CORVALLIS, Ore. – In an annual event as old as Oregon statehood, wheat harvest is under way from the Willamette Valley to the Columbia Basin – and this year, approximately 965,000 acres of wheat will be harvested across Oregon.
Sixty percent of those acres are planted with wheat varieties developed by Oregon State University.
Wheat is big business in Oregon, worth more than $260 million in 2009, down from a high of $312 million in 2008. Most of the varieties grown are soft white winter wheat, the kind that makes the world's best cakes, cookies, noodles and flat breads. The most widely planted wheat variety in Oregon is ORCF 101, developed at OSU in 2003, accounting for almost 20 percent of the state's wheat acreage.
Oregon State University's wheat breeding program has been at work for more than 100 years, and supported by the Oregon Wheat Commission since 1947. Researchers at the College of Agricultural Sciences have developed dozens of varieties adapted to the particular conditions of wet western Oregon, dry Columbia Basin, or high-yielding irrigated croplands.
Their work has resulted in several varieties that thrive in the Pacific Northwest, including Goetze (pronounced "getsy"), a variety well-suited for the Willamette Valley; high-yielding Tubbs and Tubbs 06; and ORCF 101 and ORCF 102, which were specifically bred to be resistant to a particular herbicide.
According to Russ Karow, head of the university’s crop and soil science department, OSU's wheat varieties have steadily increased yields across the state and region.
With herbicide resistance and improved disease resistance, new OSU winter wheat varieties have increased yields across the state by at least two bushels per acre in recent years. At the current price of $6 per bushel, this equates to at least an additional $10 million for Oregon wheat growers each year, Karow said.
Similarly, Karow estimates that about 19 percent of Washington's 1.3 million acres of common winter wheat are planted with OSU wheat varieties, including ORCF 102, which is the second most common wheat variety in that state. Again assuming a two-bushel increase in yield and a price of $6 per bushel, ORCF 102 is returning just short of $3 million in extra income to Washington growers.
"And these figures include none of additional income generated in each state from shipping and handling as these crops pass through regional ports to foreign and domestic markets," Karow said.
The wheat industry is volatile, as recent wide swings in bushel prices have shown. Karow pointed out that Mother Nature can add challenges, as with this year's unusual cold snap in May and June that lowered resistance to the wheat disease stripe rust. At the same time, record-breaking heat in Russia has wreaked havoc on that nation's breadbasket, affecting international wheat markets.
The OSU wheat research program develops varieties for the Pacific Northwest in anticipation of the problems growers will face in nature and in the marketplace, according to Karow. Developing a new successful variety of wheat requires thousands of hours of labor, including cross-pollinations made by hand, followed by years of field trials and lab work.
OSU researchers are testing about 40,000 genetically distinct lines in experimental plots in Pendleton and Corvallis. With luck, one or two of them will make it to the market in five or six years.
Through such traditional breeding, the OSU researchers developed ORFC 101 and ORFC 102 with the Clearfield trait that enables farmers to spray "Beyond" herbicide to treat grassy weeds and reduce competition for water and nutrients. Growers also benefit when they deliver grain to the elevator, because they are not penalized for having weed seeds in their grain, explained Mike Flowers, an OSU Extension agronomist and part of the OSU wheat research team.
OSU's wheat research program is part of the College of Agricultural Sciences research enterprise that garnered more than $55 million in external funding last year. OSU's Clearfield wheat varieties, which returned more than $600,000 in royalties to the university last year, have earned a total of $2.4 million since 2003, the largest revenue generator from royalties for OSU.