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Six sets of seven chromosomes make the wheat genome five times larger than the human genome. This complexity makes wheat breeding even more difficult, but technology like double haploid breeding has helped public and private researchers unlock potential agronomic, quality and even nutritional traits. Key to this work is a farmer-backed, for-profit plant services company housed at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center — Heartland Plant Innovations (HPI).

Starting with Synergy

Technology for crop improvement experienced a boom in the early 2000s, but applying those techniques was focused on corn and soybeans. The push to start HPI was the result of the industry’s recognition that wheat was being left behind when it came to applying innovative breeding tools.

“We were just trying to bring the message that we needed to make sure that wheat stayed relevant in the United States compared to other crops,” said HPI President/CEO Dusti Gallagher. “We wanted to let them know producers, specifically in Kansas and HRW (hard red winter wheat) producers, were really interested in bringing innovations and technology to the forefront with wheat because, at the time, we were losing a little ground to other crops.”

Photo of Dusti Gallagher, President/CEO of Heartland Plant Innovations.

Dusti Gallagher

The industry faced another significant challenge at the time — a lack of synergy and collective focus. As a result, a core group brought together representatives from across the industry, including producers representing the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, Kansas State University, the University of Kansas (K-State) and private companies.

“It started with communication. At that time, there was very little communication between the public and private sectors on wheat breeding; everybody was doing their own thing,” Gallagher said. “So, it started with bringing everybody to the same table to talk about what our common interests were. And once we did that, it started falling into place.”

Heartland Plant Innovations was officially formed in 2009. Kansas farmers, through state organizations, have majority ownership in HPI, and other members include private companies, universities and individual shareholders. The company started in Throckmorton Hall but quickly recognized that their work to amp up breeding technology required lab space, growth rooms, greenhouse space and other spaces to mix soil, plant pots, thresh heads and more. As a result, the early success of HPI helped provide the spark that led to the construction of the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, where the company is now housed.

Today, HPI has seven full-time staff drawn from all over the world for their unique expertise, including agronomy, molecular biology, botany and biotechnology. In addition, two to three part-time students gain hands-on experience by assisting with harvesting, threshing, caring for plants and more.

Doubling Down on Double Haploids

Instead of competing with public and private wheat breeding programs, Heartland Plant Innovations was built around the idea of providing additional bandwidth and applying very specific technologies to assist those programs. The first — and still primary — of these tools is the production of double haploids, which essentially cuts half the time out of the wheat breeding process.

“We’re basically taking only the genetic material from one of the parents, the female parent, and we’re keeping those genetics and rebuilding that plant to where it can be a mature seed-producing plant,” Gallagher said. “And so, there’s a lot of steps along the way.”

The goal of the double haploid process is to create a population of plants that all have the same genetics across all their chromosomes, something that takes generations of traditional breeding to achieve but can be accomplished in a single year with the double haploid process.

Image shows a researchers hands removing male parts of wheat plant spikelets to allow fertilization of plants in the double haploid breeding process.

The doubled haploid process rapidly yields true-breeding lines that can reliably be tested and selected for specific, desirable improvements. Conventional plant breeding techniques achieve the same objective but over a much longer time. For winter wheat, the doubled haploid process delivers true breeding wheat lines in just one year, as compared to about six years for conventional methods. Source: Heartland Plant Innovations.

“We’re basically rescuing a very tender, very delicate haploid embryo and culturing it and taking care of it until it becomes a viable seedling,” Gallagher said. “Then we double its chromosomes through a process that we’ve created and that we’ve refined here at HPI. And that doubling process then creates a double haploid plant.”

The seeds from these plants then go back to wheat breeding programs, where breeders know the exact genetic material and can more efficiently evaluate lines in their programs.

“When they take it to the field, and they grow it, and they start evaluating it, they know its genotype, then they can make better decisions, and they can either advance that line quickly through their program, or they can make a decision that they need to do more crossing with it,” Gallagher said. “So, the double haploid process is a tool that allows a better-quality line to go through the process, and breeders can advance it quickly, and they can make better decisions based on that very pure genetic line that we provide to them.”

Heartland Plant Innovations has capacity to produce 20,000 double haploids a year and works with customers from all over the United States, from wheat breeders to public and private crop improvement programs. The process is fee-for-service, so it is open to the entirety of the wheat breeding pipeline.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the first seeds that have gone through our program,” Gallagher said. “They’ve been released to producers, and so they’ve been very good, healthy varieties that have proven to be profitable for producers.”

In addition to double haploid production, HPI also provides technical expertise using other advanced plant breeding tools, including genotyping and marker-assisted selection as well as supporting traditional wheat breeding programs and proprietary projects. Every piece of the business, however, is built on partnerships.

“The producers are really the foundation for all of this,” Gallagher said. “Everything that we do is driven toward making a better opportunity for those producers to have better varieties to be able to improve their bottom lines.”

Photo of Bob Dole wheat variety - Courtesy Kansas Wheat

The end result of breeding research at the Kansas Wheat innovation Center – Heartland Plant Innovations is new high-yielding, high-quality wheat varieties for farmers and their milling and baking customers around the world.

More to Come

From uncovering the dense nutrients for improving wheat as a food crop to bringing in trails from wheat’s wild relatives or improving agronomic traits, Gallagher told Harries there is still more to unlock in the wheat genome.

“I really don’t believe that we have tapped the genetic potential of wheat,” Gallagher said. “We’re just now getting to the point where we’ve mapped the wheat genome, and there’s still so much in there that we need to help discover, and that takes time.”

“Investment in wheat research is critical to us continuing to uncover the vast benefits wheat has to offer,” Gallagher said. “Continue to support universities and checkoffs because it’s those wheat research dollars that are really going to make an impact. We just need to keep doing what we’re doing, but also looking at new opportunities and new technologies — and that’s what we’re here to do at HPI.”

Julia Debes wrote this article for Kansas Wheat, a member of U.S. Wheat Associates (USW). Gallagher recently sat down with Aaron Harries, Kansas Wheat Vice President of Research and Operations, on the Kansas Wheat “Wheat’s on Your Mind” podcast to discuss HPI’s positive impact on the wheat breeding pipeline.

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Wheat buyers from Nigeria and Kenya join North Dakota farmer Scott Huso in one of his fields to get a look at this year's crop.

Wheat buyers from Nigeria and Kenya join North Dakota Wheat Commissioner and farmer Scott Huso in one of his fields to get a look at this year’s crop.

Pictured above at the Port of Duluth in Minnesota: Chad Wiegand, USW Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa; Vigneswaran Sinnathurai, Vice President of Milling at Olam; Alok Khator, Vice President and Regional Manufacturing Head at Olam; Savan Sunil Shah, Director at United Millers LTD; Coreen Berdahl, Vice President of Operations at Minnesota Wheat.

Buyers from two African markets that are very different – yet equally important to U.S. wheat farmers – recently took a close look at the hard red winter (HRW), hard red spring (HRS) and hard white (HW) wheat supply chain by visiting farms and facilities in Kansas, North Dakota and Minnesota.

Led by U.S. Wheat Associates (USW), the trade team included representatives of companies in Nigeria and Kenya. Nigeria is an established customer and the fourth-largest importer of U.S. wheat. Kenya, a developing market that has seen a steady increase in wheat foods consumption, holds great potential for U.S. wheat.

Farm to Export Elevator

The team was able to follow the entire process of how U.S. wheat moves from farm to export elevator.

“Our goal was to show them the U.S. supply chain. We also wanted to explain how the quality of wheat grown in the states is monitored through the inspection process,” said Chad Weigand, USW Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa. “These visits are very important to customers in Africa who want to be assured they are getting the quality they want. We have competition in these markets, and face-to-face visits go a long way in providing trust and confidence in wheat from the U.S.”

Those face-to-face visits included meeting farmers. Kansas Wheat, an important USW partner, hosted the African team for visits with wheat growers and stops at the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center and USDA’s Center for Grain and Animal Health Research. During a visit to the IGP Institute, the team learned about technical training and assistance programs. A commercial flour mill in McPherson was also a key aspect of the visit.

Kansas Wheat hosted the African team for meetings and visits to learn about the U.S. wheat supply chain.

Kansas Wheat hosted the African team to showcase the U.S. wheat supply chain. Pictured (left to right) are Kansas Wheat Vice President of Research and Operations Aaron Harries; Savan Sunil Shah; Vigneswaran Sinnathurai; and Chad Weigand.

Building Upon a Solid Base

Flour milling training is an important part of USW’s efforts in Africa.

“We provide a lot of help to the flour milling industry there, particularly by working with up-and-coming millers who are just learning the trade,” explained Weigand. “By providing technical assistance in grain analysis, test milling, flour analysis and test baking, U.S. Wheat is helping grow the milling industry. It increases millers’ knowledge of U.S. wheat classes. Ultimately, the purpose is to show advantages of each U.S. class over competitors’ wheat. We also work with the flour industry to address trade policies – things like import requirements and other market access issues.”

In Kansas, the team also made a stop at the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) facility in Kansas City.

Before Kansas, the team met with wheat farmers and received an update from the Northern Crops Institute (NCI) in North Dakota.  The Minnesota portion included meetings with grain traders at CHS and a tour of port loading facilities in Duluth. Coreen Berdahl, Vice President of Operations at Minnesota Wheat, participated in the Minnesota.

Supply Situation Updates

Farmers and representatives from Kansas Wheat acknowledged that Nigeria and Kenya will be limited by the short supply of HRW wheat this year. But building and maintaining relationships is important to global customers.

“Harvest results may differ from year-to-year, but coordinating local visits directly connects our customers with farmers committed to growing high-quality wheat,” said Aaron Harries, Vice President of Research and Operations for Kansas Wheat. “Wheat buyers, millers, and bakers track the progress of our wheat crop each year. Moving past the headlines is important to communicating the quantity and quality of each year’s harvest.”

On its final night in Kansas, the African trade team was hosted at a dinner, where buyers from Nigeria and Kenya were able to meet with Kansas Wheat staff and U.S. wheat farmers, including USW Chairman Michael Peters of Oklahoma.

On its final night in Kansas, the African trade team was hosted at a dinner, where buyers from Nigeria and Kenya were able to meet with Kansas Wheat staff and U.S. wheat farmers, including USW Chairman Michael Peters of Oklahoma.

Markets Differ, Both Have Potential

The U.S. has been the top wheat supplier to Nigeria in two of the past five years. Nigeria has been the largest buyer of HW and second-largest buyer of HRW.

In 2021/22, U.S. wheat exports to Nigeria increased to 1.63 million metric tons (MT) and the U.S. market share was 30%. But high prices have hurt trade in 2023.

Kenya, on the other hand, is seeing growth in wheat demand due to increased urbanization. New products are being introduced and branded for specific end-uses:  chapati flour, mandazi flour, self-rising flour, and others.

Most of the wheat flour in Kenya is used for home baking of chapatti (flat bread).

As both the Nigerian and Kenyan markets evolve, USW plans to share information about U.S. wheat’s quality and reliability.

“We will continue working on relationships and sharing information about the quality and reliability of U.S. wheat,” said Weigand. “We will also demonstrate to millers, bakers and end-product manufacturers the advantages of all six classes of wheat as stand-alone or blending wheats to reduce costs by displacing competitor wheats.”

This article includes information previously shared in an article by Kansas Wheat.

 

 

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This article on the hard white (HW) wheat crop in Kansas was sponsored by the Kansas Wheat Commission, Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, Kansas Grain and Feed Association and the Kansas Cooperative Council.

Hard white (HW) winter wheat varieties continue to be popular among some western Kansas farmers for their high yields, disease resistance and quality. As U.S. wheat importers understand, the biggest challenge for hard white is market liquidity and continuity of trade into the marketplace.

Kansas Wheat continues to work with the grain handling industry and Federal Grain Inspection Service to revise the grain standards to facilitate HW movement in domestic and international markets and lessen the burden on grain handlers. For additional information on Kansas Wheat’s comments submitted to FGIS, visit https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2022/10/12/2022-22113/united-states-standards-for-wheat.

HW winter wheat is very similar to hard red winter (HRW) wheat apart from a gene impacting the color of the outer bran coat. It can be used for stand-alone whole wheat products with a lighter color or can be used interchangeably by mills with HRW, depending on protein and extraction needs.

Hard white wheat had been growing in export demand, primarily to Nigeria out of the Texas Gulf, but the past two years of drought-stricken production shortfalls have impacted that business.

A close up photo of hard white wheat kernels against a white background.

Hard white wheat has a hard endosperm, white bran and a medium- to high-protein content of 10.0% to 14.0% (12% mb). HW includes winter and spring varieties increasing the protein range and functionality within the class.

A Regular Joe

A HW variety named “Joe” is the top seeded variety in west central Kansas, making up 14.3% of planted acres. Hard white wheat varieties also make up 11.4% of acres in southwest Kansas. Overall, HW was seeded on 4.7% of Kansas’ 8.1 million acres, accounting for 380,700 acres seeded to HW in fall 2022. In these areas, the multi-year drought caused many seeded acres to be abandoned, including an estimated 60% of Kansas’ dryland hard white wheat acres.

HW winter and spring wheat is also grown in Colorado, Nebraska, Idaho, and California. The U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Hard White Wheat Committee estimates U.S. total hard white wheat production to be just about 463,000 metric tons.

Overall, the quality of this year’s HW crop is excellent. While southwest Kansas had to abandon many acres, HW production increased in areas to the north.

More than Expected

Eric Sperber from Cornerstone Ag, an up-country elevator in Colby, Kan., said they have received four times the HW they got last year. At this point, HW makes up about 40% of their bushels.

“It’s a lot more than I was anticipating,” said Sperber. “It has been a number of years since we [received] this much white wheat.”

Overall, the quality of this year’s HW crop in the Colby area is comparable with the HRW wheat, with test weights ranging from 57 to 60 pounds per bushel, with the average ending up on the lower end with the delayed harvest. Earlier-harvested HWhad higher test weights, which has decreased after last week’s rain. Proteins consistently averaged 12.5% (12% moisture basis).

Results from the 2023 Hard White Wheat Quality Survey will be available from U.S. Wheat Associates and other sources online in October.