A Spring Wheat Breeding Program Update with Dr. Mike Pumphrey

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For questions or comments, contact Dr. Mike Pumphrey via email at m.pumphrey@wsu.edu.

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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.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is 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 and current releases our most widely planted spring wheats in the Northwest. Breeding goals in this program also includes 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 how is the 2022 spring wheat seasonally looking at this point in time? I know we’re not quite done with harvest, but you’ve got some sites harvested. What’s it looking like for you?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Well, I think not quite done with harvest as maybe an understatement. [Drew laughs] It’s really been a what I would call a rollercoaster year, you know, but we expect roller coasters in agriculture. We we have a unique situation, I think, where spring wheat and often in many areas is caught up and is ready to be harvested at the same time as winter wheat. So growers are really doing double time right now. And, you know, the the yields so far in our in our variety testing plots and breeding plots have been quite good and, you know, significantly better than last year. But overall, you know, I’ve had reports from growers like I’ve never had about some of the best yields they’ve ever seen. With that said, with harvest being delayed, I start getting nervous about getting wheat out of the field and the backlog and once you have mature grain in the field, there’s a lot of risk.

Drew Lyon: Right. Yeah, we have had a few little thunderstorms go through the area, which is always a little scary this time of year.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, it is. And obviously, you know, the the hail damage that was spotty throughout, you know, Spokane and Whitman counties is very serious. The rain, I don’t think we’re overwhelmed yet. But if we pick up a rain pattern with this mature wheat in the field, it’s definitely an area for concern in end-use quality.

Drew Lyon: You mentioned the roller coaster and it seems like 2020 was a really pretty good year — or 2021 was a pretty good year for spring wheat.

Both: No it was 2020.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. And then 2021 we had the drought and now this year looks like a really good year. So spring wheat tends to maybe oscillate a bit more than then winter wheat. So how should a grower look at spring wheat in their crop rotation? What’s it’s role, in your opinion?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: For the vast majority of growers, it’s exactly that. It’s a rotation crop. But with that said, you know, growers don’t have the margins to to ignore every part of their rotation. And and, you know, doing that, whether it’s in terms of, you know, optimizing profit within that spring year or really thinking long term about the rotations in terms of weed control, disease benefits, you know, through rotation, that’s that’s critically important as well. You know, for things like irrigated spring wheat, obviously, it’s a rotation crop, but it’s a, you know, cash crop at the same time. But, you know, I basically, my view as a breeder of spring wheat is to really try to package things to minimize the inputs and yet have profitability. And that’s why we do focus on some value out of trades and put so much emphasis on disease and pest resistance and, you know, other tolerance abiotic stresses.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So have there been any significant or recent changes in how your breeding program goes about developing spring wheat varieties?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: You know, the basic methods are, you know, 120 years old now, but, you know, it’s been interesting and nice over the past, I’d say 3 to 4 years, we’ve fully sort of embraced genotyping every advanced line in a dense way that comes through our program so that we can use that that DNA information to predict performance in future or other environments or help identify the best lines maybe if the data is a little variable. Another thing we’ve done is that we’re routinely now using aerial drone imagery with some specialized cameras at every location we operate and starting to use that data to select for things like drought tolerance and and stay green under heat stress. And, you know, several, you know, before three or four years ago, those were more experimental. We had grants to do that research. Now it’s just a part of the process.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And how’s that going for you? Feel like you’ve like it’s really helped you make decisions on what to keep in and what to throw out?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, we’re getting to that point and I mean, yes is the answer. But, you know, the it’s interesting because we can’t be there every day. We can’t see necessarily the the progress over a one week period as accurately. And we’re getting more detailed information that tells me a little bit more about, you know, how tough are we to say we get this 105 degree heat spell for three days. You can really watch and monitor by having somebody go out and fly that that’s not me as the breeder and and start interpreting that data about what might have a little bit better stay green or tolerance under stress.

Drew Lyon: Okay. What traits are you most focused on these days or what do you feel like you need to be putting into your spring wheat varieties?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: The primary core set of traits that I speak at field days with growers and that are core part of our program are rust resistance, hessian fly resistance, aluminum tolerance and obviously, you know, decent agronomic. But I feel like we’ve gotten to a point where some of those major traits that are easier to select are getting more or less fixed in the germplasm. And so I’m really looking more next level at things like thresh ability, straw strength and, you know, there are things we’ve always paid attention to that are critically important to growers, but they’re much more complicated to measure or, you know, takes more, you know, observations across environments. So we’re really focusing in more on those kind of fine-tuning traits that make the whole, you know, growing experience better for a farmer all the way through harvest.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I wonder in spring wheat, because it’s a rotational crop whether there’s more interest in these various little niches out there. So breeding of spring wheat varieties that fit different niches rather than just broad spectrum adaptability and yield?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, you know, that’s a real challenge because it’s, you know, it’s only about a quarter of the acres, you know, of our wheat in the state, seed dealers, the industry doesn’t want a thousand choices. So there are practical limitations to how many niches you can have. But that’s why we tend to focus on things like we’ve got a significant and expanding effort on nutrition and biofortification and, you know, starch, digestion as well as, you know, specialty uses. And so as long as the varieties that have those are good overall, they can fit into the system while giving unique, you know, marketing opportunity. But I still believe personally that our spring wheat varieties for the most part to serve the growers in the state best, I need to focus on broad adaptation and keep it limited to a handful of really good varieties that fit our broad geography that that allows winter wheat to still be, you know, well, not allows but that you still have the most winter wheat bins with, you know, available varieties across the state.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I had Clark Neely on a little while ago talking about the winter wheat variety tests around the state. One of the things he pointed out was how bad the the weed situation was in winter wheat. And historically spring wheats have been used to rotate with the help with those winter annual grasses and one of the ways they help is you can plant them a little bit later or hopefully get a lot of that winter and your grass up and killed before you plant the spring wheat but then you need you might depending on how late you go, you might need some heat tolerance so you have your varieties are I would think that would be something you might want to focus in on since we’re almost always in terminal drought when it comes to spring wheat, aren’t we?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, and that’s exactly what we do. I mean, one way is we continue to try to push the envelope on earlier maturity while maintaining, you know, yields so that even if we’re seeding late, we’re maturing at a time that we’re not getting as much risk later on, whether it’s at flowering time when heat is most damaging or later on, you know, even up through harvest are being harvested too late. But that is a primary focus of multiple grants that we have from USDA and the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research work that you might hear about with Andre Smertenko, Kim Garland-Campbell, Arron Carter, Sindhu Sankaran all here at WSU. And that’s where we use the high throughput phenotyping to come in and measure, you know, how plants are, how genotypes are responding to heat. And we do that through manipulated experiments where we can control the irrigation and we can control planting date. So station, like our Othello research station, we’ll plant timely and late, but will also overlay multiple irrigation regimes and see which genotypes do the best in those most, I would say, challenging situations, which ones are most stable across situations and which ones really do the best under the optimal planting date and irrigation schedule.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, as things like downy brome and Italian ryegrass and the like start showing us that we are that the resistant to many of the herbicides we use I think rotations going to have play a much bigger role and I think I see spring wheat as being one of those tools that can be used for that. It was in the past and I think maybe we’ll see more of it use that way in the future. You talked about several tools that just a few years ago were kind of experimental but now are pretty much fixed in your system. You see any other new technologies coming that you’re looking at that hold promise for the breeding program?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: Yeah, I think, you know, those tools that are new are going to continue to improve in terms of the, you know, the data generation and processing and how we analyze it. But honestly, the next changes I see mainly as being genetic and that’s through hybrid wheat. I think hybrid wheat is something that we’re starting to work on that in cooperation with some other companies and universities that I think it is going to enter the marketplace, you know, over the next, you know, let’s say 7 to 8 years, which means we’re breeding for it now. Another one is, you know, we’ve talked about it, but there’s gene editing where we can go in and specifically target just basic mutations in the genes that are already there that change their function a little bit. We’re starting to see scientists develop some gene edits that make a lot of sense to start introducing into varieties and with, you know, the U.S. policy and even our import customers, you know, around the world, more or less accepting this gene editing is something that’s not, you know, like a transgenic or genetically modified organism. I think you’re going to start seeing more and more gene edited varieties where we’re tracking specific alleles or of genes to do specific things.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Is that… we hear a lot or at least I occasionally read things in the popular press on the CRISPR technologies. Is that what we’re talking about?

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: That’s we’re talking about CRISPR. And some of it doesn’t have to necessarily be CRISPR. It could just be that we’ve been able to go in and find in a population of mutants the exact allele we want to kind of breed it internationally. But, really looking at direct allele selection instead of just seeing how it functions or grows. And, this is for all traits. I mean, we have loci evaluated that we know increase test weight. If you mutate that one locus or gene, you can increase and test weight others for maturity, others for, you know, certain quality aspects. I think you’re going to start seeing more sort of defined packages of those alleles coming together.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, you know, I think your spring wheat varieties have owned a large percentage of the acreage grown here in the state. And so you’re doing some great things. The growers are appreciating that and showing you their appreciation by planting it on a lot of acres. Appreciate you taking the time today to come and talk to me about your spring wheat breeding program here at WSU.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey: All right. Thank you, 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 podcast app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s lyon@wsu.edu — (drew.lyon@wsu.edu). You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu 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.

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