CDC variety development creates more options and opportunities for farmers

By Natalie Noble

It’s a well-known fact, the world needs more Canadian ag products. Programming, initiatives and the passionate team at University of Saskatchewan’s (USask) Crop Development Centre (CDC) are helping farmers achieve that agenda. 

Recently celebrating their 50th Anniversary with over 500 varieties developed and released to drive agriculture innovation and increase global food security, the organization is more energized than ever, already forward focused.

Dr. Curtis Pozniak, (PhD) CDC director, credits the people and their vision of the CDC for its success. “CDC scientists continue to improve existing and new crops, while tackling crop disease and climate stresses to ensure farmers can seize new market opportunities,” he says. “The work of the CDC has had a tremendous impact on Saskatchewan’s economy, generating an estimated $50 billion to the economy since 1971.”

It’s safe to say, the ag world is watching what’s happening at this world class research centre. 

What should Western Canadian farmers look forward to?

New chickpea varieties help Canadian growers fill global and niche market demands for nutritious food

As global weather events create supply issues for populations dependent upon chickpeas in their diets, new CDC varieties help Canadian growers respond.

Dr. Bunyamin Tar’an, (PhD) professor, chickpea and flax breeding, has bred chickpeas at the CDC for nearly 20 years. Last year, four new varieties became available. The first two fall under the kabuli category, commonly used in salads or humus. CDC Pasqua is a large-seeded chickpea, and CDC Pearl is smaller-seeded with improved resistance to Ascochyta blight.

The other two varieties are desi chickpeas, commonly milled into flour to make Indian flatbreads in South Asia, India and surrounding countries. CDC Sunset is a good yielding chickpea with market desired light tan seed coat colour. CDC Kala, a black seed coat variety, represents an opportunity to pursue a niche market, including organic production. All new varieties are tolerant to imidazolinone herbicides.

In fact, for those consuming a highly plant-based diet, including vegetarians and vegans across North America, the chickpea is often a major protein source, also rich in minerals and other nutrients such as beta carotene. “There’s an increasing interest and demand in chickpeas as a plant-based source of protein in all kinds of products,” says Tar’an. “We’re excited to supply all these varieties to meet that market demand.”

Along with CDC, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers happily supports farmers to grow chickpeas successfully on their farms. “These developments give them great choice,” says Tar’an. “Which do they prefer, is their farm going to produce it well, and how can it help them move into niche markets they’re interested in?”

New flax variety builds diversity and stronger crop rotation on Prairie farms

This year, CDC released a new variety of brown seed flax. Not yet officially named, it’s referred to as FP-2591. “This variety is high yielding across major flax growing areas, has maturity range similar to current varieties and sampleable seed quality,” says Tar’an. “Flax’s quality depends on its oil content and composition and this line has acceptable characteristics around its oil content.”

While flax has long been used in industries for linoleum and other products, it’s quickly growing in popularity as a nutritious food source. “Within plants, flax’s healthy oil offers one of the highest sources of omega-3s,” says Tar’an. 

Flax also gives farmers the opportunity to diversify their production and implement a healthy four-year rotation on the farm. With major flax growing areas in Manitoba and Saskatchewan’s longer-season black or brown soil growing zones, Ta’ran boosting its yields is a priority. “This variety is one of the best available to these farmers,” he says.

SeCan is working to commercialize this new variety, continuing to support variety development at CDC. 

New forages allow better production on marginal acres

Two new grass varieties were released with the CDC’s Jubilee Anniversary.

First is extremely salt tolerant hybrid wheatgrass tentatively named CDC Soft King. “This is a welcome option for farmers across Western Canada where there are relatively large acres with moderate-to-severe salinity,” says Dr. Bill Biligetu, (PhD) associate professor, forage breeding. “It has good forage quality, is higher yielding and can survive those saline areas.”

This grass is a great option for acres likely otherwise taken out of production as most crops won’t grow on them. “Saline is not always a major issue, but where there are 10 or 20 acres of saline sections that really don’t grow anything, they’re susceptible to noxious weeds,” says Biligetu. He points to foxtail barley–a major issue that can drown out prime cropland because it produces so many rapidly spread seeds and require herbicide applications to control. “These herbicide applications are an indirect cost to manage these areas. If you can use this variety to manage them, you can probably prevent weed infestation and saline expansion during wet-dry cycles.”

A new timothy variety is also available. Popular especially as horse feed in North America and Europe, timothy’s moisture tolerance is appealing. “It can be used in areas prone to spring flooding, even handling four-to-five weeks of spring flooding.” says Biligetu. “We’ve been working on this variety for many years and it’s the first timothy grass variety we’ve released in Western Canada.”

Both new varieties can help expand opportunities for farmers in areas perhaps not previously an option for these grasses. “They can be targeted towards more marginal and unproductive land with saline or wet acres where a farmer might have lost money seeding those acres in the past,” says Biligetu.

The new timothy variety has been released to Nutrien Ag Solutions, a major marketer into the U.S. and the E.U.

So much accomplished, much more to do!

With 50 years in the rear-view mirror and the next 50 on the horizon, Biligetu appreciates the technology transformation he’s witnessing in CDC breeding programs. “It has really advanced,” he says. “We have drone-based phenotyping to collect all kinds of plant data and we’re incorporating genomic markup for plant selection to help us make even more progress.”

Proud of the work already accomplished, Tar’an is excited to continue the CDC legacy. “We work directly with the stakeholders–the farmers,” he says. “We’re producing high quality nutritious food for the world and helping to generate stronger economies. That keeps us excited, working hard here and looking forward to the next 50 years.”