Syngenta Is Committed to Developing High-Quality Wheat Varieties

The AgriPro brand wheat breeding program is helping growers and resellers meet the overall market demands for this crop.
A bountiful wheat harvest is underway at a farm in Crookston, Minnesota.
Cathy Butti, lab manager of the Syngenta wheat quality lab in Berthoud, Colorado, operates a mixograph.
As an assistant plant scientist at Syngenta, Joy Battistone carries out her tasks with diligence, focus and precision. Her daily routine, however, is not consumed with the tasks one might associate with a research and development (R&D) professional. For the past two decades, she has donned an apron, instead of a lab coat, and spent her workdays baking cookies and loaves of bread at the Syngenta wheat quality lab to evaluate how various experimental Syngenta wheat varieties will perform—not in the field but in a bakery.

“All varieties have inherent end-use quality characteristics that can’t necessarily be predicted by breeders,” Battistone says. “The information we provide, based on the tests and evaluations we conduct at the wheat quality lab, helps breeders determine whether or not to continue with the development of certain varieties, which can save them time and resources early on in the R&D process.”
The AgriPro #wheat brand from @SyngentaUS is a commitment to developing high-quality varieties.

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Location, Location

Located in Berthoud, Colorado, a sleepy town near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Syngenta wheat quality lab is home to a full mill and bake lab, which has been in operation since 1979. There, Cathy Butti, Syngenta wheat quality lab manager, and her team receive grain harvested from experimental wheat varieties from Syngenta wheat breeders throughout North America—varieties that have excelled in yield and agronomic evaluations and for which breeders are seeking information on end-use characteristics, like protein content, gluten strength and other factors that are vital for millers and bakers.

“All of us who work at the Berthoud site are very passionate about quality,” Butti says. “Since quality is not determined solely by genetics, there will always be a need to assess it. Our objective is to provide breeders with reliable and consistent data on essential end-use quality characteristics for hard and soft wheat experimental lines throughout the various regions and wheat classes of the U.S. and Canada.”

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Five-hundred miles away, in the heart of the Wheat Belt, Breeding Lead Sarah Battenfield, Ph.D., and a team of Syngenta wheat breeders based in Junction City, Kansas, are tasked with developing new AgriPro® brand wheat varieties. To say their work is complex would be an understatement, given the crop’s natural means of reproduction by self-pollination, an extended growing cycle that translates to significant gaps between crop generations, three distinct genomes comprising modern wheat’s genetic profile, and an ongoing quest to deliver high-yielding varieties that produce high-quality grain.

For Battenfield and her colleagues, end-use quality is just one of many factors considered during the R&D process. They monitor and evaluate yield and agronomic characteristics, like disease resistance, first and foremost. Only experimental varieties that perform as well as or better than existing commercial varieties in the field proceed to the next stage of the screening process at the wheat quality lab.

“Quality is an absolute,” says Battenfield, who turned her attention to wheat quality as a doctoral student. “As breeders, we are always looking for the next best variety, and we are the gatekeepers ensuring that new varieties have high-quality characteristics. Having the support and wealth of knowledge from the quality lab makes it possible for us to understand quality-related implications when making decisions about the future of our commercial wheat varieties.”

Up to the Test

When wheat samples arrive at the wheat quality lab, workers organize them and assign to them unique barcodes, which accompany the samples throughout the various iterations of milling and baking tests. These testing protocols follow the procedures that the American Association of Cereal Chemists International established.

Tests vary by wheat class and development stage but may include sophisticated imagery technology to assess grain protein and hardness, milling processes to examine potential flour yield, and specialized instruments to measure properties that are critical to the success of industrial baking operations.

Testing the mixing properties of flour, for example, requires a mixograph, a pin mixer that combines small samples of flour and water to produce dough, while recording the resistance of the dough. The resulting mixogram, a collection of graphs not unlike a Richter scale reading, provides valuable insight into gluten strength, absorption, mixing peak time and mixing tolerance.

“The information we provide, based on the tests and evaluations we conduct at the wheat quality lab, helps breeders determine whether or not to continue with the development of certain varieties.”

Joy Battistone
In the bake lab, Battistone’s cookie- and bread-baking work isn’t as carefree as it might sound. Baking for the purpose of evaluating end-use characteristics requires consistency, repetition and complete focus. The baking protocols Battistone employs are thoroughly scientific—from the number of times and the direction in which the cookie dough is rolled, to the orientation of the bread dough roll when placed in the loaf pan, seam side down.

“Consistency is really important so we can ensure that flour is the only variable that changes and that the wheat variety is the only unique factor being evaluated,” Battistone says.

Battistone analyzes several capacities of the baked goods. For a cookie, which is made using soft wheat, the primary distinguishing characteristic she looks for is cookie diameter, but top grain—the vast network of textured cracks in the cookie’s surface that is desirable in a sugar cookie or snickerdoodle—is also key. For lines evaluated for Canadian bread products, Battistone evaluates the break and shred—which is the loaf-top ratio or the way in which the bread rises above the confines of the pan. Also important is the color of the loaf—analyzed with the help of a specialized color booth—as well as the inner texture of the cut loaf, which should be soft, silky and slightly spongy to the touch. Generally, for all products, the least amount of flour a baker can use to fill their packaging is most desirable as long as other characteristics are good.

The Pursuit of a Better Crop

As Battenfield presses onward in pursuit of developing wheat varieties with end-use quality characteristics, a photograph depicting her childhood self in her father’s wheat field reminds her why she has chosen this path.

“I grew up with wheat,” she says. “It’s where I came from and what I know. I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to be a wheat farmer, and in my role, I’m doing what I can to help farmers grow better crops.”