developed. A winter wheat variety with resistance to fusarium head blight, commonly known as head scab, will be available in limited quantities for planting this fall.

Monsanto has beefed up its wheat research. It recently announced that wheat technology research will reach $50 million globally this year. This represents one-sixth of Monsanto's annual $300 million agricultural research budget. Before, wheat research's share was behind corn and soybean projects.

"Wheat has lagged in investment," reports Maurice Foresman, Monsanto Plains research business director. Part of the problem has been the difficulty in genetically modifying the wheat plant. New techniques make this process easier, though. And wheat growers will be the beneficiaries of it.

Scab-resistant wheat. Pioneer's new scab-resistant wheat is a soft red winter variety named Pioneer 25R18. It was developed through traditional plant breeding methods. The resistance gene is incorporated in the company's high-yield potential lines. Pioneer only produces lines for the winter wheat market and will not have a spring variety available.

During the past 10 years, winter wheat growers have faced increased head scab problems, particularly growers in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, according to Pioneer. More reduced and no-till acres are credited for the increase in scab problems. Crop residue left on the soil in these tillage methods provides a good medium for the fungus that causes scab to flourish. Pioneer reports that scab can cause a 20-50% yield loss and up to 25% loss in test weight.

Until now, few options existed for growers to halt the disease. One was not to plant wheat in reduced and no-till fields previously planted to corn. Another was to stagger flowering by planting several varieties of different maturities to reduce the spread of the disease.

Research targets. Monsanto is targeting several projects with its increased research budget. One project is wheat seed, with continued expansion of its hybrid wheat line, Quantum. No other company offers a hybrid wheat line, according to Brad Castanho, Monsanto wheat marketing manager.

Castanho says Monsanto released the first hard white winter wheat hybrid in the Pacific Northwest last year. During the past several years, the company has sold hard red winter wheat hybrids in the Great Plains and soft red winter wheat hybrids in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. The company has added hard white winter and soft red winter wheat hybrids with improved yield, agronomic and quality characteristics.

Looking to future development in seed, Monsanto is focusing on herbicide-tolerance, disease-protection and quality characteristics. Castanho says the company hopes to offer a Roundup Ready spring wheat line by 2004, with winter wheat to follow.

Monsanto also is working on a disease-protected line to head scab in both winter and spring wheat, with particular interest in the spring wheat market where the most chronic scab problems occur. Castanho reports the company also anticipates developing several traits such as a wheat that produces reduced-calorie flour.

Monsanto also beefed up its research in chemistries for wheat. As a result the company introduced its first wheat herbicide in the U.S. for more than a decade, called Maverick. (For more information, see story following.)

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