ALBERTA AGRICULTURE AGRONOMIST FINDS VALUE IN CULTIVAR-SPECIFIC APPROACHES TO CROP MANAGEMENT
BY KARIN OLAFSON
Sheri Strydhorst is an agronomist, an internationally recognized agriculture researcher and an adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, who also somehow finds the time to work on her own farming operation—tremendous accomplishments for a city kid who grew up in St. Albert, knowing little about the land and how the Canadian agriculture industry functioned.
Strydhorst’s passion for agriculture was sparked during her undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta. At the university, since she “didn’t really see a career in counting fruit flies,” she switched her focus from biological sciences to agriculture and subsequently met her husband, who’s from a farming family in the Neerlandia area. Today, Strydhorst is involved in running a 1,220-acre grain farm in Neerlandia and conducts agronomic research in cereal-cultivar-specific management in Barrhead for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
“Agriculture is my life now,” she said. “And now that I have a personal and professional connection to farming, I’m aware of how much I didn’t know about agriculture and food production in Canada beforehand.”
GrainsWest: Tell us about your focus as a graduate student at the U of A.
Sheri Strydhorst: When I was doing my master’s degree in the early 2000s, faba bean was growing in acres at the time, so I studied faba bean agronomy. I was looking at details like how we seed it and how we do harvest management for it. For my PhD, in a nutshell, I was looking at the rotational benefits from peas, faba beans and lupin to wheat crops.
GW: Is it true that after your university days you took a bit of a research hiatus?
SS: Yes, I absolutely did. I worked as the executive director for the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission, where I managed the day-to-day operations and had a 12-member board and staff to supervise. A lot of my work there was building relationships with national organizations, like Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and industry.
GW: Can you explain what you’re working on right now?
SS: As a research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, I conduct agronomic research on a variety of crops including pulses and cereals, both wheat and barley. Right now I’m trying to take a systems approach to what can be done in agronomy to maximize yields and do it profitably. My research in cultivar-specific management looks at three major areas: plant growth regulators (PGRs), foliar fungicides and topping up with in-crop nitrogen.
GW: What have you found regarding the efficiency of foliar fungicides and topping up with in-crop nitrogen on Alberta cereal crops?
SS: A high overview is that the in-crop topping up with nitrogen doesn’t seem to work well on wheat. On the other hand, foliar fungicides are maybe the one silver bullet.
One very cool thing I’m finding in my research is how foliar fungicides in the same growing environment can work really well on one cultivar, but not on another. Particularly this past growing season, because there was so much rain and the conditions for disease development were ideal, the majority of farmers used a fungicide that cost anywhere from $18 to $25 an acre [depending on the specific product]. But what we’re seeing now in the yield data is that fungicides are not always making a positive difference, especially if you have a cultivar that has really good genetic resistance to disease.
I think managing our crops on a cultivar-by-cultivar basis is really exciting and revolutionary.
GW: What about the side of your research that looks at PGRs?
SS: PGRs affect the plant’s hormonal system. The PGR we’re using on cereal crops to make them shorter interferes with a hormone called gibberellin—that’s a hormone that makes plants taller and lankier.
I think we’re looking into PGRs now because we’re pushing yields harder and harder. The more we push them, the more lodging becomes an issue. We’re starting to need these tools, it’s just figuring out how to make them work for us.
GW: What have you found are the advantages and disadvantages of PGRs?
SS: The big advantage is absolutely the standability of crops. Every farmer who has fought with a lodged crop in the fall wishes they had a PGR on their crop back in June that would have helped it stand.
The big disadvantage is that we don’t fully understand how they work. If they worked the way the textbooks say they’re supposed to work, it would be fantastic. But we’re seeing that they’re not working consistently on all cultivars. They have also been seen to cause decreases in yield and protein decreases.
GW: Why is your research important for Alberta cereal farmers?
SS: Large investments are put into breeding so you get a wheat or barley cultivar with very specific traits, but then farmers manage the cultivars all the same. It makes sense that if you have different genetics in different cultivars, they are going to respond differently to the management. To optimize those genetics, we need to manage each cultivar differently. When farmers know how to best manage their crops, there are economic benefits, environmental benefits and yield benefits.
GW: Why is this research important for the Canadian cereal industry?
SS: I think the big thing is that Canadian farmers need to compete in an international market and we need to grow more bushels to stay competitive. We need to do that using inputs as wisely as we possibly can. For example, if a farmer knows a fungicide will increase yields under the right conditions, they can be more profitable. They can grow grain that has better quality that will make our product more attractive to international buyers. On the other hand, if a grower can get the same yields and quality and not spend that $18 to $25 an acre on a fungicide, there’s an economic benefit.
Also, because farmers are pushing yields with higher fertility, lodging becomes more of an issue and that’s where something like a PGR to help standability of our crops is critical for our farmers to harvest more acres with higher quality.
I think social licence is a big part of it too. If the public knows the farmers are using their inputs only where they are causing a yield or quality benefit, rather than just blanket usage, that gains credibility with the public and our international buyers.
GW: What are your goals for the future?
SS: For my research, my goal is to secure funding to do a Prairie-wide program. I’d like to be able to do cultivar-specific agronomy work in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and really make the results as meaningful as possible to western Canadian farmers. On a larger scale, the goal for Alberta cereal farmers is to help improve their profitability and competitiveness. I want to make sure that Canadian farmers are equipped with the best tools out there to do the best job that they can.