Across the High Plains of Colorado stretch 2.3 million acres of wheat fields – plains gold, they call it. Nearly 70 percent of Colorado-grown wheat varieties, with characteristics ranging from drought resistance to herbicide tolerance, were developed in the labs and greenhouses of Colorado State University.
Those innovations didn’t happen by accident. Since 1963, a strong partnership between CSU’s wheat breeding and genetics program and the vast network of Colorado wheat growers has netted the development of 38 unique wheat varieties, 12 in the last 10 years. Among them, Snowmass – a hard-white, drought-resistant variety that melds the nutritional benefits of whole grains with the softer, more appealing taste and texture of white breads. Snowmass has seen unprecedented commercial success since its 2009 debut.
In recent weeks, this research, extension, training, commercialization and educational partnership was enriched: the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation (CWRF), Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee (CWAC), and CSU signed a historic, 10-year collaborative research and commercialization agreement.
A partnership founded on past success
The agreement will bring $20 million in critical funding to CSU for new research, outreach and education, and program support. It also underscores an iconic example of CSU’s land-grant tradition of service and extension.
“Here at CSU, Colorado’s land-grant university, we are here to serve the industry, the stakeholders, and the agricultural clientele – it is an important part of what we do,” said Scott Haley, professor of plant breeding in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, and head of CSU’s wheat breeding and genetics program.
Meant to serve as an agricultural economic driver, the agreement pulls together several organizations who represent Colorado wheat producers: CWRF and CWAC, as well as the Colorado Seed Growers Association (CSGA). The agreement also names CSURF, CSU’s research foundation, as the manager of intellectual property and commercialization on behalf of the university.
“This partnership displays a long-term commitment to provide research and drive important outcomes to support Colorado wheat producers so they may feed the world while being stewards of the Earth,” said Kim Warner, vice president of operations for CWRF and CWAC.
In Colorado there are more than 36,000 farms and ranches that employ over 170,000 people and contribute $40 billion to Colorado’s economy. More than two million acres of wheat are planted and harvested in Colorado each year, making it one of the state’s top agricultural commodities.
A longstanding relationship
The Colorado Wheat Research Foundation, the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee, and CSU have a longstanding relationship that includes research, student internship opportunities, technology transfer and commercialization. The partnership also provides Colorado growers with the best wheat varieties designed specifically for regional conditions.
Working together with these groups, CSU has provided solutions to many wheat-growing challenges associated with drought, invasive plant diseases and insects, while also meeting changing consumer demands for bread and other wheat products. Over the years, this plant breeding partnership has reduced water, pesticide, and fertilizer inputs, while increasing the nutritional value of many varieties.
In the early 1990s, for example, CSU’s wheat breeding program was the first in the U.S. to release a variety resistant to the Russian wheat aphid, which was destroying regional crops. More recently, CSU’s program is working to provide a novel, herbicide-tolerant wheat variety for managing invasive weeds that threaten production. Colorado farmers are slated to have access to that technology in the 2018 growing season. These research challenges were met in part through funding and support from the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation and the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee.
“Solidifying our partnership with CWRF and CWAC will allow us to advance our collaborative effort in researching wheat – a Colorado agriculture staple,” said Alan Rudolph, CSU’s vice president for research.
Ripple effects of research
Research expected from the partnership will include suitable rotational crops for wheat-based cropping systems, as well as development of improved winter wheat suited to Colorado climates.
CSU President Tony Frank stated: “This long-term partnership is a model of collaborative excellence not found at other institutions, yet represents an innovative framework for driving critical research and development of new wheat varieties for the public good. We expect great things from this renewed partnership, and CSU will play an important role for the state of Colorado, the U.S., and the world at large.”
Others areas to be enhanced by the partnership include production-related and human health-related research; improved disease and insect resistance; herbicide-resistant weed management; and improved grain quality for domestic and global markets.
“Research and outreach programs conducted by CSU faculty and staff make a real difference for the entire wheat industry in Colorado,” Haley said. “All of us are humbled and inspired by the support we receive from Colorado’s wheat producers and are excited about future opportunities.”