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Do-it-yourself plant breeding

Jim Dyck’s new oat varieties have been a decade in the making, but his hard work is about to pay off

If there are any oat producers who haven’t heard of Jim Dyck, that’s soon going to change.

Jim and his wife Laura-Lee, who farm near Saskatoon, are the owners of Oat Advantage, one of few private plant breeding businesses in Western Canada. This spring, their first registered oat varieties, ORe3541M and ORe3542M, will be marketed by SeCan. There’s enough seed for about 100,000 acres this year, says Dyck, and excitement is building.

ORe3541M and ORe3542M are unique. Along with good agronomic qualities, including high yields as well as standability and ease of harvest management, both varieties demonstrate excellent milling quality — including kernel plumpness and improved kernel uniformity — which have not always been top priorities in oat breeding programs. Further test milling of both varieties will be conducted by oat millers this year.

The plant breeding process for these two varieties, from first crosses to seed ready for farmers’ fields, has taken a decade and cost Dyck a small fortune. “My wife and I sort of joke that we really haven’t paid ourselves yet,” says Dyck.

The Dycks’ operation began without external investment or government funding. Dyck says costs quickly reached $200,000 per year, and since the beginning he and Laura-Lee have done all the work themselves. This stands in major contrast to big public or private breeding programs with large in-house teams and diverse revenue streams.

The Dyck family Oat Advantage crew. L-R:  Elena, Lauren, Graeme, Laura-Lee, Jim and Colin.
photo: Supplied

“Those are the realities of scale for us, but of course we are a startup company,” says Dyck.

But despite the high costs involved in private plant breeding, there can be many ways to get involved, he says.

“If you came from a farming background and got into plant breeding, you may have land and equipment already in place,” Dyck says. “That would be a huge leap forward in reducing startup costs. Then it is just the time that you have to put in and the vision for what you could achieve. There are also people who are plant breeding on the side while they have a regular job. It is slow going, but success does happen.”

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“That being said, plant breeding is very long term. If one full cycle takes a decade, and if you aren’t successful early, how does one go on? It is still a big risk if you are fully dependent on the venture, like we are. There is no steady paycheque.”

First paycheque

Dyck’s first significant paycheque from oat breeding will come from certified seed sales in 2019, to the tune of about $.75/acre — meaning that if Oat Advantage’s seed reaches 100,000 acres, the company will have made its first step toward paying for a decade’s worth of work. If Oat Advantage can get to 300,000 acres of certified seed sales, the company will break even and begin to reduce debt and expand its oat research business.

Craig Riddell of Warren, Man., with a field of ORe3542M oats in 2017. Riddell was the first grower to produce Dyck’s seed through SeCan.
photo: Supplied

Jim and Laura-Lee’s two new varieties should offer oat producers an edge in the field and at the elevator. Ultimately, the cents per acre that Dyck earns will go directly into building the business — and developing even better varieties.

10-year plans

Jim and Laura-Lee aren’t just sitting around waiting for ORe3541M and ORe3542M to pay off. With the help of their four children, Lauren (24), Elena (22), Graeme (18) and Colin (16), they’ve started new 10-year plant breeding cycles for potential new varieties, every year they’ve been in business — some of which should also reach the market in the next few years.

Dyck says touring farms across Western Canada, where his two new varieties were grown out in 2017 and 2018, was a particular source of satisfaction after so many years in development. He’s in it to make a living, but also for the joy of plant breeding and the gratification that comes from talking to farmers and responding to their needs in the field.

“Finally in 2019, we’re at the point where this is happening, we’ll have all this seed in farmers’ hands,” says Dyck. “The data we have from our own farm, and from the Co-op — it showed the good aspects of these varieties, and we’ve had big yields and beautiful grain. 2019 is our year to find out how things turn out.”

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