Farmers reap benefits of herbicide-tolerant wheat developed at CSU
By Anne Manning
Video by Savannah Waggoner
Published Aug. 7, 2019
CSU researchers Todd Gaines and Eric Westra on the story behind the CoAxium Wheat Production System.
A powerful new tool for farm profitability
Just under a decade ago, Colorado State University scientists identified a genetic trait in wheat that would make the plants tolerant to a particular herbicide. They found that spraying the herbicide would kill crop-destroying weeds while leaving wheat untouched.
Today, that trait, coupled with the herbicide, make up a patented, non-genetically modified wheat production system that gives wheat farmers a powerful new tool for profitability. It’s all the result of a longstanding partnership between Colorado wheat growers and CSU agricultural scientists, who over several decades have had a hand in developing varieties grown on nearly 80 percent of Colorado wheat acreage.
Last fall, the CoAXium® Wheat Production System became commercially available to farmers in Colorado, where more than 2 million acres of wheat grows across the eastern plains.
Bringing CoAXium out of the laboratory and into the hands of farmers exemplifies the fruitful partnership between CSU’s world-renowned Wheat Breeding and Genetics Program, and the expansive network of wheat growers in the state. CSU has received funding and expertise from the Colorado Wheat Administrative Committee since the 1960s, and from the Colorado Wheat Research Foundation since the 1990s, for research, extension, training and commercialization of wheat products. The partnership is now in the midst of a 10-year renewal agreed upon in 2016.
“The interesting thing about the CoAXium® Wheat Production System is that the idea came from the Colorado wheat growers themselves,” said Todd Gaines, a molecular weed scientist who, together with CSU weed scientist Phil Westra, helped develop CoAXium. While farmers had already been using an herbicide resistance system called Clearfield® – first released in 2001 in a CSU-developed wheat variety – they identified the need for diversity in weed management to stave off herbicide resistance issues.
That’s when CSU weed scientists, led by Westra, went to work developing a wheat plant with a mutation in a gene called ACCase that confers herbicide tolerance. They also identified a grass-specific herbicide, now named Aggressor®, that controls many problematic grass weeds like jointed goatgrass, downy brome and feral rye.
The weed scientists engaged with CSU’s Wheat Breeding and Genetics Program to characterize the mutation at the DNA level and provide validation that the mutation was indeed responsible for the herbicide tolerance. Using state-of-the-art breeding technologies, and accelerated seed increases in Yuma, Arizona, the breeding program rapidly developed a wheat variety both adapted to Colorado’s environment and able to tolerate the herbicide. The result is the CoAXium® Wheat Production System, which pairs the AXigen® tolerance trait with Aggressor herbicide, made by the company Albaugh.
“We were excited to bring this new wheat technology to farmers as quickly as we could, so we used all of our available tools and resources to make that happen,” said Scott Haley, professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and project leader of the Wheat Breeding and Genetics Program.
Rotating CoAXium and Clearfield management systems will allow farmers to switch between herbicide modes of action, extending the utility and longevity of their crops.
“[Colorado Wheat Research Foundation] is proud to be introducing CoAXium wheat varieties in the PlainsGold brand to farmers across the High Plains, as well as to be partnered with Albaugh and Limagrain to market this system to wheat farmers across the U.S., and hopefully in other countries in the near future,” said Brad Erker, executive director of Colorado Wheat.
This summer, CSU, Colorado Wheat Research Foundation and Albaugh partnered to invite over 100 wheat growers to a field day at the Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center (ARDEC). The event’s purpose was to provide education, training and demonstrations of the CoAXium system.
“I really think growers being able to see the performance firsthand … is extremely beneficial to adoption,” said Eric Westra, a research associate in the Department of Bioagricultural Sciences and Pest Management who led field day demonstrations.
Bringing CoAXium to market is a shining example of CSU’s land-grant roots in service and extension, Gaines said. The university’s close partnership with Colorado Wheat Research Foundation makes targeted innovation, research and commercialization possible.
“This technology is owned by the wheat growers of Colorado,” Gaines said.