Wheat graphic

A pair of new winter wheat varieties soon to be released by Montana State University breeders are designed to help address two issues that plague wheat farmers across the state, sawflies and stripe rust fungus, while improving crop yields.

The Bobcat and Flathead varieties will be released this fall from the Montana Foundation Seed Program, according to veteran breeders Phil Bruckner and Jim Berg. The new varieties will be used to produce registered and certified seed through certified growers across Montana and should be available for purchase by the public between the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons. Two varieties released in 2018, Ray and Four0six, are now available for purchase statewide.

Bruckner and Berg have a combined six decades of wheat breeding expertise and have made thousands of crosses in their careers to address various characteristics of winter wheat, from maturation date to head size or resistance to a particular pest or disease.

Bobcat, they said, is the result of what the pair called a “nothing-special” kind of cross back in 2007, a blending of two solid-stemmed wheat varieties that had never been released on their own.

“There was nothing distinguished about the parents, but when they got exposed to sawfly, there were only two lines standing in the field: Warhorse and Bobcat,” Bruckner said, referring to another MSU variety released in 2013.

Wheat stem sawflies bore into the stems of the wheat plant to lay their eggs, weakening the stem and often causing significant economic losses for wheat farmers. Solid-stemmed wheat varieties were developed to help combat this, though they trade insect resistance for yield, generally producing less than hollow-stemmed varieties. Increased sawfly resistance, along with yield improvement, is still a goal of many wheat breeding enterprises.

Bobcat stands out, Bruckner said, for having higher yields than Warhorse, which is the standard for sawfly resistance in Montana and the leading solid-stemmed variety in the state.

“Of course, it’s named Bobcat, so we have pretty high hopes for it,” said Bruckner with a laugh. “We wouldn’t name just any variety that. You only get one Bobcat.”

Flathead, the second new variety soon to be released, is named for the area where it was developed. It was bred for resistance to a fungus that has caused serious problems for wheat growers in the area: stripe rust.

Stripe rust was never much of a concern in Montana until 2008, when an epidemic wiped out an entire line of MSU winter wheat called Genou. The area around Flathead Lake and near Kalispell often sees more stripe rust than other areas of the state, which is why Flathead wheat was developed there.

Flathead comes from a cross between MSU’s 2005 Yellowstone variety, known for its high yield potential, and a Washington State spring wheat that carried the two genes known to help combat stripe rust. Varieties with those two genes are impervious to all known types of stripe rust, Bruckner said.

Flathead also has the unique attribute of an earlier maturation date, a first for the MSU library of winter wheat varieties. The aim is to offer growers a catalog of seed that provides something for every need within Montana’s 2 million acres of winter wheat planted each year.

“There’s a lot of places in the state where early varieties are advantageous,” said Berg. “Flathead has a combination of good yield, early maturity and shorter stature, and it makes a good loaf of bread, plus that stripe rust resistance.”

While the variety is named for the Flathead Valley, Bruckner and Berg noted that it can be planted across the state, and since stripe rust is the most prevalent wheat rust in the Pacific Northwest region, it could fare well in surrounding states too.

Test fields of Bobcat and Flathead were harvested for Foundation Seed in late August by Dave Gettel, farm manager for MSU’s Post Agronomy Farm. Having farmed for decades in north central Montana before working for MSU, he knows what to look for in winter wheat, and he was the first person to run the new varieties through a combine. True it its purpose, the Flathead matured about a week earlier than any other variety.

“Sometimes wheat will run out of moisture before it matures, so maturing earlier often means better kernel size and quality,” said Gettel. “And even though the Flathead isn’t a solid-stemmed variety, the fact that it matures faster makes it another tool that can be used to fight sawflies. It threshed well and combined well, and it really finished better than the other varieties, with better test weight and better yield.”

The Bobcat wheat took a few more days to be ready for threshing, and Gettel said he was pleasantly surprised. Solid-stemmed wheat can often be more challenging to thresh and put through a combine, since there is more fiber for the machine to break down. Gettel said Bobcat didn’t pose the same problem.

“The Bobcat was within five bushels per acre of the Flathead in terms of yield, and it harvested pretty well,” he said. “The fact that it’s a better yielder than some of the previous sawfly-resistant varieties, plus the fact that it combines and threshes well, certainly makes it something I’d want to try if I was farming commercially.”

Bruckner and Berg said a huge amount of support helps their team continue to work on new crosses for Montana wheat farmers.

“The Cereal Quality Lab, regional testing at nine different sites, funding from the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee and all the producers who support our program,” Berg said. “We’re all in this together, and their commitment has allowed us to do what we do.”