It is no secret to anyone in Texas that 2011 has been dry, windy and hot. Therefore, it came as no surprise in early August when Texas State Climatologist Dr. John Nielson-Gammon declared 2011 to be the most severe one-year drought on record. In fact, data from the National Climatic Data Center labeled July 2011 as the warmest month ever recorded statewide.

Raging wildfires, damage-inducing winds and scorching temperatures have all combined to deplete any remaining soil moisture throughout the state. To further complicate the situation, wheat producers should be preparing to plant wheat seed in hopes of growing those often-referenced amber waves of grain, but most find themselves at a standoff with Mother Nature.

“Right now we are preparing our fields to plant wheat, but we will not plant unless we get significant rain,” said Jack Norman, a wheat producer in Howe, Texas.

Norman’s region could be described as one of the “lucky ones”. The area received enough rainfall to plant and establish a decent wheat crop for 2011 until the middle of May when the rain faucet shut off.

“We have cracks in the ground so large you could get lost in them,” said Norman.

Norman’s situation is not unique; producers across the state are holding off on planting their acres in hopes of rain. In the Panhandle and Rolling Plains region, where dual-purpose wheat is very popular, the delay in planting is causing even more heartburn.

The prospects for wheat grazing this fall are almost completely gone and cattle producers are left with few options as the drought and wildfires have led to a shortage of grass and hay.

Texas Drought Monitor Map

With the current state of drought still crippling the state it is hard to find a silver lining, but advancements in wheat research may be the answer.

According to Jackie Rudd, the Texas AgriLife project leader of the hard winter wheat breeding program, the unique growing conditions of 2011 provided excellent results for drought-tolerance research.

“We have an excellent research team that took full advantage of this year’s extreme drought and high temperatures,” Rudd said. “This research WILL lead to increased heat and drought tolerance in wheat”.

Several common varieties now available have drought and/or heat tolerance within their genetic makeup. In fact, TAM 111 and TAM 112, two of the most popular varieties in the High Plains, boast superior performance in drought conditions although they have different mechanisms for managing the stress. One variety has a deeper root structure and can better utilize deep soil moisture, while the other simply uses water more efficiently.

Despite significant advances in wheat breeding technology, even wheat breeders like Rudd prefer to see genetic performance in the field, not under a microscope.

“The best way to evaluate drought performance is to grow wheat at many locations under drought stress,” said Rudd. “We have to see the product in the field.”

This year, the research team was able to coordinate a grow out of several key varieties under varying levels of irrigation without the interference of rainfall. The absence of precipitation allowed the team to record yields which ranged from 10 bushels per acre to 66 bushels per acre based on irrigation levels alone. The data obtained from the trial will be an essential piece of the puzzle in further drought-related research.

“We will continue to make incremental gains through traditional breeding techniques,” said Rudd, “especially with the data we collected this year.”

Texas AgriLife Research and the Texas Wheat Producers Board have worked together for years to coordinate and fund wheat drought-tolerance research. Currently there are more than 35 scientists and support scientists working on wheat heat and drought-tolerance in Texas.

Although most wheat growers won’t look back on the past year with fond memories, progress has been made and wheat producers are now one step closer to better-performing, more consistent wheat genetics.