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Winter Wheat in Western Canada
Growing crops that survive our harsh western Canadian winters might seem like an impossible task, but Dr. Robert Graf has been helping making this a reality through his work with winter wheat cultivars.
Winter wheat production in western Canada has undergone tremendous growth since 1999, when Graf moved to Alberta to start working on the crop. From around 200,000 acres, winter wheat has grown to more than one million acres in 2014. Part of the reason for this is Graf’s many innovations, including the development of eight new cultivars of winter wheat in the past eight years.
One of Graf’s first major innovations came in spring wheat in1997, when he lead the team that registered the first wheat cultivar in North America developed using doubled haploid techniques. This process involves cells with a single set of unpaired chromosomes undergoing chromosome doubling and regeneration into plants. By doing this, Graf reduced the time from concept to commercialization by up to four years. This process was quickly adopted by other wheat breeding programs and is now used worldwide.
Graf then focused on winter wheat and quickly revolutionized production in western Canada. One of his winter wheat cultivars, Emerson hard red winter wheat, was registered in 2012 and became the first wheat in Canada to be granted a “Resistant” rating to Fusarium head blight disease. This devastating wheat disease has cost the Canadian agriculture industry more than $1 billion in reduced yield and quality.
In 2015, Graf registered western Canada’s first hard white winter wheat. Its pristine white flour, high flour extraction rate and excellent dough functionality at lower protein levels make it ideal for various lucrative overseas markets. Commercial testing of this new cultivar, named AAC Icefield, began in 2016 and is expected to provide new opportunities for Alberta wheat production.
Also in 2015, Graf released AAC Wildfire, which is described as a “made for Alberta in Alberta” winter wheat cultivar. It possesses very good winter survival and disease protection tailor made for Alberta, including resistance to Biotype 1 of the Russian wheat aphid. This insect pest has created big problems for wheat producers in North America and AAC Wildfire is the first wheat in Canada to offer resistance.
Most recently, Graf has received permission to release the new winter wheat cultivar W526 (still to be named) in the fall of 2016. This revolutionary cultivar is capable of surviving in the harshest prairie winter conditions and is expected to be extremely popular in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Patience Pays Off
Despite working tirelessly with wheat for almost 30 years, the majority of Graf’s innovations have occurred in the last ten years. Plant breeding is a “very long-term endeavour,” says Graf. “From the time I create a cross between two parental wheat lines to the time it’s in farmer’s hands, is about 15 years.”
With such a lengthy process, Graf is always looking to the future. “Not only am I looking forward 15 years to the point where farmers will be using the new variety, that product needs to be applicable for a number of years. So we’re looking ahead about 20 to 25 years, and constantly anticipating what the needs of the farmers and the industry will be that far down the road,” explains Graf.
While continuing to look forward, Graf is also progressing on his long goal to match the quality of Canadian winter wheat to that of Canada’s world renowned Canada Western Red Spring wheat. “Winter wheat has a bright future in western Canada and if we can achieve this, acreage should explode,” says Graf.