Five years of midge tolerance

As its acreage continues to climb, the message is to keep protecting the unique Sm1 gene

This summer marks the fifth anniversary of producers in Western Canada growing and protecting midge-tolerant wheat.

Since the launch of the first commercial varieties in 2010, the industry has witnessed strong uptake of the technology that helps producers defend against orange blossom wheat midge, a pest that can significantly reduce crop yield and grade. Not surprisingly, the popularity of midge-tolerant wheat continues to grow.

According to the Canadian Grain Commission, 18 per cent of total western wheat acres in 2014 were midge-tolerant — that’s up from 16 per cent in 2013. In Saskatchewan, midge-tolerant wheat accounts for more than 36 per cent of the province’s total wheat acres.

“Wheat producers really value this technology and are committed to maintaining its viability,” says Mike Espeseth, communications manager for the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) and co-chair of the Midge-Tolerant Wheat Stewardship Team.

“The proof is in the numbers. Nearly four million acres of midge-tolerant wheat were planted in 2013 and 2014 alone,” Espeseth says. “The adoption is a testament to the quality of the varieties and the benefits and convenience that they provide producers.”

Midge-tolerant wheat varieties offer flexibility in crop rotations and seeding dates. Most importantly, they eliminate the need to use insecticide as a control method. Instead, midge damage is dramatically reduced with help of Sm1, a midge-tolerant gene that is moved into wheat varieties using traditional plant-breeding techniques.

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photo: WGRF

“Growers told us they didn’t have to worry about their wheat,” says Ed Mazurkewich, business development consultant for AgCall, whose team interviewed producers in 2014. “They didn’t have to scout and they didn’t have to spray. Not spraying an insecticide was pretty critical to them,” he says.

Midge-tolerant wheat is sold as a varietal blend, with 90 per cent made up of a midge-tolerant variety and the remaining 10 per cent midge susceptible. But that doesn’t mean producers sacrifice any agronomic benefits. Those who grow midge-tolerant wheat report significant yield and grade benefits — approximately $36 per acre (based on wheat priced at $6 bu./ac.).

The varietal blends provide an “interspersed refuge system” that disrupts the midge’s ability to produce resistant offspring, preventing a buildup of a resistant midge population. Without an interspersed refuge system, midge tolerance could break down within 10 years.

There are currently nine varieties of midge-tolerant wheat available in Western Canada. Producers are anticipating the release of the first durum variety in 2016, which features the same Sm1 gene as the other varieties so the same stewardship principles will apply.

Protect the technology

“At the same time that we celebrate this five-year milestone, we need to keep vigilant to ensure the technology is protected for future growing seasons. To date, there is no other known source of midge tolerance. In other words, there is no Plan B if we lose the Sm1 gene,” says Brenda Trask, communications manager for SeCan and co-chair of the Midge-Tolerant Wheat Stewardship Team. The industry coalition, which includes plant breeders, government, seed growers, seed distributors and producer groups has been active educating western Canadian wheat producers on the importance of proper stewardship of the technology since before the launch of the technology.

To preserve midge tolerance, producers who buy midge-tolerant wheat sign a stewardship agreement that limits the use of farm-saved seed to one generation past certified seed, keeping the refuge at the desired level.

“Five years of diligent stewardship communications has led to a strong awareness of the practices that are critical to preserving the technology,” says Trask. “In addition to producer education, monitoring and enforcement are a key part of our committee’s mandate.”

It appears the efforts are paying off. Results of an annual audit show 96 per cent of producers in compliance with the stewardship practices in 2014.

“By far the majority of growers said that the technology and the stewardship was really critical for them. They understand it and they are doing everything they can to protect the technology,” says Mazurkewich, whose auditors contacted a randomized list of producers and set up on-farm visits to ask questions about the status of their stewardship requirements.

According to Mazurkewich, the midge-tolerant wheat audit was a pleasant experience for everyone involved. “Our auditors enjoyed working on this. It was a kitchen table, eyeball-to-eyeball conversation about farming and the use of good technology. The growers were absolutely appreciative and supportive that someone was following up and driving toward better awareness.”

WGRF is a farmer-funded and directed non-profit organization investing in agricultural research that benefits producers in West- ern Canada. For over 30 years the WGRF board has given producers a voice in agricultural research fund- ing decisions. WGRF manages an Endowment Fund and the wheat and barley variety development check- off funds, investing over $14 million annually into variety development and field crop research. WGRF brings the research spending power of all farmers in Western Canada together, maximizing the returns they see from crop research.

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