The Best of Conditions & the Worst of Conditions for the WSU Breeding Program with Dr. Arron Carter

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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 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 Dr. Arron Carter. Arron is a professor and the Orville Vogel endowed chair of Winter Wheat Breeding and Genetics at WSU. His breeding program focuses on the development of high-yielding, high-quality wheat varieties with resistance to both biotic and abiotic stresses in Washington production regions. He uses a combination of traditional breeding methods, along with new technologies such as genomic selection and high throughput phenotyping to accomplish this. Arron also teaches undergraduate courses in plant breeding and plant science. Hello, Arron.

Dr. Arron Carter: Hi, Drew.

Drew Lyon: So this past year, 2021 has been quite, quite the year. I know every year is a little different, but this one seems a little out of the normal range. How did the weather patterns of 2021 affect your breeding program for winter wheat?

Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, it was a very interesting year going from 2020 that might have been one of the wettest, mildest conditions that we had to 2021, the driest and hottest we’ve probably had in a long time. And so, yeah, definitely, you know, like production crops, it affects the breeding program just the same. You know, we had reduced yields in our breeding plots. You know, from the pure breeding side, you know, we had reduced disease resistance. So a lot of our trials where we were trying to, you know, inoculate for diseases and try and get that disease pressure going, we just couldn’t because of the year. So it really returns a lot of limited data back to the program because we can’t get some of that screening done. And then just those production issues, you know, all that variability that comes into it, sometimes that makes just interpreting the data a little more difficult because we have so much variation in our fields on normal years. When you have really dry years, you can see that being picked up. So even though we do things like replication and randomization, how sometimes that’s not even sufficient enough to account for that variation that you see in fields on these really dry years. So, yeah, we do with all the production issues like a normal farmer would, but then we deal with some other ones that are very specific to the research in the breeding and selection that we do.

Drew Lyon: So what do you do with the data from a year like that? Like, do you throw it out, or is it valuable if you throw it and kind of combine it with other more normal years or just what do you do with it? [ laughter ]

Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah. You know, I say all data is valuable, you know, so a lot of it is just we spend a lot of time at the different locations where we do our testing. And so you get a feel for those locations that are still going to be good based on genetic performance. Right. There’s some environments or some locations where you look at it and there’s just so much variation going on. You can’t tell if it was because the line was genetically better or it just happened to be in a bad spot in the field. So, you know, you take everything, and you kind of rank your different locations and you know which ones you can put more trust in and which ones you can’t. But, you know, years like this are actually in some ways very useful for the breeding program. Sometimes when we see these real extremes, although it’s bad in the production systems, in the breeding programs, it can be helpful because we went from like I said, 2020 that was a great year to 2021 that was a bad year. So that really gives us the opportunity to look and see which varieties can genetically handle that variation. So we had a number of varieties in the program that, you know, not only were they the top varieties in 2020, they were also the top varieties in 2021. So that can tell us a lot about those varieties, whereas if you have to do selection on, you know, four years of really good weather, you know, you release a variety, but you don’t really know how it might perform in in a bad year. So this really gave us a good opportunity to see varieties and test them in the best of conditions and in the worst of conditions, because that’s really our goal at the end of the day with the breeding, you know, we want to develop varieties that minimize that risk. And one of those risks are these variations that we see in temperature and in rainfall between different years. So if we can find varieties that can mitigate that along with, you know, mitigating disease and other stresses that come along, that’s going to be valuable to the breeder or to the farmer in the long run. So, yeah, you know, it’s bad for the farmers now, but we’re hoping that through this selection will be able to mitigate that in future varieties and releases.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I know one of the things a breeder does is walk lots and lots of rows of short little plantings trying to pick out what– which ones they think really look good. So in a year like this, how do you do that?

Dr. Arron Carter: [ laughter ] Yeah.

Drew Lyon: How do you make some selections in the year, that’s this unusual?

Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, it’s hard, you know, because you just don’t have as much data to make those selections on. So in a year like this year, you know, plant height wasn’t as variable as it typically is. So where we maybe have 10-inches from our shortest to our tallest variety and year like this might only be two or three…  heading date gets compressed because, you know, everything’s stressed and heads faster. So it is a little more difficult because you can’t see all that variation that exists and really select on the best. But, you know, part of it comes from experience. You know, you’ve walked a lot of fields, you’ve seen a lot of wheat. And so even in these bad years, you still can get a sense for what the best looks like. It’s just you’re evaluating that now on less information that the plant is telling you. But you can still look for things like, you know, any kind of, you know, drought stress that might be showing early on for tiller number. You know, the leaf starting to curl early. So there is still information that you can see. But it’s definitely not like in the year that might have, you know, a lot of moisture, a lot of disease pressure and then it’s really easy to pick out some of the best varieties.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so eastern Washington, as you move across, it has a lot of variability even within a year. But then you look across years and you have all of their ability. How do you manage a breeding program and variety selection to adapt to this extreme annual weather change?

Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, it’s, you know, testing in a lot of locations and testing in multiple years. So, again, as we test in these multiple years so, you know, we don’t release a variety after just one or two years of data. You know, we usually have five or six years that we’ve watched in the breeding program before that variety gets released. So you can get a sense for how they perform across that, you know, and then, you know, some of these new statistical tools that are — allow us to better analyze across the years and account for that variation. So, again, we’re not just making selections on this one year and how it performed in this one year, but we’re able to analyze how it did over all these multiple locations and multiple years at the same time to really pick out those lines that perform best and consistent across all that variation.

Drew Lyon: Okay, that seems to be one of the biggest challenges isn’t a breeding program dealing with all that in-field variation, location variation, annual variation, even within the season. You know, we started off pretty normal and then things just turned abnormal, what, in March? But prior to that, we were having a pretty normal fall and winter.

Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah. Prior to that, it was you know, we had good stand establishment. The plants, you know, came up and established well. And there was sufficient moisture there for them to put on, you know, sufficient tillers. And, yeah, it was looking like it was doing well. And then there was just a switch came and no more rain, no more moisture, and the heat came. So, yeah. And again, you know, you take all these environmental variables into account. So in a year like this, we typically see varieties that are earlier that escape some of that heat perform better. And so you have to keep that in mind when you’re doing your selection so that you don’t bias your program too much and just select for all the early lines. And then next year, that might favor a mid-maturity line. Well, you know, all your programs now too far early. So you have to balance it and make sure that you’re bringing along enough variation and not in these extreme events, biasing too much to one trade or another that may have been favorable specifically in this year.

Drew Lyon: Okay. We can’t predict what this coming year is going to be like. But unlike what we just talked about last year, this year it looks like it’s going to be really dry fall and going to have a different set of issues to deal with. How do you deal with a year like this where maybe establishment is is really a tough issue?

Dr. Arron Carter: Right. Yeah, it’s the same thing, you know, where we’re going to be planting into very dry conditions. You know, most of our deep furrow locations have already been planted. And, yes, some of those the only information we may get is if the line emerged or not. But yeah. So this year we’re going to be looking at a lot of that early-season drought. And how does that early-season drought before going into winter and dormancy affect the plant? And so even though it’s still dry, it’s a completely different set of, you know, traits that we’re looking at in the wheat varieties. How do they survive early drought now instead of like last year? How do they survive that late-season drought? So, yeah, again, it’s collecting the information that’s there and available to us. You know, always, you know, putting the best trials in that we can and getting, you know, the best information out of them. Like I say, sometimes it might only be yield, you know, or sorry, there might only be emergence. And then because only maybe five or six varieties emerged, well, it’s like, well, there’s no point in, you know, looking at yield because it already tells us the story. So, yeah, it will definitely be an interesting, interesting fall for establishment. And there will just you know, it’s just the way in the game right now.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So while the growers may not see much advantage to a year like 2021, the breeding program can still get the good information that’s usable and in variety selection is what you’re telling us.

Dr. Arron Carter: Yep. Yep, it is. Like I say, it’s always tough on the growers. And we work with them closely. And we understand, you know, the difficulties they go through. But, yeah, it is oftentimes in years like this that we can learn the most about some of these upcoming lines and even some of the current lines, right? So we’re even better able to help the growers pick varieties now that are good because there’s some varieties that, you know, have been released this year, just did horrible. And so now we’re like, okay, we know that might not be the best varieties, other varieties, they were still top of the yield trials. And so, you know, we can even learn a little bit about varieties. And so when they go to pick varieties this fall, we can steer them to, you know, varieties. A and B, you’re going to be your best choice going forward because they look to be more stable. So there is… there’s a little bit of data that immediately can come to them with variety choice. But, yeah, some of the breeding material will be evident, you know, five years from now when these new varieties come out.

Drew Lyon: Alright, Arron, thanks for sharing with us the impact of the 2021 season on your breeding program. And we look forward to seeing what comes out of this season and is ready for growers and years ahead.

Dr. Arron Carter: Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks, Drew.

[ Music ]

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 podcasting 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.