To some Saskatchewan wheat farmers, rain clouds were like an endangered species this summer. But with harvest well underway, some of them may be shocked by what’s grown out of bone-dry soil.
“Some of our newer varieties like AAC Brandon — we’ve heard yields of upwards of 80 to 90 bushels [per acre] on dry land,” said wheat breeder Richard Cuthbert, referring to a type of spring wheat.
Around Swift Current, which has been one of the driest areas of the province, the variety may have produced yields as high as 50 bushels per acre, according to anecdotal evidence, Cuthbert said.
‘I’m pretty comfortable saying that half of this year’s performance has been from improved genetics.’
– Wheat breeder Richard Cuthbert
In context, the average yield for spring wheat last year, in the six municipalities located directly around Swift Current, was 39 bushels per acre. The area saw significantly higher amounts of precipitation last summer, with July seeing twice the amount of rainfall it would normally see.
Science to the rescue
A number of factors have contributed to wheat farmers in drought-stricken areas avoiding devastation, Cuthbert said, including a good bed of moisture in the ground coming out of winter.
However, the science of wheat breeding has played a major role.
“I’m pretty comfortable saying that half of this year’s performance has been from improved genetics,” he said.
There is no “fancy approaches” used to breed the today’s impressive wheat varieties, he said, noting that no genetically modified organisms are used in the process.
“It’s more informed breeding than what was done 100 years ago, but the principles are pretty similar.”
He and a team of more than 20 people in Swift Current carry out research and breed new varieties of wheat. Cuthbert works with spring bread wheats, specifically.
Farmer funded innovation
They are funded largely by what’s known as “check-off” payments made by farmers. Each time a farmer sells a quantity of their harvest, a small portion of the proceeds go toward crop research. The program is voluntary, Cuthbert said, as farmers who do not support it can apply to have the money returned to them.
“Most producers have seen the value,” Cuthbert noted.
“The producer funding really started in the ’90s and that’s what allowed a lot of the gains to be made,” he said, noting that the program is a partnership between producers, the federal government and universities.
Wheat breeding is somewhat of a…