Climate change

How can various cultivars influence the history of a crop?

Not many of us see Model T cars on the road today. This 1920’s era car made car travel accessible for the middle class, but its last production was in 1927. Yet, some of the engineering that went into the Model T still has an impact on today’s cars.

In the same way, older varieties of crops, now much-improved, may today occupy very few acres of land. Where they once were the major variety of the day, their impact is on the history – and genetics – of their specie.

model t in good condition
Some of the engineering that went into the Model T still has an impact on today’s cars. Source:

A type of wheat called Madsen, is one of those varieties not widely produced today. But its impact on today’s wheat, and future generations, is undeniable. Released in 1988 for production in the Pacific Northwest, Madsen is a soft white winter wheat. It has a high yield potential. But, newer, higher producing cultivars are now more popular, but that doesn’t negate the importance Madsen has in the success of today’s wheat cultivars.

Madsen’s legacy has gone far beyond commercial production. Madsen has been the parent of over 45 released cultivars, many of which were the lines that replaced it in commercial production. It is used as a parent mainly because of the excellent disease resistance it has to common diseases of the PNW. Madsen has also been used in research projects to identify disease resistance genes. In some cases, Madsen was found to be carrying resistance genes the breeder was not aware of but were discovered later in research or field screenings.

small plots of wheat separated in rows
The variety of wheat called Madsen was released in 1988 for production in the Pacific Northwest. It is a soft white winter wheat. Credit: Arron Carter

A plant breeder’s goal is to release cultivars that are commercially economical and environmentally sustainable. The premise is that new cultivars released are superior to those that are currently available. Through multiple years of testing in small-plot trials, released cultivars and new breeding lines are evaluated for many agronomic traits such as heading date, plant height, yield potential, etc. Furthermore, new breeding lines are subjected to different biotic stress conditions to evaluate pest and disease resistance traits. They may even be subjected to different abiotic stress conditions, either under field or controlled conditions, such as cold temperatures, drought, or low pH soils. After multiple years of testing, breeding lines that have better performance than currently grown cultivars are released for commercial production. Although plant breeders have multiple years of data supporting the performance of the new cultivar, there is no true indicator of how it will perform as a new cultivar until it is released and growers cultivate it on large acreage under commercial production systems.

rolling fields of wheat
Madsen wheat has been the parent of over 45 released cultivars, many of which were the lines that replaced it in commercial production. Credit: Arron Carter

During its development, Madsen showed very effective resistance to Pacific Northwest races of the stripe rust fungus and to leaf and stem rust. This disease resistance is important, as fungal diseases spread easily and reduce yields. In fact, Madsen was originally developed to be resistant to a different disease, eyespot foot rot.

Commercial Production

Once Madsen was released as a cultivar, it became widely grown in only a few years. At one time, 20% of the wheat produced in the Pacific Northwest was Madsen. It remained the most widely grown cultivar in the PNW for almost 13 years. Madsen has also been blended and planted with other cultivars in the same field to manage pests because of its excellent disease resistance. This production history has been an impressive 30-year life of a cultivar!

Breeding value

Approximately 45 cultivars have been released in the Pacific Northwest containing Madsen as a direct parent or somewhere within the pedigree. Six of these have been the leading cultivars in either Oregon or Washington for multiple years based on planted hectares.

Agronomic value

If you have ever driven by a field of beautiful wheat and see some of it laying on the ground (versus upright), that is called lodging. Lodging can hurt the value of wheat. Madsen has a lower rate of lodging than other wheats, which could be because its stems are strong. In addition, its resistance to fungal diseases may also help.

Consumer value

No cultivar of crop will remain on the market long if its end-users do not buy it. In addition to how well Madsen performs in the field, it also has excellent baking properties.

Answered by Arron Carter, Washington State University

Fun fact: did you know that many cultivars are named after people? Madsen was named  in honor of Dr. Louis L. Madsen, Dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University from 1965 to 1973. Dr. Madsen was an effective advocate of wheat research at the university, and a strong supporter of the collaboration between the USDA units and the College on campus.

Dr. Carter recently published a paper about the lineage of Madsen in Journal of Plant Registrations.

About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.

3 replies »

  1. Nice article, love the historic perspective. How extensive is Madsen being used by private industry in there breeding programs?

  2. Like all varieties it had some problems in commercial fields. Early frost in fall led to loss of stand at emergence and length of coiloptile was a issue with deeper seeding because of moisture in drier areas. It would not push to get out ground if coming from deep . I would like the seed guide to give coiloptile length in the seed guide for all varieties. It was the first variety that had the footrot gene and led to growers to not treat with fungicide which was common practice in the higher rainfall areas with the seed we had before Madsen.

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