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It was 50 years ago this month that Ron Duerst started his career as a small grains breeder at the University of Wisconsin. It turns out that breeding oats is a fairly specialized skill — as much art as it is science — and it's a skill he practiced for 40 years as part of the UW's small grains breeding program.

Duerst talked about his career with a group of farmers in Paoli last week. The dairy farmers that gather at the town hall call themselves Paoli University (PU) and meet once a month during the winter to share thoughts on their operations and learn from invited speakers.

With Duerst was Jim Albertson, who recently retired from his position running the Wisconsin Foundation Seed program. He also previously worked with the Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association. The men told the farm group that during the decades they worked in small grain production the per-acre production grew by leaps and bounds from 60 bushels per acre to 120 bushels per acre.

Albertson said the Wisconsin Crop Improvement Association was started in 1905 by a group of farmers who decided they needed to find a way to have seed tested for varietal purity. 'I guess they were sick of buying poor seed,' he said. 'Testing meant a guarantee that what is on the tag is in the bag.'

The system to provide pure seed went hand in hand with Wisconsin's certified seed program, which involves field inspections, seed lab tests, germination testing and other practices that earn the seed the 'red W' on the package.

Albertson said in the early years, the certified seed program was housed at the Hill Farm in Madison where the University had acreage. The first seed handling plant was housed in an old wooden building with an elevator and fanning mill.

Later the University's seed plant moved to West Hill, he said, on Sheboygan Avenue where facilities included four Quonset buildings. 'That's where I started and it was probably the heyday of the program. A lot of seed went through there.'

The way the program worked then, as it does now, is that plant breeders like Duerst develop new varieties, which are then increased through Wisconsin Foundation Seed that hires certified seed growers to produce it on their land.

By 1988 the Foundation Seed program was moved to the UW's Arlington Agricultural Research Station north of De Forest, which is still its home. Albertson said that the program has always stressed the purity of the seed.

'For the seed to be pure the grain drills have to be cleaned, fields have to be inspected and rogued (weeds and stray plants removed.) Everything including the fanning mills and gravity boxes has to be cleaned. Seed purity has always been number one with the program.'

Noted varieties

Duerst said that the program's history of varietal purity and the practices that ensured it were very important in recent years when plant breeders like him had to get plant variety protection — patents — for the varieties that had been developed.

One variety that Duerst developed and wrote the patent for was 'Forage Plus' a forage oat that has been grown all over the state as a dairy forage crop.

He explained that universities exchange plant germplasm as a way to further the progress plant breeders can make in the area of small grains. When he was wielding his tweezers to develop new oats varieties, he would first decide which plants were to be the parents. Then, since oats is a plant with both male and female reproductive parts, he would need to remove the male parts two days before he guessed that the female parts would be receptive.

Bags placed over the top of the plants would assure that no errant pollen got in while he waited to place the chosen male pollen into the oat flower. 'This would preferably take place about noon to 2:30 p.m. on a nice, sunny day,' Duerst said.

'You have to really understand the plant,' he added. 'Seed set is very low.'

There are probably only a very few people in the United States that have ever been really successful crossing oats, he said.

Plant breeders in his line of work jokingly scoff at those who breed corn, noting that small grains breeders do their work with tweezers while corn breeders do their pollinating with a bushel basket and a shovel.

Duerst said he tried many times to teach graduate students how to cross oats but most of them ended up not having the touch and gravitated to plant species that were easier to cross — like corn.

Time to develop

Once the crosses are made and some seed is produced it would likely be 10 years before it could possibly become a commercially released variety, Duerst said. Over several years of planting and observing there is tremendous variety in the offspring. Of the tens of thousands of new plants 'you pick out the ones you like. You save the best panicle off the best plants. At F5 (fifth generation) they begin to become fairly stable genetically.

'You get some idea of the yield potential and how they stand up,' he said. At that point they get 'promoted' to triplicate sampling and a year later they show up in yield trials in special plots all over the state.

The best of those are promoted again to what he called 'drill strips' — replicated plots that are handled in more of the way that farmers would plant and harvest their crops. From those plots the best are chosen and handed over to the Foundation Seed program.

Very little of the crop is actually grown at Arlington, Albertson said, but has traditionally been produced on the farms of certified seed growers. If those varieties still look good the decision is then made to patent them and that's when the varieties went from an experimental number to a name.

'That was really kind of the fun part of it all,' said Duerst. He named 'Moraine', 'Drumlin', 'Kane' and 'Esker' after geological features in Wisconsin. 'Belle' was named after his hometown of Belleville.

'Forage Plus' is one of the success stories of his breeding program. It is a very disease-resistant oat that has become useful for farmers to plant and harvest as additional forage, yielding as much as 4.3 tons per acre dry matter. It came along in the breeding program after 'Ensiler' oats, he adds.

One of its benefits is that it is slow to mature and 'hangs out' in the boot stage longer, meaning it offers more time to get it harvested as a quality forage.

Disease challenges

Duerst remembers one oat variety that was developed in the early 1990s that was one of the highest yielding oat varieties they had ever developed, but when it was released it turned out that one of the diseases that prey on oats had found a way to attack it.

'The disease had mutated and our new variety just got clobbered.' Because of its high-yield potential it was later used as a parent of other varieties.

That's the same thing that happened with 'Ogle' a University of Illinois oat variety that had huge yield capabilities but was susceptible to crown rust. It was used to create new varieties by crossing resistant lines of oats that are resistant to the disease.

Recordkeeping is a huge part of plant breeding. Duerst said that in order to get a plant patent he had to be able to trace back to the individual floret where he made the first cross. Where the plants were grown and where the original germplasm came from were also part of the documentation.

Duerst said he probably wouldn't have had a job without Quaker Oats, which bought equipment and paid his salary through the UW. 'They never wanted to own the varieties and they never placed any restrictions on how we proceeded with our program.'

Because neighboring state universities like Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois had their own small grains breeding programs, Duerst said 'we took a lot of pride in competing with them.'

Oats that are developed in Wisconsin, he said, seem to do better north and west of here, so state varieties do very well in Minnesota and Canada. He recalled a trip to the Winnipeg area where he saw 'more oats at one time than I'd seen in 30 years of oat breeding.'

That area is the mother lode of oats produced for Quaker. They are shipped to Cedar Rapids where they get turned into oatmeal and granola bars. 'A lot of oats goes into the health food market,' adds Albertson. 'It's probably one of the most natural foods you can eat. They take off the hull and roll it.'

Oats non-GMO

Because of the genetic structure of oats, Duerst said it's very unlikely that we'll ever see a genetically modified oat. All the improvements made to date come from painstaking conventional plant breeding.

But if there were ever a way to insert a gene that adds a food nutrient that would make it a more valuable 'health food' he wouldn't entirely rule out the use of a 'gene gun' to get a genetic modification in oats. However, because of its simpler gene structure, corn is a lot easier to work genetic modifications into.

Albertson and Duerst noted that during their careers in plant breeding and seed propagation, farmers went from the mind-set of planting oats as a cover crop for alfalfa to growing it on its own for either straw and grain or as a forage. Planting alfalfa without a 'nurse crop' became the norm.

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