AMARILLO — Small wonders are in small grains.
Consider those flour tortillas you munched on at dinner last night or the toast you buttered this morning. These and many more products and ingredients come from wheat, a small grain grown worldwide.
But, wheat must have certain qualities to keep tortillas fresh and pliable, and bread dough light and airy. Characteristics bred within wheat helps bread stay affordable on the grocer’s shelf. Work by plant breeders also helps farmers grow wheat abundantly, cheaply and in environmentally-responsible ways.
Consumers need rarely to think about the process. That’s the best outcome, say researchers working in laboratories and breeding facilities run by universities, experiment stations, or commercial companies around the globe.
In Texas much of this work is conducted by the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, and its education outreach partner, Texas Cooperative Extension, both agencies are part of the Texas A&M University System Agriculture Program.
With a statewide team working in concert, the Small Grains Improvement Program includes plant breeders and scientists in cereal chemistry, plant pathology, entomology and agronomy, and Extension specialists at three centers of excellence–Amarillo, Vernon and College Station. The A&M wheat breeding program is built upon more than 50 years’ work by pioneers such as the late Dr. Kenneth Porter, whose laboratory and greenhouses near Bushland became known worldwide.
Some 25 varieties have been released through the A&M program to date. Many are widely grown across the Great Plains. The benefits include monetary and environmental savings because producers can grow higher yielding, drought and insect tolerant wheats that keep costs down with fewer inputs to control pests.
Most varieties also have built-in qualities to make foods taste better and stay fresh longer, said A&M’s Jackie Rudd, wheat breeder at the Amarillo and Vernon Centers.
“Two more recent releases, TAM 110 resists greenbug damage and TAM 111 combines improved yield with superior baking quality,” he said. Other well known varieties include Sturdy, Tascosa, Caprock, Lockett, Siouxland 89 and TAMEX (a joint release by Texas A&M University and New Mexico State University).
Experimental seed from A&M breeding efforts is certified after years of testing, followed by release by the Texas Foundation Seed Service to contract growers who help increase the seed for later distribution by commercial companies.
Every year, breeders are evaluating thousands of seedlings before launching experiments with a single strain. A decade or more of research must take place before a farmer plants a single seed from a given variety.
Dr. John Sweeten, Experiment Station research director at Amarillo said, “Our first goal is assisting Texas producers in meeting the challenges presented by consumers clamoring for wheat-based products.”
“It’s easy to say we need to improve quality for certain end uses. The hard part is defining which protein and starch characteristics are needed for a particular kind of bread product for example,” Rudd said.
Building a better tortilla is what tempers the work led by Dr. Ralph Waniska, A&M cereal chemist at College Station.
“Each new technology we discover helps extend tortilla freshness during storage, or maintain other quality criteria such as size, opacity or dough properties,” said Waniska, who has at least three new patents on tortilla formulations in the works and is promoting his latest developments to millers and bakers.
Proteins in flour tortillas act differently from those in bread, Waniska said. Tortillas must stay flexible over weeks of storage. Bread firms or stales after only five days. Proteins for freshness are prized. To get the desired results for baked tortillas, Waniska wants the proportion of proteins such as glutenins and gliadins in wheat to vary.
Glutenins and gliadins help create the sticky and rubbery gluten needed for dough. This substance affects baking quality and has a unique amino acid composition and structure. In addition, bread dough needs a consistent, strong, resilient gluten to hold in air bubbles during fermentation and baking.
“The gluten network needs to be spreadable but not elastic, and mellow to extend into a large-diameter tortilla, and there’s room for improvement,” Waniska said.
Dr. Dirk Hays, an A&M molecular geneticist at College Station also looks at proteins, enzymes and other compounds that may provide competitive advantages for niche products. These scientists are focused on helping the producer, processor and consumer capture more value through specific qualities developed within a wheat variety.
Texas farmers plant small grains such as wheat, oats, rye, triticale and barley, with wheat accounting for nearly 90 percent of the acreage. Each year, farmers plant some eight million acres from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle. From industry statistics in the 1990s, the farmgate production value for all five crops averaged near $420 million per year, Rudd said.
How important is a single new variety? Consider that wheat yields have increased by 30 percent in the past 30 years — a trend that is continuing. Rudd believes at least half the increase must be attributed to the adoption of new varieties. New varieties generally yield 3 to 4 percent higher than older ones. With an annual production of 100 million bushels in Texas alone, when calculated at $3.50 per bushel, for example, a 3-percent increase could return more than $10 million to the state’s economy.
And that’s just grain production. Wheat is also used as winter pasture for grazing animalsbeef and dairy cattle, sheep, goats and assorted wildlife. About 65 percent of the small grain acreage is grazed annually, with a value (in pounds of animal production) greater than $400 million, according to Agricultural Statistics Service figures. Oats, rye and triticale are prized more for their value as feed than food. Up to 80 percent of oats are grazed each year, Rudd explained.
In the Texas Panhandle at the Bushland Station–millions of wheat seeds are stored in thousands of paper envelopes, or a living archive of genetic diversity that feeds the A&M breeding program. Recent upgrades to facilities include a new seed storage unit, named to honor breeding pioneer Porter. Nearby are three state-of-the-art greenhouses built with funding almost entirely from the wheat industry.
Breeders look at wheat varieties and other grasses to first find desired traits before starting plant crosses in greenhouses. The next step involves the field nurseries. Typically, researchers initially plant 20 to 30 kernels in a 2-foot-long seedbed called a head row. They may plant up to100,000 head rows causing a field to resemble a checker board . Field plots are the researcher’s first opportunity to see true breeding lines emerge.
The head-row plantings may be repeated over a number of growing seasons with breeders winnowing their selections toward the desired traits each time. Eventually, only 100 specimens may be chosen for extensive field trials. Fewer than 50 types actually make it to statewide evaluation. Multi-state trials will follow in the wheat zones of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
Other testing takes place at the Texas A&M Cereal Quality Laboratory, established in 1965 and headed by Dr. Lloyd Rooney. Here, scientists evaluate bread baking and milling properties such as those required in flour tortillas and breads.
On the crop production side, Hays and Dr. William Payne, a crop stress physiologist at Bushland, are seeking the true physiological tolerances of high temperature and drought.
“When spring temperatures jump too high during pollination, both grain development and quality are affected,” said Hays. “Such trauma causes the plant to suffer. First it may dry prematurely, causing grain shriveling and weight loss. Flour yield and quality also fall with severe damage, and dough strength collapses.”
Focusing on the molecular mechanisms regulating a plant’s adverse responses, Hays is evaluating Middle Eastern and Australian cultivars, which have many of these coveted traits. If successful, this work will result in more high-yielding varieties that better tolerate heat and drought.
Many foods such as noodles, frozen dough products or breads possess parts from many wheats. Manufacturers take these additives and blend them together to achieve their products’ most favored qualities. Why not build what’s needed into the plant?
Rudd points to marketplace trends moving some aspects of the breeding program toward specialized product lines. In the future, wheat may be seen more as an ingredient than as a conventional commodity.
“Recent efforts to establish two centers of breeding excellence at Amarillo and College Station are seen by the industry as extremely positive,” said Rodney Mosier, who heads the Texas Wheat Producers Association. He and others from the small grains industry have teamed with Texas A&M faculty to form the Texas Small Grains Advisory Committee, a group providing guidance and resources to accomplish research goals.
The Experiment Station plans to step up oat breeding in the future. At least two new oat varieties are due out soon. The wheat breeding efforts primarily target hard-red winter varieties that do well in the Texas Panhandle and Rolling Plains, and typically are used in breads. Station scientists also are looking at some soft-red winter lines that are more often used for milling and baking.
Two triticale varieties, on which work began in the mid-1980s, are nearing release, and the first Texas A&M issues certified for use as winter forage.
Farther back in the research pipeline are other varieties that offer additional promise, so the plant breeding work will continue well into the future.