Manitoba FHB nursery key part of wheat breeding on the Prairies

By Dallas Carpenter

Breeding new wheat varieties is a long and complicated process. It can take several years for the development of a new variety and wheat breeders need several tools and services to develop varieties that will meet producer expectations for quality and performance.

One of the most valuable tools that western Canadian wheat breeders have available to them is the fusarium head blight (FHB) nursery, located in Carman, Manitoba. The FHB nursery provides the perfect environment for FHB to flourish and to test the FHB resistance of new lines of wheat, which is why Sask Wheat, the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association (MWBGA), the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC), the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF), and the Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission agreed to provide funding for the nursery for the current crop year.

University of Manitoba plant science professor Anita Brûlé-Babel established the FHB nursery in 2001 after several years of dealing with the disease in Manitoba. Brûlé-Babel saw a need for the nursery to test new lines of winter wheat she was developing and was approached shortly after by other breeders, including University of Saskatchewan wheat breeder Pierre Hucl, to test wheat and durum lines for FHB resistance.

“Eventually, with Pierre and a number of other breeders we put together a proposal to do a uniform screening nursery for other breeders,” says Brûlé-Babel. “Initially, we developed our techniques within our own (winter wheat) program and started applying it to the spring wheat programs. Eventually, the WGRF decided to fund us for a larger, more uniform nursery that could screen other breeder’s materials, as well.”

FHB had been a minor problem in Saskatchewan until the early 2000s. It would not take long for FHB to spread across the province, with nearly 40 percent of Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) spring wheat samples reporting fusarium damaged kernels (FDK) in 2012.

The 2016 FHB outbreak cost Saskatchewan farmers dearly, with almost 80 percent of CGC spring wheat samples reporting FDK. The severity of the FDK in 2016 caused a significant downgrading of wheat crops, with 42 percent of spring wheat graded at #2, 28 percent at #3, and 20 percent at feed. Almost half of the durum harvested in 2016 was downgraded to #4 or #5.

Due to the toll FHB can take, western Canadian wheat breeders have focussed much of their efforts on improving FHB resistance in wheat and durum. This has created significant demand for the services at Brûlé-Babel’s testing facility, which now hosts an average of 25,000 lines from breeders looking for FHB resistance data.

“The breeders have been working with us for a long time and they have always had fusarium as a high priority,” says Brûlé-Babel. “We’ve been increasing the amount of durum wheat we’re testing, as durum wheat is particularly challenging. But we continuously have more demand than we have space for.”

The FHB nursery evaluates each variety against five check varieties which range from susceptible to resistant to FHB. Brûlé-Babel and her team will then send the data back to the breeder and can also send the harvested plants, if further testing is desired.

“We’ve recently received funding from the MWBGA and the WGRF to purchase a stationary harvester,” she says. “So now we have the ability to harvest more material out of the nursery and if the breeder wants to test in-house for FDK and DON, they are capable of doing that.”

As integral as the FHB nursery is to the development of FHB resistant wheat, the efforts of Brûlé-Babel and the western Canadian wheat breeders will be lost if their varieties aren’t grown. She remains hopeful more farmers will be considering FHB resistance levels and will take advantage of this technology.

“Now that we’ve seen these more severe epidemics, it should encourage farmers to choose more resistant cultivars,” she says. “This should help reduce many of the severe problems we’ve seen in the past.”

Producer, ResearchSask Wheat