In 2014, over one third of the spring wheat acres planted in Minnesota were Faller and Prosper, two public varieties from NDSU. In North Dakota, 4 out of the top 5 planted varieties were public varieties. At the moment, public varieties dominate the market. There are private breeding companies such as Westbred, (owned by Monsanto), Syngenta, Limagrain Cereal Seeds, (has its roots in a French cooperative), and CROPLAN by Winfield. There are four private spring wheat breeders. The number of corn and soybean seed companies is well into double digits.
Wheat is also different than most corn and soybean varieties because it is legal to keep the seed for planting the next year. The first year you buy the seed, you must pay a royalty to the breeding institution (public or private), but after that, you can keep the seed for as many years as you would like.
One reason you can keep the seed because wheat is not a hybrid. Nearly every corn variety is a hybrid. A hybrid means the seed loses its unique properties after the first generation. You can plant the seeds again, but those special traits you wanted may not appear. You are probably buying hybrid tomato plants for your garden. If you keep the seeds from those plants and plant them in 2016, you will be disappointed. Maybe the tomatoes won’t be as big, they may be susceptible to disease, or perhaps the flavor is missing. A hybrid is effective in year 1, but not after that.
Wheat hybrids are on the horizon. Syngenta has announced a goal of hybrid wheat by 2020. I’m excited about the possibility of hybrid wheat. As a wheat farmer, we need a yield boost. Average U.S. corn yields have increased from 90.8 bu/a in 1980 to 171 in 2014, an 88% increase. During that same period, wheat yields increased 33% from 33.5 to 43.7 bu/a. Wheat yield increases are severely lagging behind corn yield increases. It can be a hybrid variety, or a GMO wheat, but something needs to help boost wheat yields. Drought, disease, or pest resistance would be great traits to help boost wheat yields.
The tradition of keeping wheat seed for subsequent years is also changing. This year WestBred introduced CSO Spring Wheat. CSO means Certified Seed Only, and you cannot keep the seed. If you like a CSO variety, you must buy new seed every year, and pay the royalty every year.
There is likely to be some uprising over this new development. Change is hard for farmers. They had a hard time adapting to similar rules for Roundup Ready soybeans. Farmers were used to keeping their soybean seed for use every year, and along came the requirement to buy new seed every year. Now it seems like second nature. We can still purchase public soybean seed varieties, and keep the seed for use the next year, but most farmers choose private varieties and buy new seed every year.
The world of wheat seed is slowly changing. Change is hard but if it means better yields, change is good.