Trials reveal best organic wheat varieties
It takes years for a wheat variety to make it from testing to availability for planting. For organic wheat, the process is tougher because of additional criteria, says Richard Little, University of Nebraska organic wheat breeding specialist and coordinator.
Little led tours this summer of four UNL organic research plots, including those located at Haskell Ag Lab near Concord. As part of the tours, growers and researchers observed varieties growing in plots, with some that would exhibit desirable traits like high yield and bread-making quality.
“Organic farmers are sensitive to the market, which varies from any protein content for breakfast cereals or feed to moderate to high protein content for the bread market,” Little says. “The UNL wheat breeding program builds disease resistance to leaf rust and stem rust into all new releases.”
When selecting wheat varieties to plant, Stephen Baenziger, UNL small grains breeder, says farmers should consider “disease and insect resistance, weed suppression, end-use quality, standability and adaptation to organic systems.”
Researchers are concerned about these qualities, too, as they decide which lines to increase for production. But the process takes “12 to 14 years from the cross and three years from the decision to increase,” Baenziger says. So wheat breeders have to make an educated guess as to the qualities producers will need nearly 20 years down the road.
“Organic farmers need a cool-season crop like wheat in their rotation to break the cycle of warm-season weed seed production,” Little says. Because of wetter conditions in the east, he says farmers should consider varieties with resistance to preharvest sprouting and fusarium head blight, because both problems can cause rejected shipments of grain. Competitiveness with weeds is another trait of interest.
To test bread quality, Little says, “We have a wheat quality lab where our samples are milled and baked using a standard lab protocol for white flour pup loaves. In addition to evaluating mixing tolerance and water absorption, which is important to the industrial bread maker, we evaluate loaf volume and bread cell structure.
“Karl 92 continues to reign supreme among released varieties for bread quality,” Little says. But it has much lower yields in western or eastern parts of the state compared to other varieties. Wesley matches Karl 92 for bread quality, but has serious susceptibility issues to fusarium head blight.
Two experimental lines tested over the past two years are expected to match or exceed Karl 92 and Wesley for bread quality, Little says. NE07444 is adapted for planting in the east, and NW7505, a hard white line, is adapted to the west. More testing is required before these lines might be released. NE05425 has strong gluten, with potential for high-quality 100% whole wheat bread. NW03681 is a hard white line that has good milling and bread making quality, with high yields in western Nebraska.
Having certified organic cropland at UNL testing stations has been a key aspect of the wheat trials. “It is important for the researchers and technicians to know first-hand what farmers must do to maintain their organic certification,” Little says. “The commitment to infrastructure, equipment and personnel that goes along with operating an organic research farm enables researchers to make long-term plans.”
“Organic farmers need research programs that focus on breeding new cultivars specifically for organic systems with an emphasis on disease and pest resistance, response to green manures and end-use quality,” says Elizabeth Sarno, UNL Extension educator and organic project coordinator. “I feel as our nation looks toward developing more resilient sustainable cropping systems, research on long-term organic systems will have beneficial results for all farmers.”
This article published in the October, 2011 edition of NEBRASKA FARMER.