Not all wheat varieties are created equal in terms of nitrogen use. Research from Kansas State University is examining the nature of those differences and how appropriate management can improve agricultural efficiency.
Nathan Nelson, associate professor of agronomy, and Allan Fritz, professor of agronomy, are researching nitrogen use efficiency in different varieties of wheat. Genetic effects on nutrient uptake have been acknowledged, but research has not been done to characterize these differences in varieties grown in Kansas. The project began with an observation from Fritz on how certain wheat varieties appeared to outcompete others in situations typical of nitrogen limitation.
The study is in its first year and has provided research opportunities for two undergraduate students. Bryson Haverkamp, senior in agronomy, Bern, has worked with Nelson for the entirety of the project. T.C. Alex, senior in microbiology and animal sciences and industry, Olathe, assisted Nelson during the summer while Haverkamp completed an internship with AgriGold, a breeder, seller and producer of hybrid corn.
Approximately 30 varieties of wheat are being screened for their nitrogen use efficiency. Each variety was planted with and without nitrogen and replicated four times for 240 plots. The nitrogen was applied and growth monitored during the spring. An initial harvest was taken in early May, where all biomass above ground was harvested. The amount of nitrogen taken up by the wheat prior to grain development was determined and will be used to describe differences in how the varieties reallocate nitrogen. Following grain maturity, the plots were harvested to determine the final nitrogen uptake in both grain and straw.
The potential implications differ for each variety. Certain varieties may store more nitrogen earlier and reallocate it later, which could cause them to be more responsive to fertilizer nitrogen because it can be collected earlier without being lost. Efficiency is likely less for varieties without that capability. Other outcomes are possible, including varieties that might be better suited for utilizing soil nitrogen released late in the growing season. Some varieties could be suited for growing in nitrogen-deficit situations.
Nelson hopes the research results will assist with wheat variety selection and future breeding efforts.
"That's the objective," he said. "It will help people choose different varieties that will fit into their production systems."
The presence of nitrogen in soil depends on past fertilization history, organic matter and climate and soil properties. Nitrogen is an important input in maximizing crop yield. It can result in increased profitability, increased food production and greater food security.
Continuation of the study is contingent on availability of funding. Funding will be sought from wheat or fertilizer industries, as well as commodities commissions, according to Nelson. Depending on results, the project will be expanded to include additional studies.
Haverkamp will present the results at the American Society of Agronomy's annual meetings, October 16-19, in San Antonio, Texas. More than 200 undergraduate students from around the nation will be in attendance, as well as more than 4,000 scientists and professionals from around the world. Haverkamp is the current president of the Wheat State Agronomy Club, the department of agronomy's undergraduate organization at K-State. He is grateful for the research experience and would like to be a crop consultant after graduation.
Likewise, Alex is appreciative of the research opportunity. An aspiring cancer researcher, he enjoyed becoming more well-rounded in his research experiences.
Nelson says the opportunity to do undergraduate research is invaluable.
"It's a great opportunity to see what goes on at a university beyond education," he said. "A lot of people don't realize the research component of university programs. For undergraduates, it helps them explore learning outside of the classroom as well as apply what they have learned inside the classroom."