PROCEEDINGS OF A CONVENTION OF AGRICULTURISTS. p. 104-107 (1882)

IMPROVEMENT OF THE CEREALS

By MR. BLOUNT, OF COLORADO.

At the present day the cereals, under the common mode of cultivation, yield only about seven-sixteenths of their real capacity within the cereal belt of our country. Were the whole area of the United States included, the maximum yield would stand at a much lower figure.

Wheat, oats, corn, barley, rye, and rice constitute our cereals.

Corn and oats are not particular where they are planted; they will grow and try to make something. They are really indigenous to every State; in fact, they flourish in all their beauty, luxuriance, and usefulness anywhere between tide-water and snowline.

Wheat, barley, rye, and rice are much more eccentric In their habits, preferring certain soils and climates to develop their essential properties for man and beast. * * *

The Great American Desert, which includes the agricultural portions of Colorado, is fast becoming the leading section, especially for wheat, oats, barley, and most of the vegetables. To raise these costs much less than elsewhere, the crop being much surer and the yield greater.

In the first place, up to this time, no fertilizers whatever have been used, the character of the soil and water being such as to preclude the necessity of this expense. Secondly, no loss is sustained from the effects of drought, the system of irrigation being so perfected that every crop of the wakeful farmer receives its due amount of moisture. The expense incurred by irrigation does not amount on an average to more than 50 to 500 per cent, of the losses sustained from drought and wet. The expense of preparing the soil, sowing, cultivation, and harvesting is less by 150 to 200 per cent. than in wooded sections. The yield, too, is much greater.

So far as their adaptation to soil and climate is concerned, as well as to the wants of man, corn heads the list. It possesses all the properties of the others, and more it has an abundance of oil and the power to resist all its enemies.

Wheat is full of eccentricities, made up of whims and freaks. In some sections it promises one day to make the farmer a millionaire; the next, these promises are all blasted by blasted heads and rusty blades. In money value, wheat is king; indeed, of so great value is it that corners are built upon it here and there, and large supplies are exported to the remotest ends of the world.

Corn is general and universal, reaching in its uses and provisions farther than all the rest.

Every man can raise corn, but every man cannot raise wheat. Now, it is a fact we all recognize that half a crop is not made in the cultivation of the cereals the country over. Why? Every one can give a reason. It is the object of this lecture to give mine in a few practical remarks.

Records and well-authenticated reports show that 102 bushels of wheat, sown broadcast, have been produced per acre (I. S. Ray, Montana); that 108 bushels by special culture (F. F. Hallet, England); that 791 pounds from one pound of seed (A. I. Scoggins); that 1,800 pounds from one sown (A. E. Blount); and that 576,810 grains, per 47 pounds and 7 ounces, have been produced from one grain, by division, resetting, and cultivation (C. Miller, Cambridge).

Records also show that 206 bushels of shelled corn have been raised on one acre (C. J. Cox, Selma, Alabama); that 64 ounces have been produced from one kernel (Compton); that 3 bushels and 9 pounds from 100 stalks (A. E. Blount); that 63 1/2 ounces on one single stalk (A. E. Blount). Now, if, with a little science and extra culture, the capacity of wheat and corn can be strained up to these figures, is there not room for doubling the averages by the ordinary method of cultivation.

It is hardly necessary to say that there is ample room. It is one of the strangest things to my mind why this gaping chasm has not long ago been bridged. In the first place I shall attempt to show where the first abutment should be put in, taking wheat to begin with. Seed wheat as generally used now-a-days is hardly fit for chicken feed, say nothing of using it for seed. It is degenerate, impure, imperfect, full of parasitic fungi and simply ruinous to the farmer and to our health,

Up to this date there are in the United States over 350 different varieties of spring and winter wheats; among all these that have become standards are found typical and genuine grain, true to name—which any farmer with an eye to improvement and profit must see in his ripening crop. This genuine grain, which is always found in the largest stools—those that come up evenly together and ripen uniformly, he should select and pick himself and sow on choice land, cultivate, harvest, and put away under lock and key to be again sown, cultivated, and harvested by himself, that no meddling can interfere and no mixing can take place.

"He who by the plow would thrive,
Himself must either hold or drive."

This is the first abutment I would put in the bridge, the first step toward perfecting a wheat by the pedigree system, the same system adopted by F. F. Hallet and many other intelligent and successful wheat growers of our own country.

By following the rules by which it is successfully carried out and observing the natural laws that govern vegetable growth wheat can be made to double the length of the head, increase the grain 100 per cent., its powers as much, and its quality will be so greatly improved that one will hardly recognize it as being the same kind after three years' improvement.

To breed up a wheat (if I may use the expression) to a degree that will develop its full power is a work almost any observing farmer can carry out. It is not a laborious task but one of persistent effort, and therefore one of great profit.

In carrying out this system in the improvement of wheats, I adopt nearly the same rules and laws that govern stock-men in breeding in-and-in. The pedigree system does not in any way create new varieties; it only improves, making two blades, as well as two grains, grow where but a poor individual grew before.

The system of cross-breeding is by far the better of the two, from the fact that wheats can be made to suit any soil and climate as well as to contain any or all the elements essential to success in the field and in the mill. The operation of crossing one wheat upon another is comparatively easy. But the work to be done before and after crossing requires much tact and calls into requisition all one knows of vegetable physiology and the art of combining elements.

One must be well acquainted with the character, habits, elements, and strength of the two varieties to be crossed before breeding in order to know what properties to develop and what habits to discard. He must know the strength of the female as to her power to reject the enemies that infest wheat, and he must know the quality of the male as to the grain. After the cross has been effected the same knowledge is necessary, but it must be exercised with greater force and discrimination and with severer tests, that the offspring containing the better qualities may be nourished and the worthless rejected. In the operation of crossing there doss not appear to be much science; anybody can cross two wheats, and may succeed in producing a pretty good variety once in one thousand trials; in some respects he may obtain the qualities desired, but it will be an accident.

The effects of crossing wheats are wonderful; sometimes so wonderfully disappointing that the experimenter is astonished at the outcroppings. For instance, a smooth wheat is crossed upon a bearded, or rice versa. The experimenter is in a quandary when he beholds the result to know whether he or nature could have been at fault in bringing out such a mingled muses of ingredients. As the heads begin to issue from the sheaves he is dismayed at the irregularity, the appearance of such a diversity of forms. There are heads of various lengths and various shapes—some bearded and some smooth, some half around and some half smooth, some like both parents and some like neither. The straw, and leaves, and chaff, too, are completely transformed, possessing the characteristics of both parents, besides some elements more likely to have belonged to the dark ages. The grain as well undergoes changes least thought of. They seem to have been jostled together in complete confusion, struggling to see which, the higher or lower, characteristics shall get the ascendancy. In the midst of this combination of forces reversion plays a very active part. The tendency backward is greater than the tendency forward.

The offspring being now in his hand, the experimenter is again compelled to bring science to his aid in selection. All grain possessed of bad and undesirable qualities is rejected, and the good is sifted and tested again and again. Tests are applied for starch and other elements to obtain its status as a milling wheat. The farmer, too, must be satisfied. He must raise it under different circumstances, in different soils, in different climates, for ten years before he can tell whether or not it is a profitable kind for him to raise.

This medley of circumstances taxes the sharpest eye and calls to the work chemical skill that we may know with what properties we are dealing.

On account of the difficulties attending all this work the crossing has been called by some hybridization—a misnomer.

Improvement of wheat in this line is attended with much patience, care, and skill. After the offspring have been brought out they are subjected to much severer tests. All having no fixed color or form are rejected, and those having the desired characteristics and qualities are again tested, &c. Sometimes an experiment can be satisfied in three years by the wheat becoming "fixed;" sometimes it takes four and even ten years to combine all the properties in their proper proportions. My note book shows the fact that some varieties will easily cross one upon another, but will not cross another upon one. For instance, foreign wheats cross readily upon ours, but ours fail to effect a cross upon them.

I am aware that many theoretical writers—and among them I find one or two botanists—are of the opinion that new varieties of those cereals—called hermaphrodite—can be made by selection. James S. Lippincott, of New York, in an extended article on the geography of plants (Agricultural Report 1863, 464), takes that ground also. Lindley, Klippart, Manud, and Raynbird, entertain the same opinion. I cannot conceive of a new variety being produced within itself any more than in-and-in breeding produces a new race. As I have stated before, selection improves but never produces.

In making new wheats by crossing, I will state again a strong female should be selected as to stalk and blade, and as to the grain, a strong male. In other words, the female should have strong, stiff straw, well glazed, and good milling properties, and the male should be possessed of the same qualifications, with a grain that has at least 19 to 14 per cent, gluten. Now, in all this work, especially in that pertaining to the improvement of wheat by the pedigree system, there is one serious drawback, not noticeable alone in the cereals, but in all improved vegetables and seeds. Every advance forward in line of improvement opens the door to a ruinous deterioration—that is, when highly improved grain is put into the hands of the common farmer, who never cares from what source his seed comes, how it is saved, or of what kind it is, retrogression is certain. Neglect and bad management at that crib, as well as at the stock-pen, always stand prominent. The most highly improved and finest grain has a tendency to revert to the original-yes, and back still further will it decline if a single loophole is left open. * * * Both Von Krous and Knight believed in the degeneracy of plants. The former believed they tended to revert to their original state, while Knight believed in absolute decay. Knight believed that plants would cease by a natural statute of limitation. Von Krous believed they only fell from grace.

In the system of cross-breeding this is not the case, or at least, deterioration is not so rapid and ruinous. Crosses, or hybrids as they are called, when once fixed, retain their  powers and good qualities many years, even when badly handled. Hundreds of English wheat growers condemned Hallett's pedigree wheat because they said "That while he doubled the yield, the grain was proportionably coarser, and the flour inferior."

In our own country this may give rise to the question whether it is better to strive to double our crops with the prospect of making them coarser staring us in the face, or content ourselves with the trifling average now reported. For one, I am by no means satisfied with small yields and poor quality. When I cross wheats or corn, I always intend to take all the bearings beforehand, in order that the acre that produces 40 bushels will yield as good quality as the acre that makes 5. * * *

Inasmuch as a great work is left in the natural world for man to do, I intend in all my experiments to make art outmaster nature in this line.

It is the same in the vegetable kingdom as in the animal—the poorer and coarser the individual, the more prolific when neglected and permitted to revert or run wild. For instance, when the Australian wheat was introduced into Colorado, it produced well and made most excellent flour. Now, it produces more and the flour is third or fourth grade, the gluten having decreased to but 7 per cent. On the other hand the hybrid standards are, in the hands of skillful farmers, producing 30 to 60 bushels per acre of the finest of grain for field and mill.

You will now ask what is obtained by all this labor. I answer, much! Please examine and test the flour of to-day made from the hard wheats like the Fife Defiance, Russian, Mexican, Pringle's and Arnold's Hybrids, Oregon Club, and others, and the flour of the old Mediterranean, Diehl, Gennesee, and others of 1850, and I can assure you that where skillful and scientific hands have had the management of the standards the flour is 100 to 500 per cent. better, and the wheats as much in all respects.

One word more about wheat. Enough wheat is wasted in thick-seeding to supply the whole wheat-growing population the year round. Repeated experiments in Europe and in our own country have proved beyond a doubt that every pound of wheat sown can be made to produce a bushel—in other words, that 30 pounds the country over is enough seed for any acre, if put in properly and sown at the right time. I am aware that there are many opposed tot thin seeding, nevertheless the physiological makeup of the wheat-plant, its nature and habits plainly show that it must have room to develop its powers (the greatest enemy to wheat is wheat), hence in all cases under favorable circumstances, thin seeding has never failed to produce greater returns than thick. So far as the cultivation of wheat is concerned, my experience shows that on an average one cultivation will produce enough more grain to pay for the extra labor twice over.

Of corn but a few remarks by way of improvement. Professor Beal, in his admirable lecture on Indian corn, has covered the whole ground of its history, utility, and culture. In addition, I would mention a few items of interest.

Wheat, as I have already stated, is hermaphrodite or bisexual, having both stamens and pistils in the same flower and on the plant, while corn is monoecious, having the stamens in one flower (tassel) and the pistils in another (silk), both on the same plant. Exposed as these generative organs are, the plant flowers easily and is fertilized by the agency of insects, wind, and force of gravity. In wheat, mechanical means have to be used to produce a cross, but in corn mechanical means have to be used to prevent crossing.

The ease with which all corn mixes has produced varieties without number, in fact it may be said there are none pure, none genuine, none true to name. There is no limit to the changes that can be made upon corn.

By selection, as in wheat, the stalks can be made shorter or taller and more uniform, the blade more symmetrical and regular, the shanks less objectionable and more limited, the husk wider and longer, the cob smaller and stiffer, the grain more regular and uniform, and the habits of the corn much better in adapting itself to soils and localities.

By crossing one upon another kind the color, texture, form, quality, and the whole individual can be changed by the experimenter. For instance, should a mongrel be wanted four kernels of different varieties can be planted near together, one kernel white dent, one yellow dent, one kernel pop-corn, and one sugar. Should all these four kinds tassel and silk at the same time, each would be fertilized by the pollen of its three neighbors, but not by its own, making thereby the offspring a mixture in proportion to the amount and strength of pollen received from the other three. On neither kind would there be found a single kernel exactly like either of the four planted, from the fact that corn does not generally fertilize itself. No one variety can be made to suit all localities on account of its habits. The farther north corn is raised the shorter the stalk and the more flinty the grain; while the further south the taller the corn and the softer the grain. Should these two extremes be united the means would include New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and so on to the east line of the Great American Desert. This belt constitutes the section in which corn can be raised to the best advantage, at the least cost, and at the greatest profit. Corn can be improved in many ways. First, by making use of seed properly selected.

All seed-corn should be selected in the field, because there and there only is it possible to obtain the seed true to name, and possessed of the desired characteristics. Only in the field can perfected ears and perfected stalks be found together. Seed-corn should be taken from different parts of the field, to make the relation as remote as possible. Seed-corn should be picked from those stalks that bear the greatest number of ears, to make it more prolific.

Seed-corn should always be selected from the top ear of those stalks that bear the largest number, because on the top ear is always found the genuine typical grain, the other ears below not having developed sufficiently to produce good seed on account of an insufficient amount of pollen. Seed-corn should always be saved from those stalks that ripen earliest, to make the season of its maturity as short as possible.

Seed-corn should be taken from well-formed ears, tapering uniformly, with straight rows, because they are more easily and better protected by the husk, and bear more grain in regular than in irregular and crooked rows. In breeding corn in-and-in every ear designed for the propagation of the species intact, should be protected by a covering of thin muslin before the silk appears, to keep insects and the pollen of foreign and barren stalks away.

The difference in planting corn selected in this manner, and that taken from the crib, is wonderful and wide. A hundred per cent. in favor of the selected seed has been reported in hundreds of cases, prominent among which are the experiments of E. S. Carom [Carman], of the Rural New Yorker, Dr. Sturtevant, of Massachusetts, and others.

In every cornfield is found an enemy too little noticed by almost all farmers. It comes in the shape of corn itself; is ruinous and baneful in the extreme. This enemy is seen in all parts of the crop in the shape of thrifty stalks without ears—barren stalks, they are called.

The pollen, which is very abundant, degrades every ear it fertilizes. Being so abundant it is distributed far and wide, and its deteriorating effects are plainly seen year after year more and more. The careful and vigilant husbandman is aware of the deleterious effects of these intruders, and at an early stage cuts them away.

Oats, barley, rye, and rice claim none of our attention at this time. Oats, barley, and rye grow so easily, so naturally in most sections, and are so prolific, that time spent on improving them may not be so well spent as upon the more valuable and finer cereals. In Colorado 70 to 90 bushels of oats are frequently raised per acre, and what is better, they weigh 40 to 50 pounds per bushel. In the Rocky Mountains, just above us, rye grows wild. Two rows barley produces from 40 to 50 bushels per acre, and is so little in demand that attention given to its improvement, we think, is wasted.

Upland rice received from Japan is now being raised successfully in many sections, and will pay, I think, in some localities.

Much more might be said upon cross-breeding and hybridizing, but they are not within the province of this essay.