OSU Wheat Genetics Dominate Commercial Markets Despite Outdated Infrastructure

Nathan Stepp, senior agriculturalist-operations lead at the OSU Agronomy Research Station, gathers wheat seedlings last fall to be transplanted into the site’s greenhouses. (Photo by Mitchell Alcala, OSU Agriculture)

By Gail Ellis

In February 2021, a round of sub-zero temperatures crippled the 60-year-old greenhouse facility at the OSU Agronomy Research Station, nearly destroying OSU’s internationally-acclaimed wheat breeding program.

Faculty, staff and student workers at the OSU Agronomy Farm worked around the clock to salvage what they could of the young and vulnerable wheat plants that froze in the site’s main greenhouse. Some of the delicate hybrid wheat that had been crossed to develop new varieties was a permanent loss.

Three years later, the facility’s aging plumbing and electrical systems are still cause for concern as researchers and staff attempt to keep up with repairs and maintenance.

“Modernization of the OSU Agronomy Research Station is needed to position the wheat breeding team to continue its outstanding scientific and economic impacts,” said Jayson Lusk, vice president and dean of OSU Agriculture. “Our efforts at OSU to feed and nourish the world begin at the agronomy farm with the wheat improvement team. Some of the university’s earliest research began in 1892 on experimental wheat field plots named after A.C. Magruder, the university’s first professor of agriculture. The Magruder research site is among the oldest of its kind in the United States, and that speaks volumes about our commitment to agricultural research and our land-grant mission.”

Located on the west side of campus along Highway 51 in Stillwater, the farm supports OSU Agriculture’s three mission areas of research, teaching and Extension. It features 28 structures and 134,826 square feet for classroom instruction, greenhouse trials, research and support services. A master plan study conducted in 2018 to identify potential improvements and expansion of the research station indicated the need for several stand-alone projects or phases of modernization. Many of the buildings were constructed in the 1940s and 1950s and have been deemed in need of at least minor repairs. Several others require major renovations or have been categorized in a state of “end of life.”

“We are limited on space, so we have to do things that are not ideal in terms of efficiency,” said Brett Carver, OSU regents professor and wheat genetics chair.

Space and efficiency challenges

It’s late morning in January, and Carver sits in the agronomy farm’s headhouse, also known as the greenhouse common area, where rainwater from the night before has seeped in and spread across the cracked concrete floor. Staff have attempted to clean it up twice. He points across the parking lot to two other older buildings involved in Wheat Improvement Team operations. The Small Grains Building was once shared by several USDA and OSU scientists working primarily on wheat and barley breeding and genetics. Some of its floors are now unsafe to inhabit. Diagonal from the structure sits the metal-clad Wheat Research 618 building where OSU’s valuable wheat germplasm is stored.

Carting seed from one facility to another across a parking lot without a covered walkway is a little risky for plants developed by one of the top wheat geneticists in the country.

“We don’t just go down to the mill and buy seed; we create it on our own,” Carver said. “We have to maintain a collection that comes from our own nurseries to have something to rely on in a disaster. Right now, if a disaster occurs, we don’t produce enough seed to go back to fully recover. That’s what happened in 2021 when some of the seed was never recovered.”

Wheat varieties developed at OSU have the largest footprint in the Great Plains region and are known for their disease resistance, drought tolerance, grazing tolerance, nitrogen-use efficiency and wide appeal to the U.S. milling and baking industry. OSU has commercialized 34 varieties since 2000, and Oklahoma Wheat Commission surveys report that 71% of the named wheat acreage in Oklahoma was developed in Stillwater. In Texas, 25% of the named wheat acreage comes from OSU wheat genetics.

OSU’s newest hard red winter wheat variety, High Cotton, debuted in commercial markets in 2023. The dual-purpose variety is expected to offset potential declines in planted wheat acreage in the future by increasing yield rates.

“This is the program where it happens, and we want to keep that going — the producers want to keep it going,” said Carver, one of only three wheat geneticists to lead the Wheat Improvement Team since the 1940s.

Oklahoma’s wild weather swings of deep-freeze nights and warm, sunny days regularly plague the agronomy farm’s greenhouse heating and cooling system. The situation makes wheat breeding program manager Jason Ray nervous, and during inclement weather, he visits the facility every couple of hours throughout the night to check on equipment and ensure the greenhouse environment is stable.

“If a pipe bursts or a heater goes out, we’ve got around 30 minutes to go to our backup plan,” he said. “If something breaks, I have to shut off water to the entire facility. In 2021, I couldn’t shut off the water in one area to change a broken line at midnight. I had to run water in all of the other greenhouses to live-change the line. When there’s an issue, we have to fix it fast.”

Between patched-up plumbing and electrical units and the constant threat of rodents eating wheat germplasm worth millions of dollars, Ray devotes much of his time to emergency maintenance.

“Every single day, I have to fix something. We’re keeping up with it just barely,” he said.

Advancing wheat research

Despite the agronomy farm’s infrastructure challenges, Carver and the Wheat Improvement Team find ways to develop some of the world’s leading wheat varieties, but reliable, modern facilities would open new opportunities.

Unlike wheat breeding teams at other land-grant universities, OSU does not conduct research in high-throughput phenotyping or the rapid measurement of plant traits under carefully controlled environmental conditions, such as in a greenhouse. Instead, OSU is solely focused on hybridization and seed increase in one breeding cycle from October to May. Oklahoma’s often extreme heat cuts the breeding season short in greenhouses, and space restricts the potential for additional research.

“We don’t do any kind of hypothesis-based research in these greenhouses,” Carver said. “We use them as a hospital, a birthing room instead of a testing room. A new facility will allow us to expand our expertise and build substantially upon the success we have enjoyed at our research field laboratories. Plus, we will be able to confidently conduct two breeding cycles per year that, in turn, puts the world’s wheat germplasm at our fingertips for almost the entire year.”

Seeds stored at the agronomy farm undergo milling and baking analysis in a wheat quality laboratory currently housed in OSU’s Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center. However, Carver said the prospect of centralizing all OSU wheat research and development appeals to the food industry as well as other forward-thinking scientists and wheat researchers whose resident expertise could advance the Wheat Improvement Team’s historic success. The need for state-of-the-art greenhouses to grow high-yielding wheat directly supports the world’s food supply.

In January, the OSU/A&M Board of Regents approved a request to draft construction plans for new facilities at the agronomy farm. Architectural and construction management firms will be selected to begin the design phase. Details on a project timeline and fundraising opportunities will be announced soon.

OSU Agriculture is dedicated to improving the quality of life of Oklahomans through science-based information and education. It is comprised of the Ferguson College of Agriculture and two state agencies: OSU Ag Research and OSU Extension.

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