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Tried and True

Prairie mainstays continue to make the grade for farmers

Some dilemmas, such as choosing a Porsche, Mercedes or BMW, are nice to have. The farming equivalent might be wheat, canola and oats, as they all boast strong science, promising yields and a stellar reputation. And like high-end vehicles, these three crops can get you where you’re going in style.

Oats a healthy choice

“Oats are lagging a bit behind crops like wheat and canola in some respects, but we are a small community that works well together on a global scale,” says Dr. Jennifer Mitchell Fetch, a research scientist and oat breeder with Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) based in Brandon, Man.

The oat community has made great strides over the last decade in sequencing the oat genome, with some findings to be published in the near future.

“We’ve done a lot of collaborative projects to develop molecular markers that can be used in breeding programs,” she says.

One of those programs is currently running at the Brandon Research and Development Centre. Dr. Mitchell Fetch and her colleagues are developing milling, feed and forage quality oats with improved nutritional quality and reduced business risk for production in a sustainable cropping system in Western Canada.

“Our main focus when I joined the program was meeting the heart health claims for oats in Canada and the U.S., where a specific level of beta-glucan in oats reduces cholesterol and helps with diseases like diabetes.”

Through research and breeding, they have raised beta-glucan to the 4.5 per cent level required by the milling industry while lowering the fat content of oats.

They’ve also had success with disease resistance and are working to find more resistant genes to stay ahead of ever-evolving pathogens.

“The farmers I talk to in Western Canada say they can always make money with their oat crops,” says Mitchell Fetch. “They generally obtain good yields and find there is usually a market for their oats. It’s a crop backed by strong genetics and the farmers who choose the right land and fertilize them properly will do well.”

Wheat: Raising output and lowering inputs

“The primary area of wheat research today is disease resistance,” says Dr. Richard Cuthbert, a research scientist and wheat breeder with AAFC in Swift Current, Sask.

“We want to produce varieties with built-in genetic resistance that are the most sustainable for farmers with the fewest crop inputs. Right now the most economically-concerning diseases are fusarium head blight and stripe rust or yellow rust, so we are using molecular mapping to determine the DNA markers associated with genes that control resistance to these diseases.”

Another priority is agronomic performance in areas like nutrient use and water-use efficiency. Ultimately, it’s about maximizing yields and stabilizing those yields over the extreme environments found in Canada.

“New genetics are pushing the envelope for what is possible with yield and allowing wheat to do well in different ecological zones across the Prairies,” says Cuthbert.

As a crop for farmers, wheat has a lot to offer.

“Farmers know wheat; it fits well in their rotation and can be reasonably lucrative. It’s a fairly easy crop to grow, doesn’t require the best land and appeals to a variety of end users and marketing channels.”

One reason for the range of marketing options is wheat’s reputation.

“In general, wheat from Western Canada is regarded as a high-quality product by customers around the world,” says Elaine Sopiwnyk, director of grain quality with the Canadian International Grains Institute. “Customers tell us it is clean and features reliability, uniformity and consistency of supply. There are also a number of wheat classes, grades and protein contents available so that customers have a wealth of choices.”

Canola in demand

In 2009, three major seed companies in Canada opened or announced new canola research and development centres. The following year, industry and the federal government launched an ambitious program directing more than $20 million of funding to canola research projects. Clearly, this is a commodity committed to progress.

“One of the big leaps was developing herbicide-tolerant canola resistant to broad-spectrum products like Liberty and glyphosate,” says Ward Toma, general manager of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission. “Then researchers tackled resistance to canola diseases, most notably blackleg.”

But it didn’t end there. In 2015, the industry’s new Innovation Strategy for canola identified gaps and opportunities in all aspects of canola research. The strategy encouraged a good balance of applied and pure research driven by private/public-funding partnerships and collaboration between industry and academia.

While research is critical, Toma says the appeal of canola for farmers is simple: it makes them money.

“It’s not a cheap crop to grow, but there’s a good margin in it. Investment in input and seed and land has a positive rate of return which is very important.”

As with any product, demand is the bottom line.

“If you look at a chart for vegetable oil demand globally, it’s almost a straight line up. People need canola oil and they always will; that demand keeps prices high. It’s the crops consumed by humans that have the biggest margins, and canola is one of those crops.”

It’s not just canola that’s in demand, however, but Canadian canola in particular.

“We are the largest exporter of canola seed and oil in the world. We have productivity they can’t match in Europe or the United States because of our technology and cooler climate.”

That may explain why in 2016, despite disease and moisture challenges, Canadian farmers achieved record canola yields.

Oats, wheat and canola are unique in many ways, yet share a number of attributes appealing to growers. Whether you’re seeking a high-end car or a high-yield crop, quality, performance and reputation are critical. In either case, if you protect it, treat it well and choose the one that suits you best, you’ll be on the road to success in no time.


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