Seed dealers praise wheat breeder’s efforts: 'He transformed our wheat industry'

Candace Krebs
Special to Ag Journal
Burl Scherler, owner of Sand Creek Inc., a seed dealership at Sheridan Lake, Colorado, says wheat varieties developed by CSU wheat breeder Scott Haley are so good and so well adapted that he doesn’t sell anything else. Haley is retiring at the end of the month after 22 years at CSU. Scherler says he’ll be missed.

Seed dealers can attest to how the work of retiring Colorado State University wheat breeder Scott Haley transformed the state’s wheat industry for the better.

The varieties Haley introduced over the past 22 years are significantly higher yielding and more disease and pest resistant than their predecessors, but also of such high milling and baking quality that they go into some of the most elite identity-preserved specialty flours and food products on the market.

“He’s one of the top three or four wheat breeders in the world, and to have him here at a public program, it’s just pretty special what he’s done,” said Brian Brooks, part of a family seed dealership near Walsh. “He really transformed our wheat industry in Colorado. Prior to when Scott stepped in, we were known for poor quality wheat, and as of now, we are considered to have some of the top quality wheat in the nation, equal to, if not better than, the wheat in surrounding states.”

“He always listened to what our needs were,” added Burl Scherler, owner-operator of Sand Creek Inc. of Sheridan Lake. “Our reputation for poor quality made it to where the basis was so much wider if it was Colorado wheat. The wheat administrative committee urged him to consider that, and he set up a test lab of his own so he could compare the different baking qualities, and he made great strides with that.”

Transitioning the state to better quality took diligence, hard work and an extremely rigorous selection process, Brooks said.

“There are a lot of varieties he shelved because they didn’t meet his criteria,” he said. “Industry-wise we’ve benefited from that.”

In 2010, Haley released Snowmass, a hard white wheat often described as revolutionary for the way it combined consumer-friendly lighter, sweeter bran with coveted water absorption characteristics. Those features alone would have made it a major accomplishment, but it also delivered on the traits growers needed, yielding on par with the best red varieties and producing high test weight and protein percentage.

Since then, Haley has improved on it even more with Snowmass 2.0, which excelled in OSU’s 2020 test trials.

“I think it’s just an outstanding wheat,” Scherler said.

Haley helped solve pest and disease problems too.

Many wheat farmers face an endless struggle controlling grassy weeds in their crop. Since wheat is a close relative to grass, it is difficult to formulate effective herbicides that don’t harm the crop. In 2017, Haley's program developed a new herbicide tolerant trait, AXigen, which is now being incorporated into varieties that are grown using the CoAXium wheat production system.

The trait is owned by the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation and marketed through a partnership between CWRF, Limagrain Cereal Seeds and Albaugh LLC, which makes Aggressor herbicide.

“It provides excellent, excellent control for cheatgrass. And the varieties that have it are just getting better and better,” Scherler said. “And come to find out they are working good in Montana, Idaho and Washington, too, where they grow continuous wheat. So now we are getting royalties from around the country, and potentially around the world, to go back into our breeding program here in Colorado.”

Haley’s work helped growers defeat the Russian wheat aphid. More recently, his attention turned to the wheat stem sawfly, which has been marching steadily southward from Montana, and the wheat curl mite, which carries and transmits the devastating wheat streak mosaic virus.

Guardian, a new CSU hard red wheat variety released in 2019, offers dual resistance to wheat streak mosaic by stacking genes for disease resistance with resistance to the pest.

“That’s going to be a game changer,” Brooks said. “It’s just another feather in Scott’s hat, almost as big as the Co-Axium technology. We will continue to see his work over the next five to 10 years in other varieties that are now in the pipeline.”

Both Brooks and Scherler said Haley’s varieties are so superior they don’t even bother selling anything else.

“Colorado varieties just seem to do better in Colorado,” Scherler said.

Because Colorado doesn’t produce nearly as much wheat as leading states like Kansas and North Dakota, it doesn’t get as much attention from private breeding companies, Scherler said. The high elevation and low rainfall of the eastern plains make it an exceptionally challenging environment that demands carefully adapted varieties, he said.

“Different areas have different needs,” he said. “A private company might have a research plot in Wichita and in Colby, but maybe none in Colorado. With Scott, we had good data, and we knew for sure, with good confidence, the wheat would perform well here.”

Another contribution Haley made was to put all of the variety information into a farmer-friendly website that allows for detailed comparison and selection.

“He has an extremely good database so you can compare varieties. It’s at RamWheatDB.com, and that’s really a good resource,” Scherler said.

“Scott’s been really good at managing data and listening to what we needed and a really good manager with our employees (at the CSU wheat breeding laboratory),” he added. “If you don’t have good employees, you don’t have good data. You’ve got to have good people working for you.”

“We’ll miss him an awful lot,” Scherler concluded. “He’s done so much for the Colorado wheat industry.”