UNL Wheat Research Gets Boost
Partnership with Bayer CropScience helps ensure UNL’s long-standing leadership continues
The new relationship between NUtech Ventures and Bayer CropScience AG helps ensure the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ long-standing, highly successful wheat breeding program will continue to yield new, improved cultivars for producers for decades to come.
World-renowned IANR wheat breeder P. Stephen Baenziger describes himself as the current steward of the university's program. He inherited it in 1986 from John Schmidt, who he calls "one of the greatest wheat breeders of all time," and Baenziger's goal one day is to hand it off in as good a condition.
Baenziger, 59, is not about to retire, but the new Bayer-funded Nebraska Wheat Growers Presidential Chair included in the agreement means that when he does, there should be a smooth transition to his successor. Baenziger is the first to hold the presidential chair.
When Schmidt retired, Baenziger recalls, it took about a year for UNL to hire him. "When I retire, we can rehire almost immediately, given the funds available through this chair," Baenziger said. "That provides a continuity that in tight budget times is almost extraordinary."
That continuity is significant because it takes about 12 years for a new wheat cultivar to reach the market.
In addition to $2 million for the endowed professorship, the NUtech Venture
s-Bayer agreement has funding for UNL research and education programs, including graduate assistantships that will help educate future generations of wheat scientists. The agreement also includes plans for the company to establish its first North American wheat breeding station near Lincoln. That commercial operation will pay dividends for UNL as well, as students will have the opportunity to visit, work and learn there.
In the last five years, Baenziger has released six new wheat cultivars. In all, Nebraska-developed cultivars account for 65 percent of Nebraska's wheat acres. His germplasm resources have been used to develop numerous wheat cultivars in other Great Plains states as well.
The future stability ensured by the Bayer funding means "we'll be able to be a little more exploratory and perform more long-term research since we won't be as heavily dependent upon USDA grants, which by nature must be relatively short-term," Baenziger said. "We will be able to develop very state-of-the-art, cutting edge wheat breeding technologies."
"We can't rest on our laurels. This partnership will make our program as competitive as any program in the country and in the world even."
The Bayer collaboration isn't the only significant recent boost to UNL's wheat research. In January, the USDA announced a $25 million, five-year grant for wheat and barley research at 28 universities, including UNL. The funding will come from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.
UNL's role in the grant is to lead, with Oklahoma State University, the Great Plains research into nitrogen use efficiency. Other scientists will focus on water-use efficiency. The goal is to reduce both nutrient and water use in wheat and barley production by 10 percent.
"This is one of the largest USDA collaborative grants ever," Baenziger said.
While these new infusions of funding are key, Baenziger emphasized that support from Nebraska wheat growers remains the mainstay of UNL's research, and UNL remains focused on serving Nebraska producers.
Bayer's funding is for non-exclusive access to UNL’s germplasm that leaves UNL in control of its germplasm and able to continue releasing varieties as usual. As evidence that UNL remains committed to constituent needs, Baenziger noted, UNL will continue its research into organic wheat breeding and production.
The Bayer CropScience collaboration is part of a new trend in which private industry is investing more money in wheat research and partnerships with public universities to develop new wheat varieties. Unlike research into other major crops, wheat research traditionally has been heavily dependent on public funding for basic research and breeding.
Story by Daniel R. Moser
This story was published in the Winter 2011 issue of Science for Life. Download the PDF in its entirety.