Keeping Up with Alfalfa Advances

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(Photo courtesy Annie Claessens)

Whether it’s new conventional varieties with better winter hardiness and disease resistance, there’s a lot happening in the alfalfa seed market. Here’s a snapshot of the latest advances and what’s coming down the pipe.

 

In the world of forage seed, alfalfa is getting a lot of press these days, due in part to a GE variety that has sparked renewed interest in the world of alfalfa seed.

Even before the U.S.-based Forage Genetics International (FGI) began selling its HarvXtra alfalfa seed with Roundup Ready technology to farmers in Eastern Canada in 2016, the alfalfa industry was split on the issue of whether doing so was a good idea.

On one side, alfalfa seed producers in the West feared contamination risk they said could pose a danger to alfalfa seed exports. In the East, growers wanted the ability to grow herbicide tolerant alfalfa for livestock feed.

In the end, FGI decided to go ahead and launch the product in the East for hay production only. It’s currently not being sold in Western Canada. Despite the controversy, the issue served to put alfalfa back in the spotlight.

“It’s what often gets lost when people talk about alfalfa — the conventional side and some of the strides being made there,” says Erick Lutterotti, general manager of Gold Medal Seeds in Brooks, Alta., (a subsidiary of FGI) and vice-chair of the Canadian Seed Trade Association’s Forage and Turf Committee.

Winter Hardiness

Especially exciting for Lutterotti are new varieties of multifoliate alfalfa that have been bred to be very winter hardy.

“That’s the big thing in conventional alfalfa.”

Winter hardiness is determined by an alfalfa variety’s ability to withstand cold temperatures. The lower the rating for winter hardiness, the greater the ability of the plant to survive the winter months. Winter hardiness ratings indicate the potential longevity of the alfalfa stand.

Lutterotti notes that although fall dormancy is related to winter hardiness, the latter is separate from fall dormancy. In recent years, breeders have been successful at separating winter hardiness from fall dormancy.

“In the past, multifoliate alfalfas came with a 4 or 5 fall dormancy rating, meaning it wakes up early and goes to bed late. For people south of Lethbridge, you’d get three or four cuts per year, maybe a fourth,” Lutterotti says.

“Inherently, creeping-rooted alfalfa was the most winter hardy there was, but those varieties were best suited for lower-yielding two-cut systems. Now we have a very high-quality alfalfa — dairy quality — that’s still at that 4 fall dormancy rating, but you have a winter hardiness below 2, which is as a good or better than any creeper on the market. This gives you lots of options as to your farming system, and it can be used in many different regions.”

Regional differences are the key to knowing what alfalfa variety is best for Western Canada, Lutterotti adds. If the alfalfa crop is meant for short-term growth, moderate winter hardiness is usually adequate. For long-term stands, a lower winter hardiness rating is often a good idea, but it can depend on a couple factors, he notes.

“In regions with more snow, a lower winter hardiness rating may not provide much additional protection, but you never know. You don’t want the grower to just assume that they’re going to get a lot of snow cover next winter. You might not get as much snow in a given year, so it might be a good idea to go with an alfalfa that can withstand exposure to the cold better.”

He recommends retailers work with their customers to determine the variety that is the best fit for their specific situation. Popular varieties include Compass, with ultra-winter hardiness and fast regrowth.

GE alfalfa isn’t the only product FGI is working on. It’s also making strides with conventional alfalfa, an example being an attempt to offer stronger resistance to Anthracnose stem rot.

Anthracnose of alfalfa is caused by Colletotrichum trifolii. This fungus can attack leaves, but most characteristically attacks stems and crowns. While resistance has been built in to many varieties of alfalfa on the market, Peterson notes it’s beginning to break down in some lines. The disease is rare in Western Canada, but is more prevalent in the eastern United States and Eastern Canada.

“Even with Aphanomyces root rot, which has been around for over 20 years, the industry is finding there’s still a lot to be gained by breeding new varieties resistant to additional races of this important disease,” says Mike Peterson, global traits lead for FGI.

Improving Yield, Persistence and Quality

The advances in alfalfa products like high-quality winter hardy varieties are due in part to the hard work of people like Annie Claessens, forage breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Quebec Research and Development Centre.

Claessens is part of a multidisciplinary team of researchers constantly working to improve the forage crop on a number of fronts.

Annie Claessens

Like breeders of most other crops, alfalfa breeders are working to boost yields. The key to doing so is lowering the dormancy, but doing so can have unwanted effects on alfalfa persistence. It’s an interesting conundrum that Claessens and her team are challenged with.

“We’re trying to help growers extend the alfalfa growing season from late summer through to early winter, so we want less dormant cultivars. However, when they’re less dormant, they generally have lower winter survival.”

Some significant gains have been made in recent years, like the kind Lutterotti refers to, where winter hardiness has been improved while keeping fall dormancy the same. But there’s a ways to go, Claessens notes.

“Those two traits can be improved simultaneously. We’ve developed an indoor selection method to decrease dormancy but increase freezing tolerance, which is one of the most important factors in lowering winter survival under our climatic conditions.”

Breeding for better freezing tolerance involves creating plants with perennial organs (crown and roots) that are able to withstand freezing temperatures. She reports that they have been able to increase the freezing tolerance of alfalfa by 5 C.

Claessens and her colleagues are also working at disease resistance, which is the second-most important factor lowering winter survival. Breeding efforts are focusing on Phytophthora root rot and Aphanomyces root rot, thereby helping alfalfa to be less affected by cold and wet soil conditions.

Phytophthora root rot, caused by a fungus-like pathogen, is believed to survive for many years in the soil, and may attack alfalfa after long rotations to other crops. Aphanomyces root root, caused by a pathogen very similar to Phytophthora, attacks both seedlings and adult alfalfa plants and can dramatically reduce yield and vigour of established stands.

“We’ve developed an indoor selection method to identify which plants are highly and moderately resistant to those diseases. We can select plants with greater resistance and breed them to rapidly develop lines that are better able to resist those pests.”

Boosting quality also remains the mission of alfalfa breeders like Claessens.

“Our goal is to have cows produce more milk from the alfalfa they consume, either by increasing alfalfa’s digestibility or energy content so the microorganisms in their stomach can have more energy to process the protein,” she says. “By increasing the energy content, we can increase milk production from forages, increase protein content of the milk, and reduce nitrogen loss in the environment at the same time.”

Exciting new alfalfa varieties don’t just appear overnight, though. Claessens notes that breeding programs are expensive, and new sources of germplasm and funding are always being sought. It can take many years for a new alfalfa variety to hit the market.

Agricultural Research Up in the Air

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When the Alberta government released its provincial budget in March, it was met with mixed emotions by those in the agriculture sector.

While the budget contained an increase of one per cent in overall agricultural spending, it prompted questions about the level of funding for certain key areas in the sector.

One of the biggest concerns of many producers was a lack of commitment to adequately fund agricultural research in the province, including an absence of funding for the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund beyond 2018.

Those concerns have only increased since, as the Alberta government has begun a review of provincial services including the province’s agricultural research program. While the results of this review aren’t expected until next April, some fear it could result in a significant cut to provincial funding for agricultural research.

“In my mind, it’s very likely that cuts will come,” says Ross McKenzie, a retired research scientist who worked for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry for 38 years.

“It’s easy to cut research. When research is eliminated it’s often not very obvious immediately, but it does have repercussions down the road if farmers are looking for information and that work is not being done. That puts Alberta farmers at a huge disadvantage.”

McKenzie says one of the challenges for researchers is that the value of their work often isn’t appreciated until many years down the road. He cites the example of soil research with phosphate fertilizer and phosphorus soil testing that was conducted in the province in the 1990s; it cost nearly $400,000 at the time, but has provided millions of dollars in benefits to growers each year.

“It might sound like a lot to spend $300,000 or $400,000 on a research project,” he says. “[But] that work is now used by all the soil testing labs to help farmers decide how they should be spending $300 or $400 million a year on phosphate fertilizer. That’s a huge benefit.”

This is hardly the first time concerns have been raised about the fate of agricultural research in the province. In 2001, a research review resulted in about half of Alberta ag researchers either being cut or shifted to other departments, and extension work was curtailed – a huge loss for Alberta farmers. More recently, in 2014, the provincial government eliminated the Agriculture and Food Innovation Endowment Fund.

Jason Lenz, chair of Alberta Barley, says one of his concerns is that any potential cuts to provincial funding for research will place pressure on producer groups like his to help fill the void.

“Without government funding, it puts the onus on producer groups to fully fund the future of research and innovation, and it becomes [more] difficult,” Lenz says. “We’ve demonstrated that we can and will work with any government in order to give Alberta’s farmers a competitive advantage. Everyone benefits when we work together with government and public breeding institutions to give farmers a chance to have success.”

Terry Young, chair of the Alberta Wheat Commission’s research committee, says the cost of agricultural research can be extremely high and that makes it prohibitive for producer groups to go it alone. He says it’s vital that groups can leverage government funds to get the biggest bang for their research buck.

One of Young’s biggest concerns about potential cuts to ag research funding is that it could slow research into new technologies which could then have a trickle-down effect on farms.

“What I can see is that some of the newer technology may not get accepted or adopted as readily. It would take a longer time for the research to happen and for the technology to become part of best management practices,” he says.

Young uses the example of recent research on Fusarium head blight in cereal crops as an example of how producer groups working with the province has benefitted growers.

“It’s expensive, expensive research,” he says. “[But] because there’s been an emphasis to actually understand it a whole lot better, the research there will help us and give us some great dividends eventually.”

Ward Toma, general manager of the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, says it would be virtually impossible for producer groups to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting disease and adopting new technologies without government research dollars. He cites past work done to develop blackleg resistance by University of Alberta researchers as an example, as well as the ongoing fight against clubroot.

“Some of the estimates are that [the cost] is in the tens of millions of dollars. Growers can’t afford that. We don’t even have the money to survey and monitor to see if clubroot exists across the province or not. We just wait for it to show up in our fields,” he says.

Caroline Sekulic, vice-chair of the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission, says while cuts to agricultural research might not be noticed immediately, they could have long-lasting consequences. She fears reduced government funding could result in more scattered results for regional variety trials and prompt some of the province’s best researchers to go elsewhere.

“If we can’t provide opportunities and research for them in this province… we could lose them,” says Sekulic, who is also a seed grower with Prestville Farms in Rycroft.

Sekulic says she and other pulse growers have benefitted enormously from working in partnership with the province. Two recent research projects – an investigation into agronomic practices to remove barriers for growing faba beans, and improved resistance to sclerotium disease in edible dry beans – might not have been possible without government support, she adds.

While some have suggested turning over this type of investigation to applied research associations could resolve any cash crunch, McKenzie suggests doing so isn’t without risk. He says one of the greatest concerns with research associations is they tend to work in isolation – they often don’t work together to conduct research projects on a province-wide basis. And, he adds, research associations don’t have their results posted on Alberta Agriculture’s website, so it’s difficult to find out who is doing research and what their results are showing.

“One of the reasons why I like to see the provincial government do it or the federal government is the research is done by unbiased people. They have no vested interest in how the results turn out,” says McKenzie. “You get a good, full picture as opposed to sometimes getting a skewed or biased perspective from an industry person.”

The challenge for many producer groups at the moment is they have already begun planning how to spend research dollars in 2018 but likely won’t know until spring what, if any, provincial government funding will be available.

“That is a concern,” Young says. “We’re going to need to know pretty quick. The funding cycle starts in January. The commitments are starting to be made by then for the next year so we need to know exactly what’s going on.”

Ed. note: Alberta Agriculture and Forestry declined to comment for the story.

Resistance to Major Fungal Disease in Oilseed Crops Now Possible

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In a world first, researchers from the University of Western Australia in collaboration with Punjab Agricultural University in India have found the key to resistance to sclerotinia stem rot, a major fungal disease in Brassica oilseed crops globally.

Brassica oilseed crops include canola and mustard. Sclerotinia stem rot poses a major yield limiting threat to these crops worldwide, and currently, no commercial varieties with high level resistance to this disease are available.

The research, published in the international journal Scientific Reports, showed that resistance to sclerotinia stem rot disease found in Indian mustard is influenced by at least 10 genes. Professor Martin Barbetti from UWA’s School of Agriculture and Environment and Institute of Agriculture said the findings are exciting because they offer highly significant oilseed breeding applications and benefits.

“Developing highly resistant varieties offers the only real prospect for long-term, cost-effective management of this devastating disease,” Prof Barbetti said.

“The findings offer mustard and subsequently canola breeders a powerful tool to optimize use of the genetic variation available within wild Brassica species.”

Currently farmers rely mainly on fungicide sprays to manage the disease, but these often provide poor or inconsistent control. As forecasting this disease has proven unreliable, fungicides are often wasted in cases where little disease would have eventuated anyway, adding to the already high production costs for low-input farming systems such as in Australia and India.

“Initially for mustard crops and later for canola, such novel engineering to develop new oilseed Brassica varieties that express these critical resistances to sclerotinia stem rot will enable much more effective management of this devastating pathogen worldwide,” Prof Barbetti said.

The findings were published in the paper Mapping resistance responses to Sclerotinia infestation in introgression lines of Brassica juncea carrying genomic segments from wild Brassicaceae B. fruticulosa in Scientific Reports. The research was supported by the Government of India and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Source: European Seed

Field boundaries: A home sweet home for bees

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Coloured plastic cups serve as traps by attracting wild bees from this canola field near Brandon, Man.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is working to get the buzz on bees by better understanding what types of habitats keep them happy so they’ll stick around to pollinate crops.

Pollinators thrive in field boundaries, areas such as ditches, fence lines and road allowances that surround cropped land. As farmland is consolidated into bigger fields, the centres of cropped areas move further and further from these margins – which are home to pollinators, such as bees and other insects. Pollinators provide many benefits to their ecosystems, and with a third of human food supply relying directly on insect pollination, keeping these insects happy is key.

There are 231 species of bees native to Manitoba and they are much more efficient pollinators than their domesticated honey bee cousins. Melanie Dubois, a scientist from AAFC’s Brandon Research and Development Centre, and her team are studying ways to mitigate the effects of reduced habitat on native bees.

“Most of these native bees don’t fly more than a kilometre from their nesting sites, so when fields that rely on pollinators – canola for example – get larger and larger, we have to consider if the flowering plants in the centre of these massive fields are being pollinated, and how we could improve this system,” says Dubois, senior riparian and biodiversity biologist.

Bees need food from spring until fall, but domesticated crops like canola only flower for about four weeks in the summer, so alternative sources are needed. Moreover, most native bees lay their eggs in the ground or other cavities like dead vegetation and wood, and therefore are reliant on untended and wild areas. Through plot studies, Dubois’ team is learning how to recreate native bees’ preferred habitats in the boundaries surrounding agricultural fields. The team is focused on planting perennial native flowering plants that will serve as a food source from spring to fall, but not interfere with bees’ appetites for pollinator-dependent crops like canola. If the plot studies are successful, then a wider application of bee habitat installations in agricultural field boundaries should sustain or even increase overall crop pollination.

As part of the study, Dubois’ team will conduct habitat assessments and sample bee populations in field boundaries adjacent to canola crops. Using brightly coloured plastic cups filled with a liquid mixture, the team will trap bees at regular intervals throughout the flowering season. During this time, they’ll also complete a habitat assessment, which will include an inventory of vegetation types, farm management practices, and the size and distribution of food and nesting locations within a one kilometre radius of each trapping site.

The project’s main objective is to develop practices that will help farmers and landowners assess, improve, and recreate field boundary habitats that foster pollinator well-being, and ultimately sustain or improve crop production.

The Push for Higher Protein, Starch in Peas

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Chen is inspecting a pea field at Central Agricultural Research Center, Montana State University. (Photo courtesy of Central Agricultural Research Center)

Farmers in Montana, and other parts of the Northern Great Plains, are shifting from cereal mono-cropping to a cereal-dry pea cropping system; however, this transition is not without its share of unknowns.

Yield and performance of pea crops depend on their genetics and the environment. Environmental factors such as temperature and rainfall can vary greatly. Farmers in different parts of the Plains need to know which pea varieties will do well in the area they are farming.

Chengci Chen of Montana State University is working to generate that information. He has been studying how pea genetics interact with the environment to affect crop yields, and pea protein and starch content.

“Ultimately, I hope to be able to recommend which pea varieties to cultivate to growers in various environments,” says Chen.

To do that, Chen and his colleagues tested how nine different varieties of pea performed when grown in five locations across Montana. These locations were spread across the state and had different soils and climatic conditions.

Chen examined yield and protein and starch content of the different pea varieties. “These are characteristics that are important to growers and end users,” he says. Pea varieties that have higher yield can bring more profits to producers. Varieties that have higher protein or starch contents interest different end users.

For example, “dry yellow peas are fractionated into protein, starch and fiber. These components are widely used in food ingredients, especially by health-food businesses,” Chen explains. “The market for pea protein is growing rapidly because it is non-dairy and allergen-friendly.”

When the researchers evaluated the nine pea varieties grown in different environments, they found that “pea yield is affected by both genetics and environment, but environment has the larger effect,” Chen says.

Pea protein content is largely affected by environment as well. However, one kind of starch — resistant starch — content is mainly controlled by genetics.

The Northern Great Plains spans five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

Farmers in Montana, and other parts of the Northern Great Plains, are shifting from cereal mono-cropping to a cereal-dry pea cropping system; however, this transition is not without its share of unknowns.

Yield and performance of pea crops depend on their genetics and the environment. Environmental factors such as temperature and rainfall can vary greatly. Farmers in different parts of the Plains need to know which pea varieties will do well in the area they are farming.

Chengci Chen of Montana State University is working to generate that information. He has been studying how pea genetics interact with the environment to affect crop yields, and pea protein and starch content.

“Ultimately, I hope to be able to recommend which pea varieties to cultivate to growers in various environments,” says Chen.

To do that, Chen and his colleagues tested how nine different varieties of pea performed when grown in five locations across Montana. These locations were spread across the state and had different soils and climatic conditions.

Chen examined yield and protein and starch content of the different pea varieties. “These are characteristics that are important to growers and end users,” he says. Pea varieties that have higher yield can bring more profits to producers. Varieties that have higher protein or starch contents interest different end users.

For example, “dry yellow peas are fractionated into protein, starch and fiber. These components are widely used in food ingredients, especially by health-food businesses,” Chen explains. “The market for pea protein is growing rapidly because it is non-dairy and allergen-friendly.”

When the researchers evaluated the nine pea varieties grown in different environments, they found that “pea yield is affected by both genetics and environment, but environment has the larger effect,” Chen says.

Pea protein content is largely affected by environment as well. However, one kind of starch — resistant starch — content is mainly controlled by genetics.

Source: Seed World

Wheat Midge Tolerance Gene Detected in Soft White Wheat

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Through recent advancements in marker technology, SeCan recently discovered that the majority of the soft white wheat varieties grown in Western Canada contain the Sm1 trait for midge tolerance – and for this reason they will require stewardship. The Midge Tolerant Wheat Stewardship Team provides the background and an explanation of why stewardship is necessary:

Sm1, the only known gene that confers tolerance to wheat midge, was first identified in soft red winter wheat varieties. In the late 1990s, Canadian public breeders worked to cross this naturally occurring trait into red spring wheat (CWRS and Extra Strong) for the benefit of western Canadian producers. These first products were launched in spring 2010 (AC Unity VB, AC Goodeve VB, AC Glencross VB).

Since that time, over 20 varieties of Midge Tolerant Wheat have been registered in many classes, including CWRS, CPSR, CWES, CWAD, and GP/SP.

As Sm1 products neared commercialization, entomologists agreed that the risk of midge becoming resistant to the trait was highly likely. They suggested a stewardship plan incorporating an interspersed refuge (10 per cent of a susceptible variety) was necessary to preserve the useful life of the Sm1 trait.

First evidence of Sm1 in soft white spring (SWS) wheat varieties came from field tests from the General Purpose Co-op during the 2015 growing season – conducted by the Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Manitoba wheat midge program (Curt McCartney and Sheila Wolfe), and the University of Manitoba midge program (Alejandro Costamagna, Ian Wise, and Roxanne Georgison). These varieties were identified as midge resistant based upon dissection of wheat spikes.

In 2016, in coordination with SWS Breeder Dr. Harpinder Randhawa, the entire SWS Co-op was tested. The data was all based on dissection of spike samples from the Co-op field tests.

Also, in 2016, Dr. Curtis Pozniak from the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan, tested a marker for Sm1 on

Wheat Co-op entries. This was done to see if his DNA marker accurately predicted the field-based phenotype (i.e. kernel damage).

The DNA marker developed by CDC was done in conjunction with researchers at AAFC. To date, the marker results appear to match the results from the spike dissections.

Based on the work above, the following varieties carry Sm1 and are midge tolerant: AAC Awesome (CWSP), AAC Chiffon, AAC Indus and AC Sadash. AAC Paramount is suspected to carry Sm1 but needs to be confirmed by field test in 2017.

AC Andrew has been tested by marker and in the field, and does not contain Sm1. For this reason it will be an appropriate refuge for all tolerant varieties.

Why Stewardship Now?

If Sm1 varieties have been grown in other regions without a refuge, why do we need a refuge in Western Canada? Other regions, such as the UK and Eastern U.S., do not have a large acreage of wheat in rotation. In Western Canada, the traditional fit for SWS wheat was the irrigation area of southern Alberta – this area typically has little to no midge pressure. However, in the last seven to eight years, we have seen growth in soft white acres into non-traditional areas to supply the feed and ethanol market. In comparison to other classes, the SWS acres are relatively small. This is fortunate, but still needs to be addressed.

The fact we have been growing SWS without a refuge puts the Sm1 trait at risk. Midge tolerant wheat saves producers $40-60 million per year ($36 per acre). There are no replacement tolerance genes. “There is No Plan B.”

For this reason we need to act as quickly as possible to put a stewardship plan in place for the benefit of all wheat producers (not just soft white).

The Stewardship Plan

Seed growers will add refuge to all future seed stocks released of AAC Awesome, AAC Paramount (once field results confirm resistance), AAC Indus, AAC Chiffon and AC Sadash.

Varieties that have not yet been released have limited volumes. Remediation will be a much greater challenge for a variety like AC Sadash that is currently grown on several hundred thousand acres, making up over half of the total SWS acres.

For AC Sadash there were two options to protect Sm1: 1) Work with SeCan members and the industry to add refuge to all seed stocks available, as soon as realistically possible; 2) Deregister AC Sadash to remove it from the system, and replace it with the new products that have refuge blended in.

SeCan has decided it is in the best interests of the industry that AC Sadash remain available – and trust the industry will be willing to participate in implementing a stewardship plan.

The hope is that growers will “do what is right” to protect the trait for the benefit of future generations of wheat producers.

How Can You Prevent Creating Resistance?

If you grow one of these SWS varieties, add a refuge: one bushel of AC Andrew to every nine bushels of tolerant SWS variety.

If you’re unable to add the refuge, spray insecticide to eliminate the possibility of resistant midge (until you are able to add refuge).

In the near future, we hope to have the Sm1 marker commercially available. This will give us the opportunity to monitor farm level samples of AC Sadash for the appropriate level of refuge to ensure the stewardship is being followed.

Barley Genome Sequenced

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Barley is one of the world’s most important cereal crops. (Photo: Close Lab, UC Riverside)

A team of researchers at the University of California, Riverside are among a group of 77 scientists worldwide who have sequenced the complete genome of barley, a key ingredient in beer and single malt Scotch. The research, 10 years in the making, was just published in the journal Nature.

“This takes the level of completeness of the barley genome up a huge notch,” said Timothy Close, a professor of genetics at UC Riverside. “It makes it much easier for researchers working with barley to be focused on attainable objectives, ranging from new variety development through breeding to mechanistic studies of genes.”

The research will also aid scientists working with other cereal crops, including rice, wheat, rye, maize, millet, sorghum, oats and even turfgrass, which like the other food crops, is in the grass family, Close said.

Barley has been used for more than 10,000 years as a staple food and for fermented beverages, and as animal feed.

It is found in breakfast cereals and all-purpose flour and helps bread rise. Malted barley gives beer colour, body, protein to form a good head, and the natural sugars needed for fermentation. And single malt Scotch is made from only water and malted barley.

The report in Nature provides new insights into gene families that are key to the malting process. The barley genome sequence also enabled the identification of regions of the genome that have been vulnerable to genetic bottlenecking during domestication, knowledge that helps to guide breeders to optimize genetic diversity in their crop improvement efforts.

Ten years ago, the International Barley Genome Sequencing Consortium, which is led by Nils Stein of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Germany, set out to assemble a complete reference sequence of the barley genome.

This was a daunting task, as the barley genome is almost twice the size of the human genome and 80 per cent of it is composed of highly repetitive sequences, which cannot be assigned accurately to specific positions in the genome without considerable extra effort.

Multiple novel strategies were used in this paper to circumvent this fundamental limitation. Major advances in sequencing technology, algorithmic design and computing made it possible. Still, this work kept teams around the world – in Germany, Australia, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States – occupied for a decade. This work provides knowledge of more than 39,000 barley genes.

Alcoholic beverages have been made from malted barley since the Stone Age, and some even consider this to be a major reason why humankind adopted plant cultivation, at least in the Fertile Crescent, where barley was domesticated.

During malting, amylase proteins are produced by germinated seeds to decompose energy-rich starch that is stored in dry grains, yielding simple sugars. These sugars then are available for fermentation by yeast to produce alcohol. The genome sequence revealed much more variability than was expected in the genes that encode the amylase enzymes.

Barley is grown throughout the world, with Russia, Germany, France, Canada and Spain being among the top producers. In the United States, barley is mainly grown in the northwest. Idaho, Montana and North Dakota are the leading producers.

Source: UC Riverside

Advancing Crop Research

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The farmer-directed WGRF board tours field plots in Lacombe in 2016. (Photo: WGRF)

WGRF’s funding is all about benefitting western Canadian crop growers.

Farmer-focused. Research-focused. Multi-crop. Interprovincial. Cross-cutting. Independent. Collaborative. Unique. That’s the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF). Building on more than 35 years of experience, this crop research funding agency is poised for the challenges ahead.

“We are a farmer-funded and farmer-directed organization. Our focus is on funding research; we’re not involved in policy or advocacy or market development. We’re an independent organization, and we’re incorporated as a non-profit charity, which makes us unique in Western Canada,” says Garth Patterson, WGRF executive director. “And our focus is interprovincial, looking at research that will benefit crop producers in Western Canada.”

Since its inception in 1981, WGRF has invested over $130 million into crop research. It is probably best known for its investment of wheat and barley check-offs into variety development.

“Through that investment, over 200 new wheat and barley varieties have been released since 1995,” notes Patterson. “We fund public crop breeding institutions and their varieties really dominate western Canadian acreage.” For instance, over 88 per cent of CWRS acres and 94 per cent of CWAD acres are seeded to WGRF-funded wheat varieties.

In addition, WGRF supports research projects on many field crops from its Endowment Fund. Patterson says, “We fund research into canola, wheat, pea, lentil, chickpea, dry bean, barley, corn, soy, canaryseed, flax, oats, even forages – you name it.”

Collaboration is key to WGRF’s approach to project funding. Patterson explains, “The benefits of research don’t stop at provincial borders, so we work with the organizations in Western Canada that are interested in crop research, including producer organizations, provincially based organizations and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). Instead of running our own call for proposals, we consider the proposals that come in on their calls and look at ways to co-fund with them.”

According to Patterson, WGRF looks for three key elements in a research proposal. One is the potential to benefit crop producers in Western Canada. “That doesn’t mean we don’t invest in upstream research, but we want to have an understanding of how it might contribute in the end to profitability on the farm.” The other two elements are good science, and a strong likelihood that the researchers will accomplish the project’s objectives.

The WGRF’s research committee consists of experts representing various aspects of agriculture including: research, market development and agri-business; and WGRF board members. The research committee makes recommendations to the WGRF board of directors, which makes the final decisions on project funding. The board is composed of farmer representatives from each of the 18 member organizations, which include provincial, western Canadian and national farm organizations.

A Look at WGRF’s Latest Projects

WGRF funded over 20 new research projects in 2016 and is currently funding 250 projects. These projects cover an amazing array of topics such as: enhancing clubroot resistance in canola; improving faba bean, pea and alfalfa varieties; screening and managing Fusarium head blight in cereals; investigating novel ways to tackle herbicide resistance; managing pea leaf weevil in faba bean and field pea; and optimizing fertilizer management in flax. Most projects are co-funded with other agencies, enhancing the impact of WGRF dollars.

AAFC research scientist Neil Harker is leading the new project on herbicide resistance. “Weed resistance to herbicides is increasing rapidly and jeopardizes important herbicide tools,” he says. “Cropping systems that effectively manage weeds with less herbicide applications are urgently required to decrease the selection for more herbicide resistance, and to provide management tools in the face of new resistance issues.”

A WGRF-funded project is testing chaff collection devices to remove harvested weed seeds, one of several methods to reduce the need for herbicides. (Photo: Neil Harker, AAFC)

This project involves developing integrated weed management (IWM) strategies that reduce selection pressure for herbicide resistance. Harker explains: “In this project, we combine chaff collection (to remove harvested weed seeds) with some of the best cultural weed management techniques – high seeding rates, winter cereal crops, early-cut silage, perennial forage – in canola-wheat and more innovative crop rotations. This five-year experiment (2016-2020) is being conducted at six western Canadian locations under direct-seeding conditions.” Weed control tools such as chaff collection have more subtle effects than herbicides and require multiple years to determine their impact.

This research will introduce crop growers to new IWM strategies that reduce herbicide use and herbicide resistance selection pressure. “Combining chaff collection with previously proven IWM tools provides an opportunity to decrease the reliance on herbicides. With many weed seeds passing through the combine in the chaff fraction, collection of the chaff prevents many of the seeds from supplementing the seed-bank, thereby reducing weed populations,” says Harker.

“Chaff collection has the potential to reduce populations of many grassy and broadleaf weed species, and in combination with other weed-suppressing agronomic practices, can preserve the efficacy of herbicides.”

In addition to WGRF funding, this project is supported by the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission (Sask Wheat) and Alberta Barley.

Another new WGRF project concerns the pea leaf weevil. Many pea growers in southern Alberta are all too familiar with the yield losses due to the pea leaf weevil larvae feeding on pea root nodules and the adults feeding on pea foliage. Now this pest is spreading into new regions and a new host.

“The pea leaf weevil has recently expanded its geographic range to the Parkland agricultural regions in central Alberta and Saskatchewan where it threatens to damage

Funds from WGRF are helping researchers to assess ways to manage the pea leaf weevil in faba bean, another host for this pest. (Photo: Henri Goulet, AAFC-retired)

faba bean, in addition to peas,” says Héctor Cárcamo, a research scientist with AAFC who is the project’s principal investigator. “This project aims to learn more about the interaction between the pea leaf weevil and faba beans to determine if the weevil reduces yield in this crop and to assess potential management strategies. Another major objective is to improve our knowledge of the overwintering biology of this pest to enhance our ability to forecast local populations.”

This research will help faba bean growers determine if the weevil is a concern and how to manage it. “Faba bean is the best crop for nitrogen fixation and it may be able to compensate for pea leaf weevil feeding on the foliage (expected) and the larval feeding on root nodules,” notes Cárcamo. “The study will also provide objective data on the potential yield benefits of using seed treatment and foliar insecticides for the pea leaf weevil. The information on overwintering could help refine forecasting tools so we all have a better idea of the size of weevil pest populations to expect given certain winter conditions.”

WGRF and the Alberta Pulse Growers are funding this project. The University of Alberta, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and especially AAFC are providing substantial in-kind support.

Fusarium head blight (FHB), one of the most important wheat diseases on the Prairies, is the focus of a new spring wheat project. FHB lowers yields and results in downgrading because the fungus can produce toxins that limit the grain’s use. Fungicides can suppress the disease, but they only give up to about 50 per cent control. So cultivar resistance is a very important tool.

Unfortunately no single gene confers strong resistance to FHB. Breeders have to bring in several resistance genes, and even then most wheat varieties are only moderately resistant at best. So Randy Kutcher, an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is working with AAFC’s Plant Gene Resources of Canada and the National Research Council to find new sources of FHB resistance in spring wheat. These three agencies are part of the Canadian Wheat Alliance, a partnership to develop new wheat varieties that produce stable and increased yields, and have stronger resistance to stresses including FHB.

The researchers are screening for FHB resistance in Plant Gene Resources’ 14,000 accessions of wheat collected from all over the world. “In a Fusarium head blight nursery, we screened about 4,000 lines in 2016 and we’ll do it again in 2017,” says Kutcher. “Then we’ll pick the most promising lines and rescreen them.” After that, they will do some further work with the best lines to confirm the resistance and to see how easy it would be to cross that resistance into adapted germplasm. They will pass along any useful new sources of FHB resistance to wheat breeders.

This project is supported by the Agriculture Development Fund of the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Sask Wheat and WGRF.

Growth and Transition for WGRF

In 2016, WGRF invested over $19 million in breeding and other crop research, about a three-fold increase since 2011. WGRF has seen significant changes in its revenue sources over its history. It currently has five sources: the Endowment Fund, the wheat check-off, the barley check-off, royalties from commercialized wheat and barley varieties, and third-party funds to administer project funds (for example, WGRF is managing the funds awarded to projects in the Wheat Cluster under the Growing Forward 2 program).

The Endowment Fund got its start in 1981. “At the time, the Prairie Farm Assistance Act [an early version of crop insurance] was wound down. It had $9 million that came from farmers, so the federal government put that into kick-starting the Endowment Fund to fund research in a wide variety of crops,” explains Patterson.

Then in 2000, the Endowment Fund got another important source of funds. “The federal government named WGRF as the recipient under the Canada Transportation Act with respect to the Rail Revenue Entitlement. Anytime the railways exceed that Entitlement, the amount they exceed it by is awarded to WGRF,” Patterson says. He adds, “It is bittersweet because it means farmers have been overcharged for grain transportation. On the other hand it would be administratively very complex and costly to try and return that to farmers, so the federal government decided to put the money into WGRF to benefit all farmers.”

Of the $19 million invested in research by WGRF in 2016, about $7.5 million was from the Endowment Fund.

WGRF began administering the wheat and barley check-offs for variety development in 1994. A 2012 return-on-investment study commissioned by WGRF found that, on average, for every check-off dollar invested in variety development, producers receive $20 in value for wheat and $7.50 for barley.

The current Western Wheat and Barley Check-off is a five-year measure put in place by the federal government on Aug. 1, 2012 with the ending of the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly. This transitional measure is intended to allow provincial wheat and barley commissions and associations to take responsibility for research and market development. Currently, funds from this check-off go to WGRF, the Canadian International Grains Institute and the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre.

Patterson notes, “The western Canadian wheat and barley commissions and associations are making plans to assume the check-off starting on Aug. 1, 2017. Farmers really won’t notice a difference.”

WGRF felt it was crucial to prevent any funding gaps in wheat and barley variety development programs, so it has taken steps to ensure a smooth transition. “Even though the check-off that we receive expires on July 31, 2017, we had enough in our wheat and barley reserve funds to commit to new agreements that go to 2020 with the public institutions,” Patterson states.

“So there is stability for public breeders. And the wheat and barley commissions have time to put their plan together for how they would like to continue that.”

Renewing Agronomic Research Capacity

One of WGRF’s current initiatives involves reinvigorating agronomic research capacity in Western Canada. This initiative had its beginnings about three years ago, when a number of producer groups expressed concerns about declining capacity to WGRF.

To get a better handle on the issue, WGRF commissioned a study of the current and projected agronomic research capacity to 2020. The resulting report, Fertile Ground: Agronomic Research Capacity in Western Canada, was released in 2014. It confirmed the declining capacity, including loss of scientific expertise due to retirements, a lack of adequate equipment, land and buildings, and insufficient staff and funding.

So WGRF set up a technical committee to develop a vision of future agronomic research capacity, and it held a workshop in April 2015 to consult with stakeholders. This generated Shaping the Future, a report on ways to address the capacity needs.

Next, WGRF developed a two-phase strategy for reinvigorating agronomic research capacity. The strategy was finalized in spring 2016, and phase 1 is now being implemented.

Phase 1 involves rebuilding human resources research capacity at the main public institutions involved in agronomic research in Western Canada – AAFC, University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan and University of Manitoba. AAFC has already started filling several positions, and WGRF is working with each of the three universities. Phase 2 will target capacity issues around infrastructure and equipment and at other research organizations. As the various capacity issues are addressed in phases 1 and 2, WGRF will be looking at how it can increase its agronomy-related project funding.

Where to From Here?

WGRF has built a strong tradition of supporting an impressive range of research, all targeted towards benefits to western Canadian crop producers. Researchers recognize WGRF’s valuable role. For instance, Kutcher says, “WGRF is a very important organization whose support is key to much of the field crop research in Western Canada.” And Cárcamo states, “The funding from WGRF is instrumental for crop researchers such as entomologists in Western Canada to allow us to continue to improve the economic and environmental sustainability of farming.”

What’s next for WGRF? “WGRF is in transition with the ending of the wheat and barley check-offs. But we’ve created a very stable situation as far as the support for wheat and barley variety development out to 2020. So, as we transition we are looking at what we can do in the Endowment Fund,” says Patterson.

“When we look at our strengths and our uniqueness, being western Canadian, multi-crop, farmer-focused and an independent charity, we think we can play a leadership role in cross-cutting issues.”

Many of today’s cross-cutting issues are vitally important to the success of crop production in Western Canada. Patterson highlights some examples: “Agronomy research capacity is one. We’ve also got issues related to climate change, whether it is crop adaptation to wetter, to drier, to warmer conditions. We’ve got the issue of what agriculture can do to mitigate climate change, for example by capturing carbon. We’ve got issues that cut across all crops like nutrient management, herbicide-resistant weeds and changing weed populations, and pest monitoring and management. And there are things like genomics capacity and tools that can benefit multiple crops.”

Harker notes, “It is crucial that agencies such as WGRF fund agronomic research that focuses on multiple crops. Growers do not grow a single crop on their farm. These projects provide growers with tools to manage challenges such as herbicide resistance in their entire crop rotation and not just in a single crop. In this regard, WGRF provides a unique service to growers when compared to individual crop funding agencies.”

Patterson emphasizes, “No other farm funding organization is focusing on a multi-crop, whole farm, integrated approach to western Canadian crop production. We think that is a very good role for WGRF to play moving forward.”