How Screening Trials Helped Us Find the Best Wheat Varieties

Spoiler alert: Not all wheat varieties are great for organic conditions

Modern wheat varieties were made for high-input agriculture. Their growing success depends on the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Little is known about how the same varieties grow in organic conditions.

To understand which varieties are best suited to our organic food production, we tested them with screening trials. But why do we even need different varieties?

Why do we need different varieties of wheat?

(Organic) farmers need different varieties of wheat for multiple reasons, to:

  • Increase productivity. Not all varieties react the same to their environment. Some wheat varieties achieve higher yields, while others have higher protein content in their seeds. Farmers who want to increase their productivity need to pick varieties that maximize yields, protein, and other desirable traits.
  • Broaden biodiversity. Introducing new varieties into your crop rotation is not just about increasing productivity, it also positively impacts the biodiversity on your fields. Expanding crop diversity has multiple benefits for both the ecosystem and production, including enhancing soil health, weed control, pest and disease control, nutrient cycling, and many more.
  • Keep farming sustainable in the long term. Diversifying the crop varieties you grow lowers the risk of crop failing in the long term. Keeping the same varieties in crop rotation over the years increases the chances of crops failing due to common pests and diseases, lowers their adaptation to change (some varieties can sustain draughts, other floods, no variety can sustain all), and other factors.

So, how did we find wheat varieties that unlocked those benefits?

The solution: Wheat screening trials

Wheat screening trials are a special type of experimental trials that help determine the best variety out of many. How did we run them?

  1. We picked 22 different wheat varieties that showed potential for successful growing in sustainable conditions.
  2. To avoid uncontrolled variability biasing our results, we grew the wheat varieties according to a randomized trial design.
  3. For each wheat variety, we collected 30+ metrics. Anything from seed protein content to resistance to Yellow stripe rust disease
  4. There are great differences between wheat varieties. Some varieties ended up producing more yield, while others were more resistant to changing conditions. To find the best trade-offs and determine the best wheat varieties, we used Cultivar Ranker – an app that helps us visualize and pick the best variety for our use cases.

Do you want free access to the Cultivar Ranker tool – to help you pick the best varieties for your use case – as it becomes available? Get in touch here.

The results: Ikona and Izalco are the winners for winter wheat!

Out of the 22 tested winter wheat varieties, Ikona and Izalco showed the best tradeoff between production quality (wet gluten, protein content, yield, hectolitre mass) and resistance to change (disease resistance, weed competition, favorable agronomic metrics like resistance to lodging, etc.). 

Winter wheat variety Ikona Izalco
Yield [t/ha] 5.6 5.7
Seed protein [%] 13.8% 13.6%
Hektoliter mass [kg/hl] 81.7 82.8
Wet gluten [%] 34.9% 31.7%
Resistance to Yellow stripe rust disease [1-9] 7 (high resistance) 5.67 (mid resistance)

As you can see, no variety is the best across every metric. For easy understanding of the above table, we highlighted better results in green color. This easily shows that Ikona has higher proteins, wet gluten, and yellow stripe rust disease resistance, while Izalco offers higher yields and hectoliter mass. 

Both varieties, however, surpassed other winter wheat varieties,, so they’ll be introduced into production fields next season.

What do we plan for the future?

For winter wheat screening trials we have two plans:

  1. Repeat the screening trials for another season. Even though we control variability with carefully designed experimental trials, sometimes the success of one variety over another is due to chance. To lower the effects of chance biasing our conclusions, we’ll repeat the same trials again to? confirm the results across two seasons. 
  2. Continuously improve our pool of organic varieties. We’ll test Izalco and Ikona against other varieties, to discover more winter wheat varieties that can successfully grow in organic agriculture and add them to our pool of organic varieties.

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