Cereal production in Ontario has taken a definite hit in the past couple of years. Winter wheat acres have dropped off, mostly because of poor planting conditions in the fall of 2013
and 2014, and other cereals, including oats and barley, have lost momentum and are now grown mainly by farmers who like them either as feed or as a small-scale contract market.
For rye, too, the opportunities have been sparse, although you might say they have even been tighter than that. Contracts for distilling- and milling-quality rye are limited in Ontario. Only in times of short world supply does the call go out for more acres, and typically another supplier such as Russia comes up with a boatload or two to kill off any rally before it can really get started.
Farmers on sandier soils who grow potatoes or tomatoes, or the remaining growers with tobacco, often prefer rye as a rotation crop, but they often turn to bin-run seed, a common affliction with cereal crops in general. Other growers sometimes also use rye as a cover crop, either harvesting it for feed or plowing it down as a green manure.
That’s why the launch of Brasetto rye is such a huge step, not just for rye production, but for cereals in Eastern Canada.
C+M Seeds, based in Palmerston, Ont., is the supplier of this particular hybrid, and the company is looking to advance rye production on a quality-based, high-end level. The project began in 2013 with a small-plot project, just to determine its viability under Ontario conditions.
“From the comments of the growers who’ve been growing it, it’s been a resounding success as far as the yield results go,” says Rob McLaughlin, sales and marketing manager with C+M Seeds. “There’s been anywhere from a 30 per cent yield increase to double the yield of growers’ traditional rye sources. So we know there’s going to be a definite yield improvement — it just depends more on where you are as to how much of an increase over traditional rye sources you might see.”
Quality versus ‘monopoly’
Of course, there will be those growers who are content with using bin-run seed who will see the development of a hybrid rye as another sign of corporate control. Ellen Sparry, C&M Seeds’ genetics manager, makes no secret of the fact that if you harvest a field planted with the hybrid and then use it for bin-run the next year, you’ll find it loses its vigour.
In other words, switching to hybrid production means an end to bin-run seed in a quality-based rye production regimen. But the benefits appear to far outweigh any perceived drawbacks.
“There’s really no incentive for a grower to even think about not coming back for new seed,” Sparry says, adding that anyone who’s growing Brasetto as a commodity will value the yield improvements, disease enhancements and quality. “Your returns are obviously going to be higher,” Sparry says. “The more serious that growers get about producing rye, the more market opportunities are going to open themselves up as well.”
The use of bin-run or reconditioned seed has become a point of debate in the past 10 to 15 years. In corn and soybeans, certified seed has become routine, but it also delivers GMO technologies and other genetics that drive farm incomes.
Meanwhile, cereal production is perhaps closest to being a direct source of human food. Wheat, rye and even spelt are milled directly into flour, which means quality is crucial.
If we don’t respect that food link, we may lose the markets. At least, that’s the warning from the seed trade, that fears that millers and other cereal processors might opt out of Ontario product in favour of other jurisdictions that are stepping up to the plate with certified seed.
Hybrid rye is the latest answer to that issue — for this particular grain. The next step for Brasetto, says McLaughlin, is to work to expand market demand.
“We’re still not 100 per cent finalized on the market part of it. However, rye is rye, and it seems to fit into any place where other rye fits as far as market use is concerned,” McLaughlin says. It will be grown on a contract-only basis, with C+M Seeds working to develop new alliances with partners in the milling and distilling streams. “The quality is very strong — this particular hybrid has a strong falling number for milling, and the samples so far have been very clean.”
Ergot tends to be the biggest disease challenge for rye growers, and thus far, Brasetto isn’t showing signs of any issues in its early stages.
“The thought on our side is that with the agronomic package that this hybrid has, it would potentially replace whatever rye acres are out there that go into milling and distilling,” says Sparry. “It’s not that we’re necessarily developing more of a market, but this will certainly be a preferred option for growers who are filling that distilling and milling market.”
There is also no stated plan for this to replace winter wheat acres, yet from a regional production perspective, Sparry and McLaughlin believe this will be a solid candidate for sandier soils in Norfolk, Elgin, the southern part of Oxford and into Brant counties. It’s expected that Brasetto would also do well around the potato-growing region bounded by Alliston, Shelburne and north towards Collingwood.
As for the science behind its development, hybridization is a complex genetic puzzle, one that cereal breeders have been attempting to solve for years. Sparry notes there are some wheat hybrids developed but most are limited to European efforts, and it’s the cost efficiency that hampers widespread availability — for the time being. She adds that there’s also a recently announced coalition of organizations focusing specifically on wheat hybridization.
Of course, the complexity involved in such genetic sequencing and development translates into so-called “sticker shock” when it comes to its pricing. But as has been the case with corn, the same yield increases and overall performance are likely to unfold with hybrid rye.
“For anyone growing rye right now, you should be trying Brasetto,” says McLaughlin. “Any time you hybridize a product, it’s going to be expensive. However, the seed return per acre more than outweighs the cost of the seed.”
Yields and returns from Brasetto are expected to be higher, with the potential for driving more market opportunities for growers.
Milling is one anticipated end-use market for Brasetto rye, with distilling expected to be the other destination.