Perennial wheat research looks at options for producers

Perinneal wheat? The possibility is being looked at by a Texas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher. Annual wheat, which is traditionally grown in the Great Plains, isplanted in the fall and dies after harvest in mid-summer. But Dr. CharlieRush, Experiment Station plant pathologist, is testing some perenniallines of wheat bred in Washington state.

These perennial lines regrow after harvest and may survive for up tofive years, Rush said. And eastern Washington is climatically similar tothe Texas Panhandle, except it has harsher winters.

“This wheat, if it works here, will start growing back as soon it rainsor is irrigated after harvest,” he said. “Right now, we don’t know if itwill work in our area or not. But there definitely could be someapplications for it if it does.”

The perennial wheat could be used as a ground cover for highly erodiblelands, wildlife habitat and an alternative crop for Conservation ReserveProgram lands, Rush said. However, primarily he is interested inevaluating use of perennial wheats in dual purpose grain-grazing croppingsystems that are prevalent in the southwestern Great Plains.

Over the years, different breeders have crossed bread wheat with wildwheat grass in order to acquire a variety of desirable traits, such asdrought tolerance and resistance to diseases and insects, Rush said. Inmaking these crosses, some of the resulting lines inherited the perennialtrait.

Perennial wheat programs are already underway in Kansas and Washington.But it was work on disease resistance by Dr. Tim Murray, professor andchair of the plant pathology department, and Dr. Stephen Jones, wheatbreeder, both at Washington State University, that first gained Rush’sinterest.

“For perennial wheats to have a place in our dual-purpose croppingsystems, they must have good resistance to disease and insects,” Rushsaid.

For this reason, his primary concern is determining how the 20experimental lines will hold up against wheat streak mosaic and greenbugs,something both Jones and Murray also are researching.

In addition to screening for disease and insect resistance, Rush isalso evaluating the perennial wheat lines for forage quality and yield,water use efficiency and drought tolerance.

“If they have drought tolerance and natural resistance to diseases andinsects, it opens up real possibilities,” he said. “Producers could savethe cost of replanting at the very least. But it could also allow cattleto graze later in the spring and earlier in the fall, and still allowfarmers to harvest for grain.”

Also, Rush said, producers would be able to avoid the fallow periodthat sets fields up for erosion. If the perennial wheat is rained on orirrigated in July, it is possible that cattle might be able to startgrazing as early as August.

“Since perennial wheats typically yield only 70 percent of the bestbread wheat cultivars, I don’t see this as competition for the grain crop,but primarily as another option on forage,” he said.

Lower yields are the primary reason researchers have not been veryinterested in perennial wheats, Rush said. But with increasing energycosts and environmental concerns, perennial wheats are worth a new look,especially for the dual-purpose systems.

In September, Rush planted three replications of 20 lines of perennialwheat in September, plus seven non-perennial varieties already incommercial production in the High Plains for comparison. Additionally, hebordered the plots on one side with a variety highly susceptible to wheatstreak mosaic virus and on the other side with a highly resistant variety.

“One of the things that could quickly kill this project is if all theperennials are highly susceptible to wheat streak mosaic,” he said. “Wedon’t want to have that bridge for the virus and mites to over-summer andthreaten the fall wheat crop.

“However, we are confident that some of the lines will bedisease-tolerant, because some of Dr. Murray’s preliminary findings onresistance to wheat streak in Washington state,” Rush said.

Additional testing for insect and disease resistance will be conductedin the greenhouse with the perennial lines being inoculated with wheatstreak mosaic virus and tested for resistance to greenbug and possiblybird cherry oat aphids, which also vector barley yellow dwarf virus, hesaid.

All the insect screening will be conducted by Dr. Jerry Michels,Experiment Station entomologist at Bushland.

“Because this whole research is so brand new, we’re limited in thenumber of treatments we can do until there’s more of this perennial wheatseed available,” Rush said.

Disease screening and forage quality sampling using remote imagingtechniques to measure the biomass, instead of clipping it, has alreadystarted and “we’re getting good data,” Rush said.

In the first sampling, some of the perennial wheat lines yieldedroughly the same amount of forage as the bread wheats and also exhibitedgood resistance to wheat streak, he said.

“I can hardly wait until our next field day to show our regional wheatproducers these new wheat lines,” Rush said.

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