Celebrating 10 Years of Midge-Tolerant Wheat Stewardship

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Alberta producers have been successfully seeding midge-tolerant wheat varieties for the past 10 growing seasons. That’s a significant milestone for a technology that was launched with stewardship strings attached.

“Since day one, midge-tolerant wheat growers have had to sign a stewardship agreement that limits the use of farm-saved seed to one generation past certified,” says Mike Espeseth, co-chair of the Midge Tolerant Wheat Stewardship Committee and communications manager of the Western Grains Research Foundation. This requirement ensures the variety’s built-in refuge is maintained, which prevents the development of a resistant midge population.

“When the technology was introduced to growers in 2009, we explained that without an interspersed refuge system, midge tolerance could break down within 10 years. We’ve maintained this message over the past decade and are grateful to growers and industry for respecting it.”

Several significant milestones have been achieved thanks to this ongoing commitment, starting with a growth in the number of midge-tolerant wheat varieties available to producers. At launch, just four varieties were available — today, there are 35.

“There’snow just about something in every wheat class,” says Todd Hyra, western business manager for SeCan, one of the first companies to offer a midge-tolerant wheat variety to growers.“In addition, a broad range of adaptation has happened within the genetics. It’s a very complete management package for producers. They’ve got everything they would want in a wheat variety — top yields, improved Fusariumratings, short, strong straw for manageability and, on top of all of that, midge tolerance.”

According to StatCan data, 27 million acres of midge-tolerant wheat have been grown across the Prairiessince its first planting in 2009. An even more impressive number is the financial advantage to farms.

$1 Billion in Benefits to Growers

“Research shows that producers achieve $36 per acre in yield and grade benefits when growing midge-tolerant wheat,” says Hyra. “When you apply that advantage across all those acres over the past 10 years, it adds up to an estimated $1 billion. That’s a significant return to producers.”

This billion-dollar achievement has only been possible with the cooperation of many people. Prior to launching midge-tolerant wheat to growers, industry worked together to create a strategy to collectively manage the stewardship and ensure that resistance was not broken. The result was the Midge Tolerant Wheat Stewardship Committee — a broad industry coalition representing plant breeders, government, seed growers, seed distributors and producer groups.

“It was really cool how everybody came together to ensure that the stewardship program was developed. It was very much a team approach,” says Hyra. “Today, we continue to work together to ensure that this technology lasts.”

Seed retailers also play a key role by sharing stewardship best practices with growers. Approximately 550 front-line retailers have completed midge-tolerant wheat training to ensure they understand the technology and can effectively communicate about it to growers.

Anyone who sells midge-tolerant wheat is also responsible for ensuring growers have signed a stewardship agreement. In 2016, the Midge Tolerant Wheat Stewardship Assurance Site was launched to replace the paper agreements that were originally in place. The secure, web-based tool for use by seed distributors, seed retailers and seed growers has made the process of documenting the movement of certified midge-tolerant wheat seed more efficient.

A compliance survey is also conducted annually to follow up with midge-tolerant wheat growers on their stewardship practices. “They are questioned in terms of understanding and respecting the technology, and results are consistently strong,” says Hyra. “In the past several years, 98 per cent of users have been in compliance.”

Reduced Insecticide Use

Another stewardship win is the fact that midge-tolerant wheat has prevented growers from having to spray to control orange blossom wheat midge. “This has resulted in several millions of litres of insecticide not purchased and not applied,” says Hyra. This not only saves growers time and input costs, but it reduces the environmental impact of an insecticide and decreases diesel fuel usage as well.

The savings also add up in terms of a producer’s time. “It frees up time to be able to spend with your family or coaching soccer or doing whatever you want to do, rather than worrying about killing bugs,” says Hyra. It also eliminates the tricky task of staging spray timings for effective midge control.

Another impact of not spraying is the protection of beneficial insects. “If we’re not spraying the wheat, then we’re not spraying out the beneficial insects,” says Tyler Wist, field crop entomologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada based in Saskatoon, Sask. When beneficials are protected, they are able to do their part in helping to control the midge population.

“Using midge-tolerant wheat helps to maintain the level of the parasitoids in the crop,” says Wist. It’s important to support these beneficial insects because they work by laying eggs into wheat midge larvae and eggs, eventually killing the pest. “Macroglenes penetransis an example of a parasitoid that does a really good job of managing the overwintering populations of wheat midge,” he says.

“There is no doubt that midge populations are way down across the Prairies,” confirms Wist. “The fact that so much midge-tolerant wheat is being used is having a level of depression on the midge population. But we also have to qualify that some dry springs have contributed to a reduced midge population as well.”

Wist also points out midge-tolerant wheat varieties have saved producers a lot of worry over the past decade. “It is just so convenient, right? Plant it and forget about it. You don’t have to be wandering through your wheat field on the July long weekend at dusk looking for little flies,” says Wist.

Hyra agrees that midge-tolerant wheat gives users peace of mind. “You just let the technology do its job,” he says. There have also been no reported incidences of resistant midge, which is evidence that the stewardship program is working.

Stewardship Works

The bottom line is stewardship only works because of the commitment of everyone involved in the midge-tolerant wheat system — from the seed growers and distributors to the producers who plant it.

“Midge-tolerant wheat continues to be an effective tool because farmers and industry work together to preserve the technology,” says Espeseth.

“A big thanks to everyone who has done their part to protect this important technology,” adds Hyra.“This trait was identified by public breeders for the good of all wheat growers in Canada. All that we ask is that as an industry we take care of it for several more decades.”

For more information about midge tolerance and the stewardship agreement, visit midgetolerantwheat.ca.

Source: The Midge Tolerant Wheat Stewardship Committee