Triticale was introduced to Canada in the 1960s and got a bit of extra fanfare from a mention in the famous Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles.” Interest soon waned, but the wheat-rye hybrid is now getting some renewed attention as a versatile crop with potential for grain, forage and ethanol production.
Breeding programs in Alberta have married Canadian and European germplasm to produce both winter and spring varieties that are cold tolerant, high yielding, earlier maturing and shorter for better grain production, and with improved digestibility and smaller awns for forage uses.
Alberta and Saskatchewan farmers grow most of Canada’s triticale, and seeded acres have increased more than 75 per cent in the past four years, from around 45,000 acres in 2012 to just over 80,000 in 2015.
Triticale for grain
New spring varieties include Brevis, Sunray, Tyndal, Bunker, Pronghorn, Ultima and Taza, which are high yielding and have a number of other production advantages that make them suitable for either grain or silage.
“These varieties typically yield 10 to 15 per cent higher than wheat,” says Mazen Aljarrah, a plant breeder at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s (AAF) Feed Crops Branch.
“We have made them earlier maturing because that was an issue for farmers in the past who wanted to grow triticale for grain. We also reduced the height so growers can avoid lodging in high-moisture areas, and they can apply higher levels of nitrogen to push the yield because it won’t lodge. It’s also fairly drought tolerant and will yield better than wheat even in dry conditions.”
Triticale is also highly disease resistant.
“One of the major advantages of growing triticale in Western Canada is we don’t have any problems with diseases, so farmers don’t need to apply fungicides, which lowers their production cost,” says Aljarrah, adding that it’s also a good crop to add to a rotation to break disease cycles.
New varieties have dramatically improved resistance to ergot by introducing some specific genetic traits from wheat. “Wheat is completely self-pollinated and this is why it has less ergot. Triticale is still five to 10 per cent open pollinated but by crossing it to wheat and then backcrossing it to triticale we have improved ergot resistance,” says Aljarrah.
Winter varieties are also earlier maturing to make them more attractive for grain production, and also to offer the potential for double cropping.
“One of the things I am trying to facilitate through my breeding program is to make triticale head out earlier, similar to rye, so farmers could grow it and take it off as silage and then go in with another crop afterwards,” says Dr. Jamie Larsen, a rye and triticale breeder with AAFC in Lethbridge.
By reducing the height of new triticale varieties and maintaining a high leaf-stem ratio, breeders have improved their digestibility and dry matter yield.
“In our trials over many years we have always produced 15 to 20 per cent more dry matter yield over barley with these triticale varieties,” says Aljarrah. “The quality is very comparable to barley, so triticale is very promising for silage.”
Triticale is also showing promise to help producers extend the grazing season. New varieties have reduced awn, which makes them more suitable for swath grazing.
“Triticale has tremendous potential for swath grazing because of its high yield and because it meets the nutritional requirements of over-wintering cows,” says Vern Baron, a forage research scientist at AAFC Lacombe. “By using triticale we have reduced the daily cost of winter feeding compared to barley substantially.”
Baron’s swath grazing trials assessed the costs of winter feeding 100 cows for 100 days on triticale versus barley and corn over the cost of feeding the same number of animals for the same time in a confined feeding system such as a yard or feedlot. The study found that using barley for swath grazing saved about $7,400, and using corn saved around $9,000 over the 100 days.
“With triticale, because of its high yield and carrying capacity the savings were $12,000. On a percentage basis we are saving 61 per cent by swath grazing triticale over the cost of feeding hay at a confined site.”
Planting winter varieties in June
When winter triticale varieties are planted early in the season they can also provide additional options to help producers lower feed and handling costs by developing a year-round grazing system.
“Normally winter triticale is planted the last week of August or first week of September for grain production,” says Baron. “To get a lot of green biomass we’re planting winter triticale as early as the first week of June, which gives high-quality, mid-season pasture in late July when the perennial pastures that were grazed in May or June are decreasing their productivity. This allows the perennial pastures to rest long enough to allow regrowth, so a producer has stockpiled grass for September and October.”
Farmers should also plant spring triticale for swath grazing around the first part of June, so it can be swathed in mid-September and grazed in the swath from November on.
“In February and March the producer could switch to bale grazing. There’s a whole chain of things which can be used to lower the cost of harvesting, hauling, processing, manure removal at a feeding site,” says Baron.
Industrial and other markets
Varieties such as Brevis and Sunray have higher levels of starch and lower protein, which is perfect for ethanol production. A 10-year Canadian Triticale Biorefinery Initiative looked at ways to develop triticale as a bio-industrial crop for ethanol production. (See accompanying story).
Triticale probably won’t be showing up as a major ingredient in the bread aisle any time soon, because it has poor falling numbers and isn’t generally suitable for milling. There are some Canadian breeders, however, who are working with varieties from California and Europe that have better bread-making qualities to see whether they can be adapted for Western Canada. “Triticale will never take over from wheat but if it could be blended in, there is some interesting potential there because a lot of small bakeries are trying different things,” says Larsen.
The Alberta Beef Producers and AAF have launched the new Alberta Beef Forage and Grazing Centre this winter to provide research and extension information to producers on forage crops, including triticale.
AAF’s program will also release three to four new triticale varieties for registration next year that have five to 10 per cent higher yields than Brevis, currently the highest yielder. As new varieties come to market, and new uses emerge, triticale could become a viable option as a high yielding, low-input crop for more prairie farmers.
New uses for triticale
Since triticale has a higher yield and starch content than wheat, it has attracted interest for other uses such as ethanol production, chemicals, biomaterials and biocomposites.
The Canadian Triticale Biorefinery Initiative (CTBI) is a 10-year program to develop triticale as a dedicated bio-industrial crop. It has looked at these potential uses as well as at its dried distillers grain as a potential feed for livestock.
Another project assessed the energy potential of using triticale straw and distillers grain from ethanol production to generate energy via an anaerobic digestion system. Research found that electricity generated from triticale straw would cost between $75 and $90 per megawatt-hour to produce, thanks to the high biomass yield of the crop. The optimum size for a power plant would be 250 to 300 megawatts to remain economically feasible.
Other projects looked at alternate uses for triticale fibre, such as a replacement for wood or flax fibre to reinforce petroleum-based polymers and to create products ranging from car parts to fast-food packaging.
New triticale cultivars developed as part of the BCTI have specific starch profiles making them better for ethanol or bioplastic production, and breeders continue to work on developing winter triticale varieties with higher yields, improved pest resistance and enhanced starch content.
“The best success of triticale remains in the feed and grazing end-uses,” says François Eudes of AAFC’s Research Centre at Lethbridge, who was a lead researcher with the CTBI. “Future research will look at improving the agronomics such as maturity and yield, and attributes such as fibre digestibility, reduced lignin and high starch yield to further improve its competitiveness in new markets, while meeting the needs of the feed market.”