AAC Brandon proving to be a successful wheat variety

Dr. Ron DePauw (third from right, with hat) during a visit with the wheat team at the University of Guelph in July 2019. They are standing in the university's fusarium head blight nursery and giving a thumbs down or thumbs up for different varieties of semi-dwarf wheat based on their disease resistance. From left to right, Ryan Costello, Mitra Serajazari, Nicholas Wilker, Peter Pauls, Ron DePauw, Mina Kaviani, and Willie Vanderpol.

A wheat variety developed by well-known wheat breeder Dr. Ron DePauw and the wheat breeding team at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre has taken the market by storm and received a prestigious award.

AAC Brandon was selected as the 2018-19 winner of the Seed of the Year West award. This industry initiative to recognize public seed research has been acknowledging plant breeders in western Canada since 2008 and in eastern Canada since 2005.

DePauw worked for over 40 years for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), and for most of this time he was a wheat breeder at the Swift Current research centre. He retired from the department in 2015 and thereafter became a science advisor for SeCan, a consortium of over 700 Canadian seed businesses.

“The development of AAC Brandon is not me alone,” he emphasized. “This is really the AAFC wheat team. It's a collaboration among all of the wheat scientists.”

He sent an e-mail to his former colleagues at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre on July 31 to let them know that AAC Brandon was selected as Seed of the Year. In his message he highlighted key points that resulted in the success of this wheat variety, including the producer check-off program that engaged producers and helped to set research goals. He also mentioned the collaboration among all the wheat research teams as one of those factors.

The wheat breeding team at AAFC Swift Current collaborated with a number of research stations across the prairies during the development of AAC Brandon.

“Brandon comes out of a long history of the breeding procedures that we've been practising at the Swift Current Research Development Centre going back to late 1970s,” he said.

It took about a decade of work before this wheat variety became available to growers. The last cross during the plant breeding process was made in 2003, and testing then took place for several years at Swift Current and Indian Head in Saskatchewan as well as at Morden and Carman in Manitoba. Plant material was also sent to New Zealand for a number of years.

“That is to accelerate the breeding process,” he explained. “We were able to grow two generations a year. So we grow one generation in Canada, we make our selections, we send the seed to multiply the seed up and to inbreed it and do further selecting, and then we bring it back to Canada. We were able to reduce the time to registration by four years by having used the winter nursery.”

The pre-registration trials started in 2007 and support for registration was received in 2012. SeCan won the marketing rights for this wheat variety through a request for proposal process.

“We had about 400 kilograms of seed that we gave to SeCan,” he recalled. “From there they multiplied that 400 kilograms of seed in 2012 and they multiplied it again in 2013 and in 2014.”

AAC Brandon was launched in the fall of 2014 for commercial planting in 2015, and it soon became widely used by producers across the prairies.

“In this particular case, AAC Brandon has just blown the walls off the buildings in terms of it's very rapid adoption by producers,” he said. “Nobody was able to foresee the degree to which the adoption occurred.”

Farmers quickly realized that this wheat variety has a number of traits that fits in well with their production systems, and the word started to spread.

“In 2016, only the second year of it's availability for commercial growers, AAC Brandon was already the most widely grown wheat not only in the Canada Western Red Spring class, but the most widely grown variety of wheat in Canada,” he said. “Then in 2017 it continued to expand in acreage and by 2018 it was about a third of all of the prairie acreage. It's projecting that for 2019 it could be up to half of the prairie acreage. People are just completely astounded by it.”

He added that the success of AAC Brandon is even more impressive if it is considered that there are about 70 hard red spring wheat varieties registered for farmers to choose from. AAC Brandon is grown across the prairies from southeastern Manitoba all the way up to the Peace River Region by Fort Vermilion. It has a whole suite of traits that appeals to producers and that makes it possible to meet the different needs of growers.

“Grain yield is negatively related with protein content,” he said. “We were able to shift that negative relationship so that Brandon not only has high grain yield, it also has protein content comparable to any of the other varieties of wheat that are lower yield. So that's one big thing, and then it has a shorter, stronger straw, and that enables the variety to fit into reduced tillage systems.”

Farmers with reduced tillage operations will leave the straw on the land and plant into the stubble crop. A shorter, stronger plant means less straw will be put through the combine. A weaker straw variety might require a lower cut closer to the ground that will put more straw through the combine and consumes more energy.

“Then when you've got a shorter stubble, they're not able to trap as much snow and you've got more crop residue to contend with when they are planting the following spring,” he explained. “They might even incur an extra operation where they're using a heavy harrow to break up the straw and spread it around. A short, strong straw variety that stands up really fits into a reduced tillage system. And this variety has resulted in farmers being able to harvest more bushels per hour with fewer gallons of fuel.”

Another advantage of AAC Brandon is a moderate resistance to fusarium head blight as well as to a number of other diseases, including leaf rust, stem rust, and yellow rust.

“It has this higher grain yield with no loss of protein,” he said. “This was achieved through better water use efficiency and better nitrogen use efficiency. The plant has a much better factory for the production of carbohydrates and uptake of nitrogen and remobilization for grain and yield.”

AAC Brandon has performed well during a few wet years on the eastern prairies after it was released, but more recently it continued to deliver good yield during hot and dry years.

“It has been a surprise in some ways, but it's also a confirmation of the strategy that we were using for breeding and selecting that resulted in the realization of this as a very good strategy,” he said. “The strategy that we were using in the development of our genetics was to select plants that were very robust. Plants that could handle a variety of stresses, that could handle tough seedbed conditions, that could handle heat, that could handle cool conditions. We were selecting in the early generations for a multiplicity of stresses and we thought wherever you're growing wheat in Canada, every year somebody is going to have a big stress. So we wanted to develop plants that were robust.”

His goal as a wheat breeder was to develop superior varieties for farmers, and that required an uncompromising approach to breeding. He had very specific quality parameters for each trait, for example with regard to the yield, protein, height, straw strength, and disease resistance attributes.

“So when I'm selecting, if a variety failed to meet a criteria, even though it had many other good traits, I would discard it,” he said. “I wouldn't get seduced by yield or I wouldn't get seduced by an outstanding fusarium rating. What I was looking for was a variety that had the full suite of traits. In order to do that, you have to have very strategic crosses.”

The use of all available tools such as molecular markers or quality analytical tools will become critical during this complicated scientific procedure, and teamwork is also essential.

“The disease nurseries and the agronomic nurseries become super important to identify those that have all of the traits that you're looking for,” he said.

According to DePauw there are a number of lessons from the success of AAC Brandon. The first lesson is that genetics work. A second lesson is that there is not a perfect variety, and a third lesson is that pathogens will change.

“You have to have very good surveillance to be able to find out at what rate they have changed so that you can engage in prophylactic breeding,” he said. “You can never take your foot off the accelerator, because of all of these changes of climate and pathogens and insects in order to bring together the new genes to make even further genetic gain.”

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