BY LEE HART • PHOTO COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF SASKATCHEWAN: AARON BEATTIE, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR AND HEAD OF THE UNIVERSITY’S CROP DEVELOPMENT CENTRE BARLEY BREEDING PROGRAM
This year marks a half century of barley breeding at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC). The program has created plenty of top-tier varieties for western Canadian farmers since 1971.
CDC scientists screen thousands of barley breeding lines annually in search of those that will deliver key agronomic traits such as improved yield and lodging and disease resistance. These advancements add up to greater return per acre, which of course represents more profit for farmers, said Aaron Beattie, an associate professor and head of the CDC barley breeding program. Beattie also holds the title of Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program chair in barley and oat breeding and genetics. The challenge is to wrap all desired agronomic traits into a package that includes desirable end-use characteristics in malt, feed grain or forage.
About three-quarters of the breeding program is dedicated to the development of improved malting barley varieties, said Beattie. The balance is invested in feed barley development. A small part of the program also focuses on hulless varieties used for food and malting purposes.
“Ultimately, our goal is to develop varieties that help make farming operations more efficient, more cost-effective and hopefully more profitable,” said Beattie. “It needs to be a variety that is worthwhile for the producer to grow and also a variety that meets the needs of end-users whether that be in domestic or export markets.”
Barley is not the facility’s sole focus either. CDC’s diversified crop breeding program has successfully delivered hundreds of crop varieties to farmers for five decades. These additional crops include wheat, durum, oats, flax, field pea, lentil, chickpea, canary seed and dry bean varieties.
The CDC has released more than 450 varieties since its inception. In fact, CDC varieties account for about 40 per cent of the acreage grown for these crops, including barley, across the Prairies.
For certain individual crops, the acreage represented by CDC varieties is even greater. CDC varieties account for 95 per cent of lentil acreage, 85 per cent for dry peas, 83 per cent for flax, 75 per cent for chickpeas, 73 per cent for canary seed. CDC barley varieties account for 37 per cent and oats 25 per cent. Emblematic of the facility’s importance to farmers, CDC varieties represent 20 per cent of all wheat grown on the Prairies.
A JOINT EFFORT WITH INDUSTRY
While this is an impressive track record, Beattie said it has been the product of a joint effort. The CDC is supported by farmers, commodity organizations and key corporate players in the agriculture industry, all of which have provided guidance as well as the all-important funding that makes breeding programs possible.
The Canadian Barley Research Coalition (CBRC) was recently created to provide this direction and financial support to the CDC barley breeding program. Launched in late 2019, it became operational in mid-2020. One of its first allocations this past September was to award $2.7 million in western Canadian barley check-off dollars to the CDC. “It is a significant contribution to the CDC barley breeding program,” said Beattie. “It really represents the core funding to support our program over the next five years.”
The CBRC collectively represents the allocation of check-off funds collected by crop groups and the Western Grains Research Foundation over the past eight years. “The idea to create a barley research coalition has been discussed for some time,” said Lauren Comin, director of research for Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley. “So, finally, the three provincial commodity associations—Alberta Barley, SaskBarley and the Manitoba Crop Alliance—came together in late 2019 to initiate the creation of the CBRC.”
The national, non-profit organization will facilitate long-term barley research investments and take a collaborative approach to funding regional and national research projects in variety development and agronomy. The organization will also work collaboratively to complete core funding agreements with CDC and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
“We also felt it was important to have a not-for-profit agency that could represent barley growers in applying for funding from the federal Canadian Agricultural Partnership program,” said Comin. The CBRC’s creation mirrors that of the Canadian Wheat Research Coalition, launched in 2017.
“Coalition board members, representing the three provincial barley commissions will meet to discuss and set research priorities that apply to, or benefit, all barley growers,” said Comin. “And they will also consider any research priorities that are a concern on a regional level. A specific issue may be more relevant to Manitoba growing conditions than to Alberta or Saskatchewan, for example. The coalition can help determine priorities that will be passed along to plant breeders as well as to co-ordinate the application of each commission’s check-off dollars to these projects.”
A LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP
CDC has also received long-standing support from industry players such as BASF, which celebrates its 25th year of a partnership with the research facility.
“It has been a great privilege to work in partnership with CDC to deliver some of the most innovative developments in agriculture over the last quarter-century,” said Jeff Bertholet, technical service manager for BASF in Saskatoon, SK.
During its relationship with the university and CDC, the company invested more than $12 million. Primarily derived from royalties for new varieties, the money has been used to support research and development of crop genetics and commercialization of new pulse and wheat varieties over the last two decades, said Bertholet.
Over the years, the CDC breeding program developed a new platform for herbicide-tolerant lentils, marketed as Clearfield lentils, as well as spring wheat and durum varieties tolerant to imidazolinone herbicides, more commonly referred to as imi-tolerant crop varieties. “We have invested in these trait developments, which put important new tools in the hands of farmers,” said Bertholet. “Which is certainly a win-win for all involved.”
With the commercialization of these herbicide-tolerant crops, Nutrien holds the marketing rights to wheat and durum varieties, while the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers holds the rights to lentil varieties.
Bertholet said this “ongoing strategic partnership” will support further research into the development of herbicide tolerance in crop varieties and will look at improved disease management in pulse crops.
He also points out that as a leading agricultural school, the university’s College of Agriculture has been an important source of bright young students that BASF has hired as summer interns. Many have also been hired in full-time positions after graduation. “It is important for ongoing research and development to have well-established relationships with all sectors of the agriculture industry,” said Beattie. “Along with assurance of funding to support research, the connection also provides important feedback to plant breeders so their efforts are meeting the needs and specifications of producers and processors.”