For a decade, at least, small grain breeding in the South has been withering. Stephen Harrison and his fellow Southern small grain breeders have watched colleagues retire and not be replaced, have seen funds for breeding programs dry up and no one — company or university — seems keen, or able, to fill the ever-widening knowledge gap.
Something had to be done.
“It takes 10 to 12 years from the time a breeder makes a cross until a grower sees a new variety,” says Harrison, a breeder with the LSU AgCenter based in Baton Rouge, La. “That's why it's important breeding programs not be shut down. A program can't recover quickly. When a breeding program is shut down, it'll take years to get back to where you left off.”
In 1984, fresh out of the University of Illinois, Harrison started the LSU small grains breeding program. Starting from scratch, it was 1997 before he released a variety. In today's budget-tightening climate, “I wouldn't make tenure and this program wouldn't be here. Everyone should be asking ‘What are we losing?’”
Then, an Experiment Station Committee on Policy leadership project he worked on sparked an idea. Over the last three years, “that project kind of morphed into SUNGRAINS,” Harrison says.
SUNGRAINS — Southeastern UNiversity GRAINS — aims to address funding and research shortfalls by bringing together small grain breeding programs across the South. Research ideas, germplasm, facilities, and a percentage of royalties will be shared among breeding programs of the five member institutions: the University of Georgia, University of Florida, Clemson University, North Carolina State University, and Louisiana State University.
Into the 1980s, there were a number of private seed companies breeding small grains for the South. Among them were McNair Seed in North Carolina, Pioneer and Coker's Pedigreed Seed in South Carolina, and AgriPro in Jonesboro, Ark.
The only program left is a combined AgriPro/Coker operation in Bay, Ark.
“From a breeding standpoint, growers aren't being well-served by private industry,” says Harrison. “That isn't to imply the AgriPro/Coker program isn't good — but one program can't serve such a huge region. That means, from growers' perspective, public breeding programs — the SUNGRAINS group — is absolutely critical for the continued viability of wheat, oats, rye, barley and triticale.”
The agreement calls for a number of cooperative endeavors that will make each breeding program better. The royalty-sharing arrangement usually gets attention.
“That's a big deal and is probably the thing university administrators had the hardest time with. Institutions don't like outsiders telling them what to do with money. The SUNGRAINS agreement is significant in that it will help stabilize funding for breeding programs. But the royalty sharing is actually a fairly minor part of the agreement.”
To illustrate the benefits of royalty sharing, Harrison points out the up-and-down cycle typical of a breeding program. “I've got several wheat varieties generating substantial amounts of royalties for the LSU AgCenter breeding program. However, in four years, my program may be in a down-cycle and not have that kind of funding.”
Every SUNGRAINS member sends 5 percent of a variety's collected royalties to each of the other four members. Such sharing “helps level out the funding level peaks and valleys a little by decreasing dependence on one or two varieties.”
More importantly, the SUNGRAINS agreement calls for the sharing of germplasm (breeding material). The value of that can't be overstated, says Harrison.
“We've got systems of exchanging breeding lines and populations, an agreement that allows me to take a line from Clemson or Florida that holds promise in Louisiana but not in the state where the line originated. I can increase that line, test it and, if it proves worthy, jointly release it. That would definitely benefit Louisiana and Arkansas growers, at least.”
The SUNGRAINS agreement also calls for shared testing facilities. “We have a series of nurseries in common that provide data on a range of insects, diseases, and agronomic traits over a wide region. Prior to the SUNGRAINS agreement state boundaries limited testing of breeding lines across the region. Only a few lines per year ever got tested outside the state where they originated and many good lines were probably discarded as a result. Because we have a vested interest — shared intellectual property — I'm much more inclined to put LSU resources into testing lines from the programs of NC State or Florida. We now have a much better system of regional testing. The result should be that, as a group, we develop better (small grain) varieties that benefit growers.”
The varieties will be licensed to seed companies across the South. “This ensures that improved varieties are produced and made available to growers at a competitive price, and helps sustain seed companies that can not afford the luxury of a breeding program for those crops.”
SUNGRAINS provides efficiency in the breeding process.
“I may make a cross onto a unique source of stripe rust resistance and then send a handful of the resulting seed to the other breeders. They'll take it and top-cross one of their locally adapted lines to it. So they're getting that gene into their programs a decade before they would have otherwise. That may seem extreme to anyone unfamiliar with breeding programs, but it's true.”
While breeding programs are under severe financial pressure, state foundation seed programs are often underutilized or simply nonexistent. In Louisiana, except for rice, there is no foundation seed program. Because of that, all oat varieties released by the LSU AgCenter have gone through the Florida Foundation Seed program in Marianna, Fla.
Each breeder deals with thousands of lines. Every year, perhaps a “couple of dozen” with potential to become varieties need to have seed increased to larger levels. Once the breeder gets beyond just a few bushels of increase, it isn't feasible to handle.
“I don't have the equipment, the land, or the seed-processing facilities. We're used to dealing with thousands of samples of a few hundred grams.”
SUNGRAINS, on a much more formal basis, will allow the breeders to utilize the few good foundation seed programs available. That will benefit not only the breeders but the foundation seed programs currently struggling to find material to run through their programs.
“An example of this might be Auburn University. They used to have an active stream of varieties running through their foundation seed program. Now, though, they only have a few plant breeders left. The ones there are very good but they aren't dealing with many crops. They still have a good, expensive foundation seed facility, though. SUNGRAINS could be an opportunity for them to use their facility to benefit growers across the region.”
The formal SUNGRAINS project was initiated in 2003. It's taken several years and many iterations of the agreement before everyone signed on.
“There's a whole set of problems with getting such a system set up: multiple administrations with multiple sets of lawyers, intellectual property worries and everything else. They all have to agree to have a common undertaking. It certainly requires trust and a change in the collective mindset. The administrations of these five universities should be commended for embracing the SUNGRAINS concept as a means of serving clientele across the region.”
There weren't any such worries among the breeders.
“If you look at the breeders in the program, they've all been doing their jobs for 20 years or more. We've already been working together for a long time. That's the neat part of SUNGRAINS and why it will work. We know each other.
“The other breeders are guys you'd lend your shotgun and hunting dog to. You'd invite them home for supper. They're all good scientists and good people.
“I grew up in the shadow of the Coker's Pedigreed Seed Company breeders of the 1960s to 1980s and developed tremendous admiration for their camaraderie and sense of commitment to serve their fellow man. That's the same feeling I get with the SUNGRAINS breeders. We enjoy hanging out with each other. This group is kind of unique because, in addition to being professional colleagues, we're also good friends.”
Harrison says the other breeders are welcome to walk into his nursery at harvest, open a pocket knife and take any material they want. “That's how this group has always worked.”
Seed companies have been very supportive of SUNGRAINS. “Jimmy Clements of AGSouth Genetics deserves credit for pushing this effort among university administrators. We've also gotten support from companies like FFR Seed and Terral Seed. In fact, most companies have a vested interest in seeing this group survive and are happy we've come up with this.
“The companies just don't have much (small grain) germplasm anymore. The flow is the other way. For example, since 1983, the SUNGRAINS breeders have released 15 oat varieties (including the Horizon series and Terral's Secretariat), five rye varieties, six triticale varieties and over 40 wheat varieties.
“Most Southern wheat growers see a company name in front of a wheat variety and have no clue where it came from. Truth is it probably came from a SUNGRAINS breeder.”
There are no private oat breeding programs left in the United States.
“Texas A&M had a very good oat breeding program until Milton McDaniel retired in the 1990s. Texas, with about 1 million acres of oats grown annually (700,000 acres for pasture and 300,000 acres harvested as grain), “could justify an oat breeding program. I hope, in the near future, they'll hire a breeder and decide to participate in SUNGRAINS.”
There's also a lot of soft wheat grown in east Texas. Whether or not the state hires a soft wheat breeder, “we want the SUNGRAINS group to serve producers in that area.”
The University of Florida rye breeding program is unique and serves the entire region. “It may be hard from an economic standpoint to justify maintaining such a program for a single state, but there is no denying rye is important to many growers across the region, primarily for forage and conservation tillage purposes.”
The SUNGRIANS program is open-ended and other states with breeding programs may decide to join in the future.
“It depends on how much we want to expand it. Virginia Tech and Arkansas both have very good small grain breeding programs. The region as it's currently defined produces varieties that are pretty much interchangeable between states. The intent of SUNGRAINS is to serve grower needs from North Carolina over to Arkansas and down through the soft wheat region of east Texas.”
As for other area states, Alabama and Mississippi don't have small grain breeding programs. The SUNGRAINS program will serve the needs of growers and seedsmen in those states as well.
Small grain programs may be hurting now, but other crop programs are bound for financial pain too, says Harrison. “I'd like to think the SUNGRAINS agreement is a model that could be followed by soybeans, cotton, variety testing programs or other commodities. Funding sources are limited and any efficiency you can gain is very important.”
Without public institutions, there would be no rye, triticale or oat breeding. There would also be very limited wheat breeding in the South.
“That's frightening because there is a definite trend to shut such breeding programs down. Federal dollars seem to prefer more glitzy programs than plant breeding.”
Plant breeding programs are expensive and must be seen as long-term investments. They aren't for those wanting instant gratification.
“It costs up to $400,000 per year to run a full-scale operation. Universities can't afford programs for every crop. But collectively, we can make sure everything is covered. That's another thing the SUNGRAINS agreement fosters. We're helping each other and it's a positive step.”
There's no downside to the agreement, insists Harrison.
“It's beneficial for the institutions and breeders, a tremendous benefit to growers and good for the seed companies. Everyone wins.”