Growing the Spring Wheat Breeding Program with Dr. Mike Pumphrey

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Washington Grain Commission

Breeding Research at WSU

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Dr. Mike Pumphrey,, 509-335-0509

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Episode transcription:


Drew Lyon: Hello, 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. In each episode, I speak 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 podcast app and leave us a review so others can find the show too.


Drew Lyon:  Welcome to the first episode in a special series we are running on the podcast where we are highlighting researchers whose work is supported by the Washington Grain Commission, with funding provided by the wheat and barley growers of Eastern Washington through an annual assessment levied on grain at the first point of sale. We will be releasing several of these special episodes throughout the year to inform growers about the research that their assessment dollars support.

Now, please join me in welcoming our first guest in the series, Dr. Mike Pumphrey. Mike is Professor and Orville Vogel Endowed Chair of Spring Wheat Breeding and Genetics at WSU. His breeding program focuses on the development of high-yielding, high-quality, and pest- and disease-resistant spring wheat varieties for diverse Washington production environments. His current releases are the most widely planted spring wheats in the Northwest.

Breeding goals in his program also include herbicide tolerant wheat varieties, high falling numbers, and varieties with specific value-added end-use characteristics. Mike teaches courses in crop growth and development and advanced principles in plant breeding and genetics, in addition to broad involvement in WSU extension programs. Hello, Mike.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So, your spring wheat breeding program received just under a half million dollars in fiscal year 2024 from the Washington Grain Commission. What does this money allow you to do that wouldn’t get done without it?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Well, you know, it basically provides the core support for our entire program. So, the growers are reinvesting and we really appreciate that support from them.

Technically, it’s broken down–I’m funded on four projects. One is my core spring wheat breeding effort. The second is basically the same thing but separated to capture our greenhouse and laboratory breeding efforts. And then the third is supporting our quality lab technician that does all the grain quality analysis in the USDA Western Wheat Quality Lab. And then the fourth is focused on Hessian fly, which is a kind of spring wheat specific focus, although we have expanded that to include winter wheat and barley research as well.

So, the core staff that operate those programs are basically about 80% funded by the [Washington] Grain Commission to carry out that work.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So major contributions.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah. Yeah. You know, the federal funding for that kind of long-term sustained program is not all that possible. You know, we get federal grants to do specific research projects to tackle specific timely problems, but the 50-, 60-year-plus history of spring wheat breeding specifically in this region has been funded and continues to be funded by primarily the [Washington] Grain Commission.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Speaking of federally funded research, do you have some federally funded research projects currently going on?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, we at current are funded to work in areas of heat and drought tolerance, and just overall wheat productivity through a national USDA CAP grant. So, this is a consortium of over 20 universities’ wheat breeding where resources in certain areas are pooled so that we have greater resources to develop tools for genotyping and phenotyping and application of advanced technology. We also have a federally funded NIFA [USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture] project on grain micronutrients. And so basically trying to breed for more nutritious wheat through micronutrient concentration. And we’re increasingly also working through another federally funded project on specific ways of screening heat and drought tolerance, using novel methods, and in collaboration with Andrei Smertenko in the Institute of Biological Chemistry here at WSU.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, all those topics would have national, maybe international implications, but also quite relevant to Washington.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, 2023 is a very good example of why we need to be vigilant and maybe more aggressive on breeding for heat and drought tolerance in spring wheat.

Drew Lyon: Yes, it’s looking pretty dry out there at this time in June as we record this podcast.

How is the spring breeding program going with this near record temperatures and lack of moisture across the state?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: You know, it’s been a very interesting year. Growers have experienced as you know, just the same as the breeding program–most of our trials are on farmer fields where we’re doing evaluation, whether it’s for the core breeding efforts or even some of the federally funded or other funded research–and it’s been tough. You know, we were backed up by cold soil, moisture, too much rain early on. And then the spigot shut off and the furnace kicked on. And so, everything has been very compressed. So, we’re literally taking notes and making decisions in the breeding program that we that are probably three weeks ahead of schedule, which is not good.

We need a long, wet growing season to have good spring wheat yields. And so, it’s kind of daunting when we’re already looking at taking something like just heading notes or flowering notes here in Pullman about at least three weeks ahead of schedule, even though we planted what I would consider 2 to 3 weeks later than normal.

Drew Lyon: So that would reduce probably the amount of vegetation capable of–say, it turns cool and wet, now you’ve already probably hurt yield potential a little bit.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, absolutely. Most of our locations, we’re getting past the point where unless the conditions were exceptional, we’re not going to see additional tillering–the tillers have already been abandoned or aborted by the plant. And so, you know, there’s still a chance for a high-quality crop that finishes strong if we can get some moisture, but definitely we’re looking at a below average wheat yield or spring wheat yield year.

Drew Lyon: Yeah, I think even our winter wheat yields aren’t going to set any records on the high side this year.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: No, this year reminds me a lot of 2015. We don’t talk about that as one of note necessarily compared to some of the good years or 2021 when it was really bad for wheat and spring wheat specifically, but if we can’t get some moisture here over the next three to four weeks, it’s going to be a pretty tough spring wheat crop year.

Drew Lyon: So, do you have any new varieties coming along?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, we were able to develop a new two-gene Clearfield soft white spring wheat that was approved for release this spring. Its name is Butch CL+, and we did a Butch, you know Butch…

Drew Lyon: I do.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: We were able to do a good increase on that in a winter nursery in Arizona this winter and get quite a bit of grain, and we have quite a bit of acres of foundation seed production going on here this year–some of it’s irrigated, some of it’s dryland.

I’m afraid that dryland production is not going to be optimal–I’m not afraid, I’m certain–the dryland production is not going to be great. But, hopefully between the combination of sites we’ll be able to multiply that quickly and get that into farmer’s hands as soon as possible.

So that’ll be available to seed dealers this next planting season.

Drew Lyon: So something growers should be watching here this year.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah. Yeah. There’s been a lot of demand for several years now. I’ve been asked when are we going to have a good two-gene Clearfield soft white spring wheat to help with rotation restrictions and just production in the system where two-gene Clearfield winter wheats are actually being sprayed. So, the primary objective here is not to spray Butch CL+ with Beyond; it’s to have something that can tolerate the rotation restriction in the soil residual.

Drew Lyon: That’s in some of our drier areas where people have used that continuously for a while. There definitely is a residual level out there.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah. And Butch is–I like it. It’s a cross between mainly Seahawk and Ryan parentage. It’s got a really strong background for disease resistance, Hessian fly resistance, [and] aluminum tolerance. Its test weight has been exceptional. Yield has been right on par with our best varieties. So, in spring wheat as a rotational tool, we need things that fill that that void really well. And I think this one’s going to do that.

Drew Lyon: Well, your varieties always come out with excellent quality and excellent yield potential. That’s why they’re grown on so many acres, I assume, because the growers recognize that.

As we speak, we’re about to enter another year of budget cuts at the university. How do these reductions impact the spring wheat breeding program?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Well, you know, it’s never good getting your budget cut, but we’ve been fortunate mainly because of the strong support of the [Washington] Grain Commission. You know, we were already facing issues of inflation, input costs, and so the [Washington] Grain Commission did award our full ask on the projects this past cycle. That helps, certainly.

On the flip side, we’ve been very fortunate because the varieties we’ve developed through [Washington] Grain Commission support have been successful and adopted. The royalty revenue stream that’s been coming back to the university is finally–basically looking forward this year–starting to pay back. Well, it’s been paying back. We’ve got a beautiful greenhouse facility, but we’ve been approved and are going to be able to use royalty funds to backfill the state budget reduction that was passed on to me this year.

So, we’re whole and that’s basically thanks to the growers, either directly through checkoff dollars into the [Washington Grain] Commission or indirectly by choosing to plant varieties that that are giving royalty revenues directly back into the program.

Drew Lyon: And you mentioned royalties and the beautiful greenhouse facility. Basically those royalties for a number of years has been going into picking up the remaining costs of that facility, is that correct?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, the royalty collection on WSU varieties technically started in about 2013. We built that greenhouse facility in 2015, and essentially all of the funds have been directed at paying for that greenhouse expansion, until 2024. So, it’s been over a decade, but we’re happy to retire that greenhouse debt and start putting some of that money directly into the breeding program. For now, like I said, it’s to help cope with some of these budget cuts, but looking forward the next year or two, it’ll actually help us continue to thrive and expand.

Drew Lyon: Again, evidence of the strong support of the growers of Washington that support the program and WSU in general.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Certainly.

Drew Lyon: Thank you, Mike. It’s good to hear what’s going on in the spring wheat breeding program. There are definitely some challenges this year, but I think your program is up to finding answers for these growers despite a challenging year like this.

Thanks for joining me today.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Thanks, Drew.

 Drew Lyon:


Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics you’d like to hear on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon — that’s — ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.