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Small Grains Breeding at Noble Research Institute

By Penny Sparks,

Posted Jun. 6, 2017

Combines have already been on the move in many parts of the United States as producers begin to harvest their wheat and other small grains. In southern Oklahoma, we are fortunate to raise dual-purpose wheat, which allows us to not only provide high quality forage for our livestock but also increase profit by selling wheat grain by the bushel. Wheat stands out as one of the most crucial because of its importance in bread, cookie and cake flours, but there are other small grains (like rye, oat and triticale) that are starting to increase in popularity.

Small grains breeding has been an integral part of the Noble Research Institute work since the early 1950s. Many ranches in our area use small grains to feed their stocker cattle as they winter in the pastures. As part of Noble Research Institute grazing trials, wheat varieties are planted and tested for grazing tolerance and seed production (shown below).

EXAMPLENF101 wheat is tested in the forage grazing systems trials located along Highway 199 just west of the Noble Research Institute headquarters. Twain Butler, Ph.D leads the forage agronomy laboratory, where much of the final grazing testing of the small grains crops is done. Grazing exclosures were put up to show forage growth during the growing season as well as seed production. Photo taken by Rob Mattson, March 16, 2016.

One of the main sources of green in the early spring comes direct from the small grains breeding laboratory at the Noble Research Institute. From the earliest beginnings in 1951, small grains have been an integral part of our history and our future.

Research in the small grains breeding laboratory is focused primarily on wheat, rye, oats, and triticale. While most programs focus on grain production, our small grains breeding program selects for varieties that are used for forage and grain production (dual-purpose) such as with wheat.

The still-popular Elbon ("Noble" spelled backwards) rye was our first cultivar. It was released in 1956. Several other rye cultivars including Bonel (1965), Maton (1993), Oklon (1993) and Bates (1994) have also been released. More recently, other rye, oat, wheat and triticale cultivars have been released with commercial partners for marketing seeds:

Josh Anderson is a research associate in the small grains breeding laboratory. He also farms with his family in the Mannsville area, just a few miles down the road where he uses small grains as part of his grazing plan.

Josh has a unique perspective for the breeding industry that allows him to realize not only the potential in each selection but also the needs of his fellow ranchers in the Texoma area. This makes his work more personal, providing for himself and his neighbors a variety of small grains to meet their cattle's needs.

For more on Josh's ranch story, check out Amy Flanagan's blog post, A Razorback's Home Run.

EXAMPLEJosh digging rye plants for fall forage selections to transplant into the hoop house for pollen isolation. Photo taken by Thomas James, March 14, 2017.

I spoke with Josh to learn more about the challenges and the rewards of breeding small grains.

On average, how long does it take to get a new cultivar into the hands of farmers?

We generally say it takes 10 to 12 years from start to final release of a new cultivar.

What are the most difficult challenges for meeting this goal?

Environmental effects (rain, wind, temperature, etc.) offer the most challenges to this process. We walk a fine line because we need specific environmental stresses to "weed out" certain plants, but we do no need a total crop failure. Since we start with very small amounts of seed, it is important that we have something to harvest so that we can collect more seed and have more options to select from.

Are there any recent innovations that have improved this process?

Using genetic markers to help understand what specific genetic traits are in the plant's DNA, and the use of double-haploids or speed breeding techniques can shorten the process by a couple of years, but you are still looking at a 10 to 12 year process.

What are the steps in the selection process?

The process typically starts with mass screening of hundreds of plants to identify which ones would be good parents with specific traits (drought tolerance, grazing tolerance, disease resistance) that will be added into our existing plant material. These selections are then added into our plant breeding program where crosses are made to multiple plants/cultivars that produce families with similar pedigrees. Careful notes are taken for specific traits and plants are selected for their desirable traits over the next several years until the genetic variation stabilizes at about the fourth or fifth generation. The notes allow us to track the heritability of traits and have a better understanding of which plants/cultivars combine to form the best offspring.

Once genetic variation has stabilized, the experimental cultivars are field tested in multiple locations for three to four years to give a good representation of how they perform compared to existing cultivars.

How many locations do you have small grains growing for breeding outside of the greenhouse?

We generally do most of the crossing in the greenhouse and try to grow the first and second generations in hoop houses, where we have more control of environmental factors.

EXAMPLESmall Grains in the hoop house at Noble Research Institute headquarters. Photo taken by Penny Sparks, May 30, 2017.

Nursery field plots are located in two of our four locations that are relatively close to the Noble Research Institute for note-taking purposes. Experimental cultivars that survive the selection process and produce stable generations after four to five years are field tested in a variety of locations that range from northwest Oklahoma, southeast Texas, Tennessee and Georgia depending on their unique trait package and where they might be useful for farmers.

Why do you do what you do?

I was raised on a local farm, and I understand first-hand importance of getting information gained from our research projects at the Noble Research Institute back into the hands of producers who can use it the most.

I try to be available to listen to what information producers need and help design research projects that are focused on producer issues. If I can answer any question that is important to a producer, that discovery of information for them at that time makes it important.

EXAMPLEEddie Funderburg, Ed.D., senior soils and crops consultant, (right) enjoys a moment with producer Bill Payne. Small grains breeding is part of the Noble Research Institute's research activities, but, as with all research, its purpose is to help solve real-world agricultural challenges. Photo taken on June 21, 2013.

Small grain production is an important part of our forage-based beef system goals to create grazing situations that sustain for 365 days a year with ample forage, making us less dependent on hay and supplementation. Nothing says Oklahoma like the wind sweeping down the plains over a pasture of small grains in the springtime.

EXAMPLEMaton II Rye field photo taken at Noble Research Institute Headquarters Farm. Photo taken by Mike Trammell, May 2, 2014.

To find out more about these small grains cultivars, check out: