Small grains research in Minnesota

The small grain crops of wheat, oats, barley, and rye are important components of Minnesota's agricultural economy.

From developing varieties that are resistant to common diseases to improving management practices, University of Minnesota researchers are working to make small grains production more productive throughout Minnesota.

Below is a sampling of ongoing MAES research projects related to small grains. This list does not encompass all small grains research at the University of Minnesota.

Improving management and production of small grains
Jochum Wiersma
The purpose of this project is to increase profitability of small grains in the production systems found across Minnesota by researching the effects of inputs, developing decision support systems to assist in timely application of those inputs, and researching alternative production systems for small grains. It is paramount that producers across the whole state have access to current and novel research findings that are applicable to their farms and have access to the best management practices and research based recommendations to maximize small grains’ profitability and sustainability. We’re exploring whether genetic traits can lower necessary nitrogen inputs, investigating the rise to prominence and implications of 2-row barley, and developing variety and management recommendations for the use of plant growth regulators as well as fungicides and herbicides not currently used in the U.S. 

Management and epidemiology of the diseases of small grains    
Ruth Dill-Macky
This research aims to develop effective disease control strategies for wheat, barley, and oat and thereby reduce yield and quality losses for small grains producers in Minnesota. Our research primarily focuses on Fusarium head blight of wheat and barley and bacterial leaf streak.
Our work provides support to the wheat, barley, and oat breeding programs as part of ongoing efforts to develop germplasm with improved resistance to biotic diseases and examines the epidemiology of the diseases of small grains and utilizes this knowledge in the development of effective disease control options.

Exploiting wild relatives for cultivated wheat and barley improvement
Brian Steffenson
The small grain cereals of wheat and barley have undergone strong selection pressure from the time of early domestication through today's modern plant breeding, resulting in the loss of valuable genetic diversity. Moreover, cultivation of genetically uniform crops over vast acreages can lead to catastrophic losses due to plant disease epidemics, insect outbreaks, and various abiotic stresses such as drought. This loss of crop diversity, coupled with changes in climate, present new and serious constraints for cereal production. The goal of our research is to improve small grain cereals with genes derived from wild relatives and landraces of wheat and barley that are rich sources of disease resistance as well as many other traits contributing to crop productivity, nutritional value, and adaptation. This research will facilitate the development of cereal cultivars that are more productive, profitable and sustainable for small grain production in Minnesota and other parts of the world.

Spring wheat breeding and genetics
Jim Anderson
Improved cultivars are one of the most important components of profitable wheat production. This research is developing new, high yielding spring wheat cultivars with good lodging resistance, disease resistance, and good end-use quality. Disease resistance breeding focuses on Fusarium head blight, bacterial leaf streak, leaf rust, and stem rust. We’re studying the ways genetics and DNA markers impact disease resistance and grain quality and using genomic prediction to enhance efficiency and increase the genetic gain of traits under complex genetic control. 

Molecular genetic strategies to improve barley and wheat
Gary J. Muehlbauer
Wheat and barley are important cereal crops in the country and world. The overall goal of this research is to develop genomics tools and germplasm resources in wheat and barley for crop improvement. We’re utilizing molecular genetics and genomics to study these crops and improve the efficiency and sustainability of their production. Research primarily focuses on Fusarium head blight (FHB) of wheat and barley, a fungal disease caused by Fusarium graminearum that threatens the economic viability of these crops in Minnesota and around the world. Other research areas involve examining the genetic control of barley development, with an emphasis on tillering, and identifying beneficial alleles from unadapted germplasm. 

Barley breeding and genetics
Kevin Smith
The acreage planted to barley has declined nationally and particularly in the Midwest. This decline is due, in part, to competition with other crops and increased production risks due to diseases. The University of Minnesota Barley Breeding Program conducts research to develop new barley varieties with characteristics that contribute to farm profitability, meet end-user needs and contribute to sustainable farming systems. In our breeding and genetics research, we focus on traits like higher levels of disease resistance, enhanced winter survival in winter barley, and improved malting quality for both large and craft brewers. Advanced breeding lines are extensively tested across the Midwest and the most superior are released as new varieties. As new improved varieties are deployed, we expect farm incomes to increase as well as local supplies of high quality malting barley.

Remote sensing applications in crop and animal agriculture
Ce Yang, Brian Steffenson, and David Mulla
This research explores new approaches utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and advanced remote sensing techniques to improve crop and animal agriculture productivity and sustainability. We’re integrating hyperspectral imaging and novel data analysis with advanced algorithms to solve agricultural challenges like nitrogen management for corn fields, stress detection for wheat/barley disease resistance breeding, and chicken egg gender detection before incubation. The expected output of these remote sensing projects is a systematic solution for agricultural researchers and farmers to better use remote sensing techniques in solving fundamental agricultural problems. 

Understanding cereal starch architecture and its relation to functional behavior and impact on human health
George Annor and Jim Anderson
Starch remains a subject of intense scientific scrutiny because of the structural complexity of its molecular make-up, importance in our diet, and impact on human health. Starches from cereals such as corn, wheat, rice and oats have a wide range of applications across various industries in the U.S, mainly due to their different functionalities. Starches from minor cereals such as millet also has the potential to be used in the management of type II diabetes due to their hypoglycemic properties. Understanding the structure of cereal starches is important in the development of new products and understanding their impacts on human health. This research aims to unravel the complex molecular structure of cereal starches from corn, wheat, rice, millet and oats and how this information can be used to explain their varied behaviors in different food systems. This project is also increasing understanding of how cereal starches with different fine structural features can be utilized to manageme conditions like type II diabetes.

Host immunity as a driver of virulence evolution in the cereal rust fungi
Brian Steffenson
The small grain cereal crops of wheat, oats, and barley are important agricultural commodities in the United States and many other countries of the world. Unfortunately, they are attacked by rust diseases caused by the fungal pathogens Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici (Pgt) (wheat stem rust), P. coronata f. sp. avenae (Pca) (oat crown rust), and Puccinia hordei (Ph) (barley leaf rust). Yield losses due to these rust diseases can exceed 40% during severe epidemics. The deployment of resistant varieties is the most effective means for control of the cereal rust diseases, but the diseases quickly evolve to these new varieties. The overall aim of this research is to determine how host immunity affects virulence evolution in cereal rust fungi. We’re addressing the knowledge gaps related to novel resistance (R) genes and pathogen 'effector' proteins. By increasing understanding of how pathogens and Avr genes evolve, we can help break the “boom and bust” cycle, where newly deployed resistance genes provide protection for only a limited time and are then overcome by newly evolved pathogens.