Wheat Quality Development in the Western Wheat Quality Lab with Doug Engle

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For questions or comments, contact Doug Engle via email at douglas.engle@ars.usda.gov.


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Episode Transcription:

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Hello, and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. And leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Doug Engle. Doug is with the USDA-ARS Western Wheat Quality Lab. Doug has worked for the Wheat Quality Lab for 34 years now and will be retiring this coming June. His job title is Cultivar Development Manager. And he works in a variety of capacities to keep samples and data flowing in the lab. Additionally, he works with many outside people and groups to assist in wheat quality development in the PMW. Hello, Doug.

Doug Engle: Hi Drew. Thank you for having me on the podcast.

Drew Lyon: Great to have you here. Lots of experience. Sounds like that will be leaving in not too long a period of time. So, I’m sure that will be a major loss. Your description sounds like you do a lot of different things and from people I’ve talked to, you’re credited for a lot of what goes on over there at the Wheat Quality Lab. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is, what you actually do over there and how many hats you wear?

Doug Engle: Well, I kind of regard myself as kind of the center of the wheel. There’s a lot of samples that flow through the lab, a lot of data that flows through. And what I basically do is try and match up the sample flow, so people get the information they need in order to process samples in a timely manner. And also, the data flow out of the lab so that the groups that use the data coming out of the lab can have it in a timely manner. And I also do quite a bit of analysis of the data for things like the Copart development or Copart release committee has the data for variety release. And I do the Preferred Varieties pamphlet data analysis. And so anyways, so these groups need the data that the lab produces, and I just help facilitate the whole process.

Drew Lyon: And they need it timely from what I’ve seen. You know, they collect the data, they harvest it, they send it off, and they want answers to make decisions on what moves forward. And so there is a lot of demand on you to do this right and do it quickly.

Doug Engle: Oh, yeah. Basically, our harvest period starts right about the beginning of September and it pretty much goes through about the end of January. That’s when the last piece of data that gets released for the Preferred Varieties Pamphlet, that’s when the data for that– it’s a pretty going operation through that period.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, in its more than just a single test, right, to come up with quality? There’s a whole series of tests to keep track of a lot of data from– now for each variety, there’s a bunch of data points I would guess.

Doug Engle: Yeah, we process, about 4,000 to 5,000 samples a year. So, these are like basically one pound samples. That’s the amount of grain that’s in like the volume of your fist. One pound of grain. And we mill that into flour, take the flour, do some basic tests on protein and starch quality type things. And take that and take the flour and then bake it into either cookies and cakes for soft wheat products, or bread and noodles for hard wheat products. And through this whole process, depending on whether it’s hard or soft, exactly what it’s intended for, we’ll produce somewhere around 30 pieces of data on every single line. And that’s a lot of what I do, what I do in the lab, is just help keep track of all that data, make sure the data is good data, there are not a lot of, you know, flyers in the data as far as erroneous data. Just a lot of number crunching.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, it sounds like there would be. Because, you know, people think there’s 20 different varieties out there, but to get to those 20 different varieties, what do they test, 2,000, 3,000 lines that you have to look at to come up with those 20? So, a lot of different varieties, a lot of different tests, a lot of different data. So, the PMWWQC, the Pacific North West Wheat Quality Council– can you tell us a little bit about what that is?

Doug Engle: It’s been an ongoing project that’s been one of the more exciting things I’ve done for the lab, with the lab. The lab has been analyzing advanced generation lines with an industry cooperative program since the beginning of the 70’s. That’s when we got our pilot scale flour mill that the wheat commissions helped the lab to get in order to do this type of work where you do this cooperate work with the industry. And so, we work with the breeding programs in the PMW, basically both public and private, they both submit new varieties that they’re thinking about releasing or just have released. And we mill essentially about 150 pounds of it, or 120 pounds, into flour. We take that flour and then distribute it. Right now, we got about 25 cooperators. They’d be like other labs in PNW that are developing labs, like quality labs like ours. There’s about six large milling companies that operate in the western U.S. They all get samples. And then we have several baking companies. I think people like Krusteaz, and Nabisco, and General Mills that are, you know, more of a baking oriented type company. And everybody looks at the flour, at the flour samples that we send them out of this pilot scale milling and get together at one meeting. This year we’ll be meeting in Portland in January where we essentially go through a round robin discussion about each one of these varieties, and what are the good things or maybe the bad things about them. And since everybody’s actually looked at them in their particular labs, they have very technical data. They know exactly what they like or don’t like about them. And everybody’s sitting in the room, whether it’s, you know, the quality labs that help the breeders decide what’s going on with these things. The breeding programs are there. The industry is there. We have our overseas– some of our overseas users, wheat users in the room, you know, along with all of the milling companies. Essentially, it’s everybody along the wheat supply chain, you know, from breeding to end user all in the same room and talking about wheat quality. It’s a pretty good experience and I’ve just been proud that, you know, the lab’s been a leader in helping us to facilitate this whole discussion.

Drew Lyon: Do you get a lot of diversity of opinions when you discuss a variety or are most people on the same page when you discuss a variety?

Doug Engle: Most of the time, people pretty much agree. I mean, you’ll have different types of industries that have different uses for, you know, whether it’s hard or soft wheat. They have their own markets that they’re trying to satisfy. And though they may have a slightly different emphasis, you know, whether it’s like dough strength or maybe like bread wheat. So maybe they have more of an emphasis on dough strength because they have customers that are really, really working more with the dough aspect of the hard wheat verses others that are a bread, you know, baking type aspect. Or maybe it’s an artesian type aspect. So, they have slightly different visions of it, what they want to do with it. But at the end of the day, most of the time– in fact, almost all of the time– we pretty much agree what’s the good stuff and what’s the bad stuff. It’s the stuff in the middle that’s always the interesting part. And what we do as a lab is take all these opinions and try and form the target and try and find out what the center of the target is, so we can take this information back to the release program, you know, the release committees that we deal with and give them some good advice.

Drew Lyon: Okay. You’ve been with the Wheat Quality Lab now for 34 years. Have you seen a change in what people want in wheat quality or what wheat quality is? Has that changed over time or has that been pretty consistent?

Doug Engle: Fairly consistent. I mean, we’ve always, in this regions– it’s been kind of fun that we deal with both hard and soft wheat products. So, from that aspect, you know, it hasn’t changed a lot as far as, you know, what the uses are. What’s changed is what the emphasis on quality. When I first got here in the early 80’s, quality was important but there were a lot of growers and actually viewpoints in the industry that– you know, we were growing calories, calories to feed the world, which is a very noble thing to do. But over the last 30 years or so, what’s happened is that there’s been other areas of the world that are producing cheaper wheat than us now, particularly the Black Sea. And so, you know, our marketing now as the U.S. wheat industry, U.S. wheat, tells us that, you know, we need to emphasize the quality aspect of wheat in order to keep our markets, which, you know, the breeding programs have taken to heart, and you see better quality getting released out of the ready to release committees’ meetings now.

Drew Lyon: So how has cultivar development work impacted the PNW wheat industry?

Doug Engle: Oh, it’s kept our markets. I guess that’s one of the most important things is that, you know, our wheat is viewed as having high quality. And because of the work of the breeding programs and their emphasis on quality, we’ve kept that reputation and actually advanced it. You can look through our data of the last 40 years and you can see that quality has actually improved, you know, over the aggregate varieties that are available now. You actually see incremental improvement from an actual measurable quality standpoint.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, and that’s really no small task. Because I’ve, you know, in Nebraska before I came here and here, there’s always that tug of war between yield and quality. And sometimes yield wins out and quality takes a hit. But here, I get the sense that quality has been a major driver. Yes, yield is important but if you don’t have this quality, you’re not going to get the release. So that’s been very good for this part of the world.

Doug Engle: And their yield and quality are not mutually exclusive. The plant doesn’t care. I mean quality– is all about polymers. You have polymers of starch, polymers of protein. And how these polymers behave determine whether a product is high quality or poor quality. The plant doesn’t care what the composition of these polymers are. I mean, it just needs them to grow. And what our job in the lab is, is to find the types of, the qualities of these polymers so that they do make good products. And the plant really doesn’t care whether they’re’ good or bad.

Drew Lyon: Right, it’s just doing what it does. [ chuckles ]

Doug Engle: Just doing what it does.

Drew Lyon: So, what’s the most interesting development of wheat quality that you’ve been involved in since you’ve been involved in the Wheat Quality Lab?

Doug Engle: Oh, I think– Doctor Craig Morris is our lab director. And since he was very first been on board, he’s always had an interest in hardness of wheat. And one of his very early successes at the lab was to come up with the– along with actually the Doctor Mike Drew over in Montana state, they came up with the genetic mechanism of why hard wheat is hard and soft wheat is soft. I mean, that was a really exciting thing. From a scientific standpoint, it’s kind of like winning the Super Bowl. You know, that work where you actually figure out the genetic mechanism of how something works, I mean, you’re going to be cited and everybody’s work now for the next 500 years, you’re always going to be remembered for that. It’s been exciting. Because Craig has taken that work of the investigation of hard and soft wheat. And over the last– basically the last 30 years, he’s kept working with it. And what he did was, he took the genetic reason of why wheat is soft, and he actually took that and put it into a Durum wheat. And it was a very elegant experiment. You know, basically it was a noncommercial just, you know, let’s try and make this thing tick kind of thing. And what he did is, he took a little snippet of the genetic code out of the D genome– Durum is AB– okay we got to get the muddy details of this. Durum are AB genome and the wheat is the ABD genome. And the D genome is what has this coding for the hardness. So, he took a little snippet of that, stuck it in the Durum, and now all of a sudden, they have soft Durum. And so, it’s exciting because how often do you ever get a new wheat type ever get produced? So, I got in on the ground level of this and I’ve been kind of a passenger on the bus for the last 30 years looking at this. And so, you have these soft Durum’s now that– I call them the baking Durum’s. Because Durum’s have historically been super hard so all they can really do is make what they call semolina out of them. Semolina is like a sandy sized grind of the particle sized for it. And it makes great pasta. Well, in order to make a good cookie or cake or bread product or baked product, you need a much finer flour. And so, when you put the softness into Durum, now you can mill Durum’s as you do regular wheat and actually produce a good quality flour that’s not super high in starch damage. That’s another important part of it. You mill Durum’s into flour, you get a tremendous amount of starch damage. Well, now you can mill Durum’s and get a low amount of starch damage. And you can actually make baked products with them. And it’s– you know, Durum’s have stayed around in baking formulas for millennia because people like the taste of the Durum. That yellow color of the Durum, it called flavonoids. It produces a nice flavor to the product. Well, now you can have those flavonoids that flavor Durum into any kind of product. And it’s been exciting. You know, we’ve got some– Craig has gotten some traction with this from a commercial standpoint and, you know, we’re just going to kind of see wear this thing’s going to go. You know, it’s kind of exciting.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, it opens up a whole new realm for Durum that didn’t exist before.

Doug Engle: Exactly.

Drew Lyon: Very good. So, lots of interesting things going on over there. I’m sure they’re going to miss that 34 years of experience when you walk out the door. Are you doing anything to help them make that transition? Because people with your type of experience just don’t leave without there being an effect.

Doug Engle: We’re going to try and– we’ve got a transition plan going on. So, I’ll step out as a federal employee in June. And I’ll actually start a WSU state appointment 3/4 time for two years. So, this is a program that was generously supported by the Washington, Oregon Wheat Commission in order to create this transition period. So hopefully, we’ll be able to hire my replacement and get them on board and train them.

Drew Lyon: Excellent. We should do more of that in the future. Doug, thank you for spending some time with me today. I really appreciate it.

Doug Engle: Thank you.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. If you like what you hear, you can subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And leave us a review while you’re there. If you have questions for us that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon@wsu.edu. You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu. You can also reach out on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat Podcast is a production of CAHNRS communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon. We’ll see you next week.

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