Research explores perennial wheat in High Plains

Annual wheat is an integral part of Great Plains agriculture. Whether its grazed, harvested or used in a dual-purpose system, planting wheat each fall is something most producers take for granted. What if there was an alternative to the annual cycle? Imagine a perennial wheat that would regrow after harvest and could survive for up to five years, saving the costs of annual replanting and allowing for extended grazing in the fall and spring.

Brand-new research at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Amarillo/Bushland is exploring the viability of perennial wheat in the Texas High Plains. While perennial wheat programs are already underway in Kansas and Washington, Charlie Rush, Experiment Station plant pathologist, is leading the first research of its kind in Texas.

After hearing Tim Murray, professor and chair of the plant pathology department at Washington State University, talk about disease resistance in perennial wheat, Rush became interested.

“I suggested to Tim that it would be interesting to test the perennial wheat in our area,” Rush says.

Working with Murray and Stephen Jones, a wheat breeder at Washington State University, Rush secured seed from 20 perennial lines of wheat bred in Washington. In September, he planted three replications of the 20 lines, plus several non-perennial varieties already in commercial production in the High Plains for comparison.

“Also, we planted a new breed of wheat that’s resistant to wheat streak mosaic virus and one that’s very susceptible to it,” Rush says. “One of the things that could quickly kill this project is if all the perennials are highly susceptible to wheat streak mosaic,” he said. “The thing that interesting and encouraging, though, after talking to Tim, is that some of these lines appear to have good resistance.”

Rush is primarily interested in evaluating use of perennial wheats in dual-purpose cropping systems. For that to be feasible, the perennial wheats have to have good resistance to insects like greenbugs as well as diseases. In addition to screening for disease and insect resistance, Rush will look into the emergence, growth, forage quality and yield, water use efficiency and drought tolerance of perennial wheats.

“Perennial wheats typically don’t yield as well as bread wheat cultivars, so I don’t see this as competition for the grain crop,” he says. “But, in our area, farmers often make as much money on grazing as they do on grain.”

Rush also says perennial wheat could be used as ground cover for highly erodible lands, wildlife habitat and an alternative crop for Conservation Reserve Program lands.

As for how the field trials are faring now, Rush says he’s seeing a wide range of forage production, but several lines are doing as well as bread wheat.

“We’ll looking to see how they will over-winter and grow in the spring, but what we’re really interested in is how they will perform after harvest,” he adds.

Rush is excited about what this research could bring, and looks forward to it continuing over the coming years.

But, as with so many new areas of research, “the potential is exciting, but the reality is yet to be seen,” he says.

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