WGRF investment dollars in research making the difference

Farmer funding has helped with the development of many well-known cereal varieties at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre

Another growing season is well underway at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC), thanks in large part to farmer investments furnished through the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF).

Wheat and barley breeders at Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre along with about 45 research technicians and field workers plant, maintain, monitor and harvest about 150,000 experimental lines of spring wheat, durum and barley as part of an ongoing effort to develop new and improved cereal varieties for western Canadian farmers.

Each year, the most promising experimental lines of wheat and barley are selected and carried forward for further development in hopes that they will one day become a registered seed variety in Canada.

Last year, the Western Grain Research Foundation invested over $1.4 million to the centre’s barley- and wheat-breeding programs in 2013.

In fact, the WGRF and the farmers it serves have been investing in the development of new wheat and barley varieties at the CDC since the early 1990s. This funding has helped facilitate the development of dozens of well-known cereal varieties, including CDC Verona durum, CDC Utmost VB spring wheat, CDC Copeland malting barley and CDC Austenson barley, to name just a few.

Financial contributions made by the WGRF provide CDC wheat and barley plant-breeding programs with the stable, long- term funding that is needed to maintain successful programs and ensure that Canadian farmers have access to the latest and most promising cereal grain genetics.

“Developing new cereal varieties is a long-term process so we have material that’s moving through the program at different stages,” explains CDC barley breeder Aaron Beattie. “In a typical year, we’ll plant thousands of small plots… and then as the material moves forward into the yield trial stage of the program, we’re probably again talking about thousands of plots or even into the low tens of thousands.” According to Beattie, WGRF support has been critically important to the success of the CDC’s cereal-breeding programs.

Operating a breeding program is costly and extremely labour intensive. Managing data after the plots have been harvested is equally onerous. Financial assistance provided by the WGRF not only provides stable funding for core operations at the CDC, it also allows the centre to attract additional support from other organizations, including government and industry partners.

“They (the WGRF) have a very good understanding of that long-term need for stability in a breeding program,” Beattie says. “That’s really the nice thing about our relationship with the WGRF, in that it gives us that stable funding that we need and it also allows us to leverage a lot of funding from other sources as well.”

Curtis Pozniak, who heads the CDC’s high-yielding wheat- and durum-breeding program, agrees that funding stability is extremely important. “The WGRF is a fantastic supporter of the barley- and wheat-breeding programs here at CDC,” says Pozniak. “They provide what I think of as the foundation of funding for our breeding programs and that’s allowed us to leverage additional dollars from different levels of government as well as our industry partners.”

The foundation’s role also goes beyond funding for core breeding activities, Pozniak says. The WGRF provides feedback from the industry as well, serving as a direct link between CDC researchers on one hand and producers of Canadian cereal grains on the other. Feedback from the industry stakeholders — including farmers and end-users of western Canadian grain — is extremely important because it ensures that plant breeders are developing varieties that address the needs of growers and processors.

“That’s the other nice thing about our relationship with the WGRF. We meet on a yearly basis to discuss breeding targets,” Pozniak says. “The WGRF Board consists of producers from all across Western Canada who can provide input and guidance in terms of setting breeding priorities, so that’s an important role that the WGRF plays beyond the funding.”

The WGRF also provides financial funding for additional projects that involve CDC researchers and that are considered beneficial to western Canadian cereal growers. Those projects involve research in areas such as plant pathology, gene sequencing and the development of new technologies that will allow plant breeders to develop new and improved cereal varieties more quickly and more efficiently.

In 2011, for example, the WGRF contributed more than $1.1 million to the Canadian Triticum Advancement Through Genomics project, or CTAG. CTAG is part of an ambitious international effort aimed at mapping the wheat genome and developing new molecular markers that can be used by wheat breeders to develop new varieties.

Producer investments in the development of new technologies will pay dividends immediately but in the long run, they will result in more new varieties and higher farm gate profits, says Kofi Agblor, managing director at the CDC.

“For a farmers’ group to put money toward the sequencing of the wheat genome is a fairly progressive thing,” Agblor says. “At the end of the day, our objective at the CDC is to deliver value to the farm and we are delivering value.

“For us, the relationship with the WGRF has been a very good agreement because it is stable and highly predictable and we can be assured that the funding will be there,” Agblor adds. “For farmers, I think it has been a very good investment.”

Western Grains Research Foundation is a farmer-funded and -directed non-profit organization investing in agricultural research that benefits western Canadian producers. For over 30 years the WGRF board has given producers a voice in agricultural research funding decisions. WGRF manages an Endowment Fund and the wheat and barley variety development checkoff funds, investing over $7 million annually into breeding and field crop research. WGRF brings the research spending power of all farmers in Western Canada together, maximizing the returns they see in crop research.

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