OSU releases drought-resistant wheat

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STILLWATER, Okla. --  Mason Bolay counts his blessings in the cab of his combine.

A rainy spring has his soybean and other summer crops looking good.  But it's the crop across a dirt road that has him a little more worried.

"There's just no moisture on top," Bolay says, picking up a handful of red Oklahoma dirt. "It's just powdery dry."

With about three-quarters of his wheat crop planted, Bolay estimates he needs a good rain in the next couple weeks to ensure a healthy harvest in the spring.  And his cattle rely on the wheat for grazing.

Years of drought have made the situation more dire for farmers across Oklahoma.

"It's been pretty tough," Bolay said. "My grandpa always said nothing too bad or too good will last too long, and I'm ready for the too bad to be over with."

But in the dark cloud of drought, people like Brett Carver are trying to find the silver lining.

Carver is a regents professor and wheat breeder at Oklahoma State University.  His fields hold tens of thousands of strains of wheat that come from conventional cross breeding techniques.

"That drought has really wreaked havoc on our economy, wreaked havoc on our farms, but it also gives us a unique opportunity," he said. "We have the opportunity that we didn't have in the [19]80s and 90s to select a really good variety for resistance."

Now, one of those varieties has been released, touted as the highest-yielding crop of its kind. Researchers say "Bentley" -- as it's called -- can put out 10-15 percent more wheat than a standard crop with the same amount of water. And it excels in challenging climate conditions, like drought and late-winter freezes.

"It has surpassed other varieties that we've produced, other varieties produced elsewhere, so we know it has that special ability to improve drought conditions," said Carver, adding farmers will likely suffer less. "And the state economy won't suffer as much as well."

Bentley is the byproduct of genetic tests, 50,000 combinations sewn year in and year out.  Carver and his team are trying to find varieties that will thrive in Oklahoma.

That process can sometimes take more than a decade, as researchers put the crops side by side in real-life conditions outside, simulating grazing along the way.

By placing the strains next to each other in rectangular plots, Carver says, it is easy to compare and contrast the varieties to determine what works and what doesn't.

Thriving strains are green and lush, clumped together to prevent evaporation.  Struggling strains are yellow or brown in color and often leave the brown earth exposed.

"The trick is to find out which one is the winner," Carver said.

One of Oklahoma's top industries may depend on it. Non-farmers may feel the pain of drought through shortages in locally-produced bread. The cattle industry also needs plentiful wheat for grazing.

Wheat is the top crop for many farmers like Mason Bolay, too.

He says without cross breeding techniques, his business would be in trouble.

"When mother nature presents us with a problem, we need to be able to forecast for that with different types of genetics," he said. "If we don't have new varieties to adapt and help us eventually we can't raise enough wheat to raise a profit and eventually we go out of business."


Editor's Note: KFOR originally used the term "genetically engineered" when describing this wheat. Instead, we should have referred to "conventional cross breeding techniques" which are used at OSU.

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