Cultivating a diverse wheat population suitable for low-input and organic farming


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Monoculture pure line wheat varieties bred for high input conditions do not provide the genetic and physical diversity needed to increase crop capacity and resilience. Organic crop production requires plant varieties that are disease resistant, competitive against weeds and effective at scavenging for nutrients.
Genetic and physical crop diversity can bring stability and increased productiv-ity. As a result of investigating composite cross populations, the ORC Wakelyns Population was developed. The breeding programme involved making 190 crosses from 20 parent varieties and mixing the resulting seed which then went through 11 generations of natural field selection. Parent varieties varied in their disease tolerance, adaptability to various weather conditions, yield capabilities, and nutritional quality.
The Population produces more stable yields than those of the parent varieties due to more efficient use of soil nutrients and water, and lower plant disease and pest levels. When compared to the parent varieties, it produces yields of higher quality; increased protein content, improved hardness, good baking quality, comparable nutrition levels, and it is suitable for animal feed. Practical recommendation • The Population is most suitable for growing in low input or organic systems (under high input conditions it maintains its stability, but could yield significantly lower than pure line varieties). • It is able to adapt to changing environmental and weather conditions and cope with variation in diseases and weeds. To further increase crop resilience, you could also consider intercropping grain legumes and cereals. • Evolutionary change can occur within 2 to 3 years, but grain yield, disease incidence and genetic diversity should not be affected. • Sowing too deep or too shallow could delay or decrease establishment. • When grown organically, it may provide a better potential for bread-making than modern quality varieties bred for conventional conditions but grown under organic conditions. • Under conventional conditions, it may have potential for producing bread from crops with a lower nitrogen input. • Carefully identify a target market for the Population, finding one that suits the characteristics of the wheat. This is likely to be smaller-scale, artisan bakers and home bakers, who can adapt their processes to suit the flour. • There are many artisan and locally produced flours and breads on the market, so the unique selling points of the Population should be clearly explained to consumers.
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