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Sparking a Winter Wheat Revolution Rob Graf has emerged as one of Canada’s preeminent wheat breeders. He will receive the Canadian Plant Breeding & Genetics Award for his efforts. By Marc Zienkiewicz

Rob Graf has always been the creative type.

When he was in high school, he played in a family band. He hasn’t picked up his trumpet in years, but he has fond memories of being a member of The Happy Hearts, which included his parents, brothers and sister who played wedding receptions and other events in the region around Humboldt, Sask., where he grew up.

His musical interests gave way to a career in plant breeding, but his creative talents have spread to his breeding work and he has become known as one of Canada’s preeminent innovators in wheat breeding — so much so that he has been selected to receive the Canadian Plant Breeding and Genetics Award in 2020.

The award, sponsored by Germination with the board of the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA) selecting the winner, is presented annually to a public or private sector researcher who has made a significant contribution to the advancement of Canadian plant agriculture through research in plant breeding and genetics.

Rob Graf.

To say Graf has made a significant contribution to the world of wheat would be an understatement.

“Rob’s practical approach to plant breeding — knowing what’s best for farmers — combined with his employing new traits and techniques to his breeding program, have resulted in not only accelerated agronomic performance of winter wheat in Western Canada, but also tremendous advancements in disease resistance and grain quality,” says Todd Hyra, western business manager for SeCan.

In 2019, Graf’s varieties represented 80% of the planted acres for milling quality winter wheat in Western Canada.

He laughs when he’s asked about how he’s been so successful — for Graf, the odds are always against a plant breeder.

“As breeders, we throw out well over 99% of what we do,” he says. “The lines we select are the result of a stringent selection process and if they’re good enough they’re registered as varieties. Some of the lines we develop may be deficient in some ways but they make good parents and become building blocks we can use to make the next breakthrough. You take small steps forward until you end up with something significant years down the line.”

Graf grew up on a farm in central Saskatchewan. As the oldest child in the family, there were a lot of responsibilities he had to carry out that put him on the path towards developing a love of agriculture. Going to the University of Saskatchewan and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in ag and then a Ph.D. in plant breeding seemed like logical steps.

After a 12-year stint as a spring wheat breeder for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, he ended up breeding winter wheat for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and based out of Lethbridge.

“When I started here in 1999, there were virtually no winter wheat varieties on the market that had disease resistance of any kind. It was pretty clear we needed to do a lot of work incorporating all types of resistance into the crop, and we’ve definitely managed to do that,” he says.

Graf takes into consideration both the interests of farmers and the interests of end users, who are looking for winter wheat that has better flour water absorption. The more water that flour absorbs when dough is produced, the less costly it is to produce the end-product such as bread.

Graf’s breeding program is at a point where one of his recent varieties, currentlyknown as W569 — which received support for registration at the 2019 meeting of the Prairie Grain Development Committee — now exceeds all disease requirements for its class. It has resistance to stem rust, leaf and stripe rust, fusarium head blight (FHB) and bunt.

He’s proud of the fact his first variety “McKenzie” was among the Top 5 CWRS varieties in Western Canada for almost a decade. McKenzie was also the first doubled haploid wheat released in North America and is the most popular privately developed CWRS wheat variety to date.

AC Emerson was the first variety of any wheat class in Canada to get a “Resistant” rating to FHB. AAC Wildfire, which recently received registration, represents a new yield level for winter wheat on the Prairies.

But he doesn’t just care about agronomic performance. Graf has become a truly contemporary breeder, taking into consideration both the interests of farmers and the interests of end users, who are looking for winter wheat that has better flour water absorption. The more water that flour absorbs when dough is produced, the less costly it is to produce the end-product such as bread.

“This has been a really difficult trait to correct but we’re finally making progress on this,” he says.

Working with the Canadian Seed Trade Association helps bridge the gap between breeders and all of the various end-users, he says. “It’s one of the conduits where breeders get insights into what is important to the industry. Part of the success of any breeder is to have an understanding of what the industry needs and be there when that need arises.”

But, he adds, before a true revolution in winter wheat can really take place, the industry needs to change paradigms among farmers. The number of winter wheat acres in Western Canada still pales in comparison to spring wheat, according to Statistic Canada.

“We need to get farmers thinking about adding winter cereals into their rotations and understanding all of the associated benefits. Many producers still say, ‘I don’t want to be seeding when I should be harvesting.’ We need to get them thinking, ‘I should be seeding rather than harvesting right now.’ That’s when winter wheat will really take off.”

The Buzz About Rob Graf

“The Alberta Regional Variety Advisory Committee has been chaired by Rob for the past decade. The result of his keen eye for detail is improved province-wide consistency of the regional variety trial data. All aspects of the crop sector benefit when there is confidence in these trial results.” —Renee Hoyme, Alberta Seed Growers president
“I came across a publication where Rob described the person who inspired the name of the first double haploid wheat as someone ‘whose career was dedicated to the practice of agrology and service to farmers.’ For anyone who knows Rob, it’s apparent he has the same dedication.” Chris Churko, FP Genetics CEO

Credits:

Created with images by Lucas Marconnet - "We were in Burgundy, in the city of Demigny, I was doing a shooting, and I decided to take the field in photo, rendering the 50mm is magic." • David Becker - "Field of wheat in the summer" • Pexels - "bakery bread baker"