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Developing new seed varieties for better crops

Reducing risk for the entire grain industry is key to variety development

durum wheat kernels

It’s not easy growing grain for a living. Between bad weather, plant disease, insects, rising input costs and fluctuating markets, it can be tough to make a buck.

That’s why new seed varieties are so important to Canadian wheat growers, says Ron DePauw, a senior wheat breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s, Semi-Arid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre (SPARC) in Swift Current, Sask.

When a new wheat variety comes along that offers higher yields, better insect resistance, improved disease tolerance and enhanced end-use quality, farmers and processors are quick to sit up and take notice.

“I would say that our priorities (at SPARC) are very much about ensuring profitability and net returns for the industry,” says DePauw.

“To achieve that, there’s got to be a reduction of business risk for the producer as well as the processor.”

Reducing production risk is a guiding principle for SPARC’s breeding programs. Not long after the Swift Current research station hired its first agronomists and wheat breeders in the early 1900s, it began churning out improved cereal varieties that produced higher yields, better quality and bigger farm profits.

The hard red spring wheat variety AC Barrie is a good example of how SPARC’s work has benefited the industry. Of the 50 or so wheat varieties that have been developed or co-developed by researchers at AAFC Swift Current over the years, AC Barrie was arguably the most valuable.

Not long after it was registered in 1994, AC Barrie quickly became the most widely grown wheat variety in Canada.

According to wheat industry estimates, it was grown on more than 41 million acres between 1998 and 2005.

For eight years in a row, it was the most popular wheat variety grown in the country. During that time, AC Barrie boosted Canadian farm incomes by an estimated $800 million, over and above what farmers would have earned growing any other HRSW variety that was commercially available at the time.

According to DePauw, who co-developed the variety along with AAFC colleagues Tom McCaig, John Clarke, Grant McLeod, Myriam Fernandez and Ron Knox, AC Barrie’s promise of higher yields, improved fusarium resistance, better agronomics and consistently high protein levels made it a favourite among farmers, processors and bakers alike.

As proof of its value to the Canadian farm economy, AC Barrie was named Canadian Seed of the Year in 2007.

“In the hard red spring wheat class, AC Barrie really resulted in a paradigm shift,” says DePauw. “As a team we were able to incorporate near-infrared technology into our breeding program… and develop a new variety that represented a whole new plant, with better water use efficiency, better nitrogen uptake… improvements in standability and improvements in disease resistance.”

Other new varieties to come out of SPARC have been equally impressive.

Lillian, developed in collaboration with scientists at the AAFC Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg, was the first solid-stemmed HRSW variety to offer protection against the wheat stem sawfly, a tiny pest that has the potential to cost farmers millions of dollars in lost production each year.

The wheat stem sawfly deposits its eggs in the hollow stems of wheat plants where they feed and grow, eventually causing the plant’s stem to weaken and break off.

Unlike other popular HRSW varieties, Lillian’s stem has a solid pith that is not conducive to the development of sawfly larvae. “As a solid-stemmed wheat, Lillian was a high-yielding line with resistance to the wheat stem sawfly and it also had ‘very good’ leaf spot resistance and resistance to yellow rust,” DePauw says. “For the first time ever in Canada, a solid-stemmed wheat became the most widely grown wheat in the country, and that lasted from about 2007 or 2008 until 2011.”

Other notable varieties that were recently developed at SPARC include:

  • Carberry, a popular high-yielding spring wheat variety that offers improved resistance to fusarium head blight and other profit-eroding diseases;
  • Strongfield, a high-yielding, low-cadmium durum variety that was rated by international durum buyers as the best durum variety available to processors and pasta makers around the world;
  • AAC Raymore, the country’s first solid-stemmed durum variety which offers durum growers protection from the wheat stem sawfly and;
  • AAC Marchwell, the first durum variety ever to offer genetic resistance to the orange blossom wheat midge, another one of Western Canada’s most costly insect pests.

Richard Cuthbert, who has headed SPARC’s spring wheat-breeding program since 2011, thinks the strength of SPARC’s cereal-breeding programs is the result of dedicated people, good resources and stable long-term funding from organizations such as the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF).

“I think the biggest reason for SPARC’s success is a very focused approach and having access to long-term resources,” Cuthbert says. “We have the opportunity to do very good work because the resources available to us are probably some of the best in the world. That includes land base, specialized equipment that was designed and built right here in Swift Current and having a staff that’s very invested in the work.”

The importance of stable long-term funding — particularly investments by producers furnished through the WGRF cannot be overestimated, Cuthbert adds. “Long-term stable funding is key. If we’re constantly searching for… funding for next year’s work, we will not be as productive as we could be if we have long-term funding in place for longer blocks of time, say 10 years.”

SPARC research scientist Ruan Yuefeng agrees. Yuefeng was recently hired to take over SPARC’s highly successful durum wheat-breeding program, which has produced some of the world’s most productive, sought-after durum varieties.

Durum growers in Western Canada are facing many new production challenges that Yuefeng and his AAFC colleagues are hoping to tackle in the coming years. Top priorities for SPARC’s durum-breeding program are the development of new varieties with resistance to the orange blossom wheat midge and enhanced ratings for fusarium head blight.

Without stable funding and continued producer investments, those goals would be beyond SPARC’s reach. “I think farmer investment is very important,” says Yuefeng, who joined SPARC’s breeding and research team earlier this year. “Plant breeding is very expensive so we need farmers to support our programs.”

According to DePauw and Cuthbert, farmers need new high-quality varieties that produce bigger yields at a lower cost.

Improving nutrient-use and water-use efficiency will be critical. At the same time, protein content and other end-use quality parameters must be maintained.

One of the biggest challenges is to develop varieties that produce well across environmental conditions and regions, a concept known as plant plasticity. With changing environmental conditions and rapidly evolving insect and disease pressures, it has never been more important.

“Our No. 1 priority is to reduce business risk for producers,” Cuthbert says. “That means developing varieties that offer higher stable yields, improving the standability of crops, improving the threshability of crops and having very good genetic disease-resistance packages built in.”

“When a new variety comes off the shelf,” Cuthbert says, “producers need to know that it will perform well across environments and across years.”

This article was originally published as “Variety show” in the January 2015 issue of Country Guide

Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) is a farmer-funded and -directed non-profit organization investing primarily in wheat and barley variety development for the benefit of western Canadian producers. Through investments of more than $57 million, WGRF has assisted in the development and release of more than 100 new wheat and barley varieties over the past decade and a half, many of which are today seeded to large portions of the cropland in Western Canada. WGRF also invests in research on other western Canadian crops through the endowment fund. In fact, since 1981 the WGRF endowment fund has supported a wealth of innovation across Western Canada, providing over $26 million in funding for over 230 diverse research projects.

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