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Variety Selection & Testing with Ryan Higginbotham

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Contact Ryan Higginbotham by email at or by phone at 509-335-1205.

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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. This week we will be discussing the WSU Cereal Variety Testing Program. My guest today is Ryan Higginbotham, director of the WSU cereal variety testing program. Hi Ryan.

Ryan Higginbotham: Hi Drew.

Drew Lyon: So, can you tell me a little bit about your background and the variety testing program here at Washington State University?

Ryan Higginbotham: Yes, I’m originally from a dryland wheat farm in Almira, Washington. I went to school at Washington State University, did my undergrad and masters there. I worked in the winter wheat breeding program at WSU for a few years before I entered into this role with the variety testing program. The variety testing program evaluates winter wheat, spring wheat, and spring barley across eastern Washington. And the goal really is to provide information to farmers about what varieties of cereal grains would do best in their particular growing environments. We evaluate release varieties, and also experimental lines. I like to say that I work for the farmers. I work with the breeders, but I don’t really work for the breeders. My job is to give information to farmers and industry in particular seed dealers, and people who are helping farmers make decisions about what does best in their areas. So, to provide information to the broader audience across eastern Washington about where these varieties might be the best fit.

Drew Lyon: Seems like there’s a lot of varieties out there. How does the variety testing program decide which varieties they’re going to use, and how do you structure your testing program to test all those different varieties?

Ryan Higginbotham: Yes. So, I split the trials out by precipitation zone, especially on the winter wheat side. So I draw the line at 16 inches of precipitation, and there’s probably a little bit of wiggle room there. Maybe it’s 15, maybe it’s 17, but you know, we call a 16-inch dividing line, and then I have some entries that will be planted everywhere. Varieties that seem to be pretty broadly adapted will get planted all those locations. And then, some entries will get planted just at the lower rainfall, or the less than 16-inch locations. And then, some at just the higher rainfall locations. We also have an irrigated trial, so that’s another unique set of entries. So, a variety could land in any one of those testing sites based on where’s the ideal fit for that variety. And, sometimes we just don’t know. Maybe it’s a new experimental line, and the breeding program has decided they don’t really know where it might best be fitted, or they’re not quite sure yet, so we’ll test it every place. So, we split things by precipitation zone on the winter wheat side. On the spring wheat side, we don’t do that. So there was a point in time, I guess before I took over, where they gave the breeding programs a chance to test things at different precipitation zones, and they just said, test it every place. So, it just didn’t make sense to continue that, so we test all the spring wheats at all the locations, same with the barley. So, we have 24 winter wheat testing sites, 18 spring sites, and 12 barley testing sites, spring barley. So, the way that we arrive at that list is, you know, I’ll meet with some of the farmers in the state. I’ll seek input from some of the seed dealers in Washington State Crop Improvement Association. Kind of get a feel for what varieties are still out there, being grown on a significant number of acres. Where they seem to be the best fit. But by and large, it comes down to the breeders, so, if the breeding program has, you know, two experimental lines that they want to test, and they want to test some in the higher than 16-inch precipitation zone, then that’s where we’ll test them. Because they know those breeding lines the best. They know where they’re the best fit. For release variety, typically if it’s new, we’ll test it wherever the breeding program thinks it is the best fit, and then if the variety kind of changes and grows in terms of its adaptation, we’ll spread that out a little bit. So, that’s kind of how we structure where the entries go, and how we arrive at that final entry list. It’s with input from the industry and the breeding programs.

Drew Lyon: There are a lot of places Washington farmers can go to get variety data. What sets the WSU Variety Testing Program apart from some of those?

Ryan Higginbotham: Yes, that’s a good point. It’s not like we run the best show in town. I think we’re doing a really good job, and have some great things to offer, but there are a lot of places that are doing variety trials. You know, seed companies, chemical companies, there’s just some straight-up private contract research that goes on that provides information for farmers. And, I think they all have a fit and they’re all doing a good job. Some of the things that I think set the Variety Testing Program apart are the availability of the data. You know, we have a website, the small grains website, so small is where you could go to find our website, and on there you can always find our results. So, you can find the location maps, and if somebody wanted to go find one of these 24 winter sites, you could find out the GPS coordinates to that location, a map of how the entry’s laid out in the field, so you could actually walk through and see each individual variety in each of the three reps that it’s in the field, and take notes for yourself whenever you’d like. And then, the harvest results are always there. So, a lot of programs, or other outfits, do good research, but the data’s just not available. You know, maybe it’s distributed one time via email, or it’s a hard copy at an annual meeting for a particular company and it’s just not always distributed. So, I think that separates us a little bit. The other one is that we present information over years and over locations. So, I always say that one year of results are not very useful in predicting future performance; it’s just a snapshot, it’s one tiny spot in the field, in one given year. The more powerful tool, I think, is to look at results over multiple years and then multiple locations that are sort of similar in terms of their environments. So, we provide that kind of information, results over years and locations, and that’s one thing that I think separates us. A lot of the places do really good work, but it’s just one year. So, it’s a nice snapshot in time, but it doesn’t give you a whole lot of useful information in terms of future performance. And then, the third thing that I always point to is that I think we’re pretty inclusive. I have entries in the program from all of the breeding programs in the northwest, both public and private. Even some maybe that the average listener is not familiar with, so a lot of times some of the other trials if it’s a seed company, they might have x number of entries, and typically those are going to be entries that they’re going to be offering for sale. Or, entries from a breeding program that they have an agreement with, and they sell those varieties. So, you know, there’s not a ton of incentive for them to explore options, and bring in varieties that they don’t sell themselves if we’re talking about a seed company. So, my job is just to provide information. So, it doesn’t matter to me where the varieties come from, but we try to be pretty inclusive and allow everybody a seat at the table to see where their variety might best fit.

Drew Lyon: You generate a lot of data each year from a lot of locations. But, every once in a while, some of these sites, you don’t present the data. Why is that?

Ryan Higginbotham: Yes, there’s a couple of reasons. So, we’re no different from the normal farmer, you know. The normal farmer’s going to have some equipment issues, and mother nature’s going to cause some problems, and that happens to us from time to time as well. So, for example, we might have a location where the drill acted up, and the opener’s plugged, and so we contaminated seed from one plot to the other, and we don’t have a true, pure plot of a given variety. So that’s an example of a location that’s just not going to be useable because either an equipment error or mother nature caused a problem, where maybe we got rain on a trial right after we planted out in the deep furrow country, and it crusted and didn’t all emerge. You know, that’s just not going to be useful. The information of what emerged is useful, but the yield results won’t be useful. So, those are examples of times when it just, it’s outside of our control somehow, and it’s just not going to make for a usable trial set. The other example is sometimes when we take these through to harvest, and I get a chance to look at the data that rolls in, is that there’s variation across the field. And there’s always going to be some variation, and that’s why we try to pick a spot that’s uniform when we pick a spot for these trials, but sometimes we just land in a bad spot. Or, half the trial ends up in a bad spot. For example, we had one this year where we had standing water over in the back corner of the trial. So, the entries in that corner, where they were water-logged all spring, didn’t perform as well as the entries in the rest of the trial. So, it wasn’t those varieties’ fault, they just happen to fall in that part of the field that was water-logged. So, it’s not a good representation of the true potential of those entries that were underwater. You know, sometimes we have just strange soil variation. We have wild yield swings from one replication to another, so it doesn’t matter to me what wins the trial, or what yields the best, and I don’t care if we have a spread from 100 bushels to 5 bushels, as long as it’s consistent, as long as a given entry is consistent across all three reps. The problem comes when we have an entry that yields 20 bushels in one replication, you know 50 bushels in another, and 100 bushels in the third rep. Well, which one is the true value that a farmer might expect? And that’s where the problem arises. So, sometimes it’s just, statistically, it’s not meaningful information. And, I can’t put it out in good conscience because what the worst thing that could happen is that a grower looks at that data set, makes a decision about what to plant, or what not to plant, based on that data, when it really was just random chance as to whether that variety ended up in a good spot or a bad spot in the field. So, I want to put out results that are useful, for farmers to make decisions on. And, if I put out results that are questionable, then they might make decisions based on a bad data set. So, if people are interested in trials that I don’t post on the website, they can always contact me and I’m happy to provide those results to them, for their own personal use, just with the understanding that it may not be real useful in predicting future performance, and they could get in touch with me at my office phone number 509-335-1205. Or, they can email me at That’d be r-h-i-g-g-i-n-b as in boy-o-t-h-a-m as in March at

Drew Lyon: Thank you, Ryan.

Ryan Higginbotham: Thank you, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Thanks for listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you have questions for us, that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at You can find us online at You can also find us on social media on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. Subscribe to this show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. 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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