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Wheat’s turn to shine

Despite shrinking government support in recent years, there have been remarkable research payoffs, and new investments promise even more

High prices have made some of the advances in canola yields look pretty good in recent years, masking the fact that average Prairie wheat yield increases have been even higher. But with new private and public research investments and recognition that it’s not just a necessary part of the rotation, wheat is starting to grab more of the spotlight it deserves.

“Over the last 20 years we’ve seen a lot of growth in oilseeds and pulses, and now we see a tremendous opportunity for wheat going forward,” says Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC). “That’s why we are investing over $1 million of producer funds each year into wheat research and market development.”

A big factor as to why wheat is getting so much attention for research investment is the incredible advances in wheat genomics. Curtis Pozniak and his team at the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan led a global initiative which sequenced the bread wheat and durum wheat genomes in 2014.

“We’re excited about what it means in terms of Canadian capacity for genome-assisted, varietal development,” says Harvey Brooks, general manager of the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission (SWDC).

This genomic research is paving the way for marker-assisted breeding techniques to speed up variety development. It is contributing to the established public and private investment in breeding programs, which includes producer checkoff dollars from wheat commissions which have been established in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Research remains a priority

There is general recognition among researchers, governments, corporations and growers that agronomic research capacity has been declining in Western Canada, and wheat has been affected. As a result, there are several projects underway at public research centres, universities and independent breeding facilities across Western Canada. Many are still in their infancy, but it means growers can look forward to plenty of new agronomic information, as well as new varieties that offer better yields, increased tolerance to pests and diseases, and are better adapted to extreme weather. That could include a hybrid from Bayer’s new $24 million, wheat research facility south of Saskatoon.

Governments are investing in wheat, as are producers themselves. The wheat research cluster has received $25.2 million under Growing Forward 2, and core breeding and research programs at AAFC facilities and universities in all three provinces have received an additional $12.2 million of farmers’ checkoff dollars through the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF).

Although there is some co-ordination and co-funding of research by the three Prairie wheat commissions, each province has also established its own priorities, with fusarium head blight management and prevention near the top of the list for all three.

The Manitoba Wheat and Barley Association is involved in more than 20 research projects, and is also working directly with farmers and agronomists in on-farm trials.

“There is good research going on at universities and private companies in Canada, and we will continue to support and encourage that. On-farm trials are a way for farmers to assess ideas on their own land with their commercial scale equipment, so we have started an on-farm research program,” says Lori-Ann Kaminski, research manager for MWBGA.

“We started this year with nitrogen use efficiency trials. Some of our new wheat varieties have a higher yield potential, so we wanted to support some of the plot research work with on-farm trials to try and understand where that sweet spot is for nitrogen to target high yields and protein.” Kaminski says their research is trying to find a way to help farmers make the call when it’s economic to add nitrogen to increase protein levels based on weather and price cues during the growing season.

Not “just” rotation

Recent years of relatively low prices have prompted some farmers to dismiss wheat only as a requirement in the rotation. But researchers and agronomists now say that wheat is more than a necessary evil.

Kaminski says wheat and barley in rotations will become increasingly important to combat weed resistance.

“Wheat and barley, as small grains, are very competitive. They’re well adapted and give us an opportunity in the rotation to potentially control some weeds that are getting out of control in other crops.”

“Everybody can’t go out and plant all their land to the crop that has the highest expected return in any particular year; we need a balanced rotation,” says the SWDC’s Brooks. “Clearly there are rotational issues such as herbicide resistance and disease that will become increasingly important as we go forward. It’s our job to make sure that wheat figures more competitively into that calculation and keeps pace with other crops in terms of yield, quality and hardiness.”

The AWC’s Auch agrees.

“Wheat wants to grow on the Prairies; it fits into the climate and soils that we have. If you do the right things you can do well with wheat.”

Doing the right things includes choosing varieties with good genetics, seeding at the right time and putting the right amount of fertilizer in the right place, says Auch.

“By having a good, diverse crop rotation I’m also rotating my pesticides and herbicides,” he adds. “I don’t use a lot of insecticide, and I’m not seeing some of the resistance that we’re seeing across the Prairies to wild oats and other weeds because I’ve got a good, healthy rotation.”

Other research priorities

Saskatchewan grows most of the durum wheat in Canada, so it’s not surprising that the SWDC and SeCan are jointly investing up to $3.5 million in the CDC’s durum development program over the next ten years.

“We’re trying to catch up on durum in terms of some disease resistance, particularly to FHB, and try and get higher yields, maintain the desirable end-use traits that are prized by users around the world, and make sure that producers can grow varieties that are more resistant to some of the pathogens and pests that they see out in their fields now,” says Brooks.

The AWC is funding a project with Alberta Agriculture & Forestry looking at the impact of fertilizer and fungicide rates and timing on yield of different varieties of wheat, as well as assessing the effect of plant growth regulators to improve standability.

Other research priorities include disease and pest resistance to things such as wheat midge, as well as developing varieties with better cold tolerance.

AWC is also partnering with Canterra Seeds and AAFC’s Lethbridge Research Centre to develop improved varieties of Canada Prairie Spring Red wheat.

“It’s the first partnership of its kind which matches private sector and producer dollars with public investment,” says the AWC’s Steve.

Canterra also has a new cereal breeding and development partnership with French farmer co-operative Limagrain, and will build a facility in Saskatoon.

The newly formed Cereals Canada acts as a co-ordinator and facilitator for the cereal industry to come together on initiatives of common interest to the whole value chain.

There is a strong focus on market development and support. Cereals Canada participates — along with the Canadian Grain Commission and Canadian International Grains Institute — in annual, new crop missions worldwide.

“We bring the entire Canadian value chain to meet with our customers, provide them with technical information, and get their feedback on things that perhaps maybe we can do better,” says Cereals Canada president Cam Dahl.

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