IT'S been decades in the making, but genuine premium yielding hybrid wheat varieties look close to making their mark on the world's most popular grain crop.
After gaining traction with a steady campaign of hybrid barley research and releases during the past decade, agricultural seed and crop protection giant Syngenta is promising to release a new generation of hybrid wheat lines in the US within four years, followed by staggered releases in Europe and India.
Already the world's the leading global seed wheat breeder, Syngenta is forecasting its non-genetically modified hybrid wheat seed sales will be worth about $US3.6 billion in annual sales in 15 years.
Although some hybrid wheat lines have been bred and marketed in Australia and the US since the 1980s, yield premiums have been relatively modest in comparison with many conventional open-pollinated crops, as well as being more costly to produce as seed and grow commercially.
Australian hard wheat hybrids Mercury, Meteor and Comet produced from what was to become the Australian Grain Technologies stable originated from ground-breaking work in northern NSW by DeKalb Shand at Tamworth in the 1970s which led to releases in 1981 followed by similar developments and refinements by breeders in the US and France later in the decade.
Like Syngenta, Bayer CropScience and Dupont-Pioneer have ramped up their efforts in the hybrid wheat space with Dupont returning to the field after abandoning its earlier research in Germany in 2002.
Both these majors, however have not forecast any serious marketing expectations before the end of the decade.
Syngenta acknowledges the promise of hybrid wheat's big yielding breakthroughs have generally evaded seed breeders until now, but the lessons from its hybrid barley programme have been used to achieve promising heterosis (hybrid vigour) in wheat.
Work delivering gains
Chief executive officer Michael Mack said current work on wheat hybrids was delivering 10 per cent gains, compared to only two or three per cent yield increases in past years.
"Low heterosis and the high cost of bulking up seed for sale has not made hybrid wheat a particularly valuable proposition for a seed company or for farmers given the modest yield gains which have been available in the past," he said.
"But Syngenta has demonstrated heterosis which is gaining up to 10pc - which is a big deal - and we have found ways to drive down production costs through our experience with our barley business.
"Farmers who currently only replenish their seed stocks every three to four years will be glad to buy hybrid lines every year because of the better plant vigour and yield.
"And we'll have a comprehensive chemistry range to support the new crops and help maximise their potential."
However, Australian farmers would have to wait until well into the 2020s while Syngenta launched its northern hemisphere hybrids in Canada (2023), UK, Germany and Poland (2023-24) and Eastern Europe (2025), before it perfected releases for Down Under.
"Unfortunately, Australia's not the first point of launch, but the germplasm we have in Europe is great and we have the biggest wheat seed business in America, so there is great potential in the portability of that work to Australia and New Zealand," Mr Mack said.
Chief operating officer and former head of Syngenta's global seeds business, Davor Pisk, said Syngenta's joint venture Australian business (with Pacific Seeds) LongReach Plant Breeders, would pay close attention to opportunities to commercialise the new generation wheat, but "it may not be until the later end of next decade".
"We need to be sure the introduction to Australian conditions is aligned with a distinctive yield benefit," he said.
"We hope we will see broad change in the wheat marketplace - and our competitors also claim they have programs underway which suggests something significant will happen."
Experience gained with hybrid barley showed that to achieve a broad uptake of the genetics, farmers had to learn to modify some traditional approaches to growing cereals, fertiliser timing and invest in appropriate spray inputs.
"That's why hybrid barley's progression took the time it did - we launched in 2007, but it was a slow ramp up to get properly established for a full launch in the UK in 2011-12."
Barley pumps up the volume in the UK
HYBRID feed barley is not just yielding well in the UK, it's looking likely to be a key player in the fight against some challenging chemical resistance issues on European farms.
Syngenta's established hybrid variety Volume is currently yielding up to 12 tonnes a hectare after a good growing season in Britain, or on average about 0.85t/ha more than conventional barley in officially monitored farm trials across the UK.
Even more promising are two new releases, Bazooka and Belfry, set to be widely released to farmers for planting in autumn.
They yielded about two per cent better than Volume this summer and performed at the top of the table, or about 108pc against the three-year mean yield result of 9.4t from 17 feed and barley lines grown in Britain.
Syngenta's UK technical head, David King said the hybrid vigour delivered by the new lies exhibited itself via bigger root structure than conventional barley plants and produced an impressive tillering response to early nitrogen applications.
That fast and dense growth had proven highly valuable in crowding out Britain's most loathed cropping weed, black grass, which is broadly resistant to herbicide treatments.
The fast growing, heavy seeding weed can swiftly outgrow cereals and spread across the canopy if left unchecked, but Mr King said faster growing Volume barley's big sun-seeking flag leaves and grain heads were able to stunt the weed's early growth opportunities and significantly reduce its capacity to set seed.
"Hybrid barley looks like being an important tool in the integrated approach we must take to fighting black grass," he said.
Volume's early maturing trait also gave UK farmers an opportunity to harvest earlier than normal, improving their harvest management options and allowing them to sow canola earlier in autumn.
This, in turn improved the young brassica crop's survival rate against the insecticide resistant cabbage stem flea beetle.
Mr King is pictured examining a barley trial crop in Suffolk with Syngenta's Australasian cereal fungicides lead Angus Rutherford during July's Syngenta Growth Awards study tour.
Andrew Marshall travelled to Europe as a guest of Syngenta.