Breathing Life into Flax


Helen Booker is a breeder with the only flax breeding program in Western Canada, located at the Crop Development Centre in Saskatoon.

With only one public breeding program left for the crop in Western Canada, flax researchers are trying to get growers to adopt the latest genetics and help usher in a renaissance for this valuable product.

You might forgive Helen Booker for feeling a little lonely these days. As a member of the only public flax breeding program left in Western Canada, she’s always anxious to chat about flax.

“It’s not exactly a money-making business, breeding and developing cultivars for these smaller, self-pollinating crops,” says Booker, flax breeder and Ministry of Agriculture Strategic Research Program chair at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre (CDC) in Saskatoon.

The handful of breeding programs for flax that once existed in Canada have been whittled down to two — a small one in Quebec, and the other at the CDC. Flax is a crop that, despite its increasing popularity in a variety of foods, is often considered a niche product, and overshadowed by the likes of wheat, canola, corn and soybeans.

Flax acreage in Canada declined to 925,000 acres in 2016 after experiencing steady increases in the previous four years and reaching 1.6 million acres in 2015. The decline in 2016 was primarily due to tremendous increases in pea and lentil acres in Saskatchewan and Alberta, notes Don Kerr, recently retired president of the Flax Council of Canada.

Crop alternatives like canola and soybeans in Manitoba in particular have impacted flax acres as well, he says. That’s partly because other countries have hopped on the flax-growing bandwagon, and also because farmers are switching to other crops like canola and soybeans.

That’s odd, considering Canada is the world’s leader in the production and export of flax, according to the Flax Council of Canada — a position it has held since 1994. In 2014-15, Canada produced about 875,000 metric tons and exported about 80 per cent of it, according to Statistics Canada. In 2015-16, Canadian flax production totalled 940,000 metric tons.

Canada is also the first country in the world to allow a health-related claim for flaxseed for use on food labels, linking ground whole flaxseed to lower cholesterol — a major risk factor for heart disease. This claim is one of only a dozen deemed to meet the rigorous scientific criteria established by Health Canada.

Those are major honours for any crop. So why is there less flax breeding happening in Canada?

“There’s more than a dozen cultivars registered for production in Canada, but flax growers are maybe growing a couple of them. Seed companies can’t make money selling certified seed — there’s just not enough revenue in it,” Booker says. “There’s no real comprehensive business plan for these smaller crops where farmers are able to save the seed and replant it, and they don’t have to go and buy seed every year.”

That leaves breeders like Booker with a problem. She needs to work hard to ensure Canada remains a world leader in flax, and doing that means improving the crop for the future and continuing the introduction of new lines. At the same time, older varieties of flax — CDC Bethune, first registered 19 years ago and the most popular one in Canada — continue to hang on and dominate the marketplace.

Booker and the CDC put forward a single flax line earlier this year at the meeting of the Prairie Grain Development Committee (PGDC), and it was recommended for registration. FP2513 shows an impressive yield bump — 117 per cent of CDC Bethune in the Zone 1 longer-growing season black and grey soils of Western Canada, where the majority of flax acres are located. That’s significant, but Booker isn’t holding her breath that the new line will become king of the flax world anytime soon.

“We’re trying to move farmers away from Bethune and adopt some of the newer genetics, but it’s not easy,” she says.

Part of the issue, she acknowledges, is that flax just hasn’t made the same yield gains as other crops over time, so it can be hard to get growers excited about a new variety when they have seed from the old standbys like Bethune and CDC Sorrel on hand and ready to put in the ground. Farmers love the agronomics of those varieties, she notes.

According to Kofi Agblor, managing director of the CDC, part of the solution is to make the flax program more efficient and by creating new flax varieties that will be better positioned to be adopted by growers. The CDC recently commissioned a study of its flax program, which came up with a number of recommendations for how to make the program better.

“It’s what works on the farm that we’re now focusing on,” he says.

Flax faces many of the same challenges as barley when it comes to sluggish adoption of new varieties, Agblor points out, so it’s not alone among crops that have a hard time against newer genetics adopted in the marketplace.

“If you look at 2016, CDC Copeland was the No. 1 variety of malt barley. That variety is almost 20 years old. The return on investment for barley is lower than for wheat, and because the adoption isn’t there, you can spend a lot of money to bring newer varieties to the marketplace and not have the uptake to really make it worthwhile.”

The solution? Avoid the temptation to put forward a new line of flax unless it shows a significant gain in yield or possesses an economically important trait.

“Otherwise, what you end up doing is just littering the market with varieties no one is picking up,” Agblor says.

“What needs to happen is we need to create new varieties that do two things: fulfill the needs of farmers in terms of yield, disease resistance and such, and fulfill the needs of the end users, like improvements in oil quantity and the like. This way you select only lines that will make the cut, and that results in a much more efficient use of resources.”

That was the thinking last year, when the CDC put forward only one line at the PGDC meetings, and it’s that kind of thinking that will help flax succeed in the marketplace, notes Kerr.

“Growers are choosing what gives them the best bang for their buck. Yield has always been an issue with flaxseed, but growers were seeing 27 bushels per acre last year with flax, which is pretty good,” he says. “I think the work we’re doing as a sector has contributed to that, and it’s not just genetics — part of that is getting information about best management practices out there.”

Muffins, India and the Future of Flax

According to Kerr, despite the drop-off in Canadian flax acres, the crop is well positioned to experience a renaissance all its own.

“We’ll see a rebound in acres next year. In terms of markets, we have a good story to tell about flaxseed,” he says.

The Health Canada claim, he says, has gone a long way to boosting the crop’s profile. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has added flax muffins to the menu in many of its personal care homes and hospital sites. In 2016, an estimated 50,000 muffins were served in the health region. The muffin’s appearance on the menu began in September of last year, after consultation with the Flax Council.

Three other foods made with ground flaxseed were created and tested at the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie — a bread, smoothie mix and nutrition bar.

The Flax Council also embarked on a trip to China in April 2017. Chinese demand has been growing steadily over the past number of years, says Kerr, and he wants to ensure Canadian flax is in front of them.

“We could see our exports bounce back. Europe is a major market, and we might see some increases there this year. There’s also growing demand in India. They grow some flax there, but not in any great quantity. Our pulse industry is benefiting from shipments to India, and I think flax will as well. We’re also looking at Mexico and markets like that, where we can see some positive growth.”

For Agblor, there is indeed a good story to tell about flax. A recent economic assessment the CDC conducted of its plant breeding program showed a $6 return to the farmer for every $1 the CDC invests in flax development.

“That’s impressive. It sounds low, but that’s because there’s such few acres. What we need is to convince people to grow more flax, and to do that we need a method of capturing the value of the varieties in the marketplace,” he says.

“If you buy certified seed once and you re-use the seed for the next six years, where does the money come from to develop a new variety that has better yield? That’s a discussion we have to have industry-wide. A lot of our breeders have to run around to get money to get that work done. They spend a lot of time filling out applications and looking for funding.”

The advent of new products, like the new flax being developed by the California-based Cibus expected to be released in 2019, could also raise the profile of the crop. Cibus’ new non-transgenic, glyphosate-tolerant flax product will offer improved yields for flax farmers and promises healthier flax-based oils for consumers, according to the company.

It also provides a gateway-enabling development platform that can be used for additional non-transgenic trait development in flax, notes Jim Radtke, the company’s senior vice-president of product development. He spoke about the product at the PGDC meeting in Winnipeg in February 2017. It uses Cibus’ non-transgenic Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS) to make gene edits to plants, a technology it’s also using in canola, rice and potato.

The Canadian flax market is in need of an effective weed control package for flax, and that’s why the Flax Council of Canada with the support of the federal government has partially funded the development of this crop. According to Agblor, germplasm from the CDC was used to help develop it.

“It was really exciting to see glyphosate tolerant flax in a greenhouse. Flax doesn’t like glyphosate at all, so we’ve clearly made significant progress,” Radtke says.

Muendel Honoured with Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award


Dr. Hans-Henning Muendel, left, presented with the Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award by APG Chair D’Arcy Hilgartner.

The Alberta Pulse Growers (APG) presented the fourth annual Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award to Dr. Hans-Henning Muendel, who was instrumental in developing numerous bean cultivars for Alberta growers.

“Each year, APG recognizes a person or organization whose progressive thinking and tireless efforts helped build Alberta’s pulse industry into the flourishing sector that it is today,” said APG Chair D’Arcy Hilgartner. “Dr. Muendel dedicated his career to developing the dry bean cultivars that now set the standard for small red, black, pinto and great northern cultivars in Western Canada. He truly deserves to receive the Alberta Pulse Industry Innovator Award for his many contributions.”

In 1996, there weren’t any dry bean cultivars being grown in Western Canada that had been bred in this region. Over the next 11 years, as the senior research scientist at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Centre in Lethbridge, Muendel and his team developed 14 dry bean cultivars in seven bean classes, and co-developed one other new bean cultivar. Muendel’s bean breeding program concentrated on producing early maturing, upright bean cultivars that are well-suited to the short growing seasons of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Many of the dry bean cultivars from Muendel’s program also had improved resistance to white mould while maintaining high yield and quality. Muendel also served as an ex-officio director for Alberta Pulse Growers.

Zone 1 Director Rodney Volk had high praise for Muendel’s contributions to the pulse industry that continue to benefit dry bean growers like himself.

“Dr. Muendel was instrumental in establishing the breeding program that developed dry bean cultivars specific to southern Alberta growing conditions,” Volk said. “The success of dry bean production in southern Alberta today can be largely credited to his program’s development of local varieties with improved standability and disease resistance. Many of today’s pinto and great northern varieties still have a direct connection to the lines Dr. Muendel developed.”

Muendel said that he was honoured to learn that he was chosen as the recipient of the fourth annual Industry Innovator Award: “It has been 10 years since I retired, and now – with our bean varieties having spread throughout the Alberta dry bean growing area – on behalf of my breeding team, it is such an honour to accept this award.”

The Alberta Pulse Growers Commission represents 6,000 growers of field pea, dry bean, lentil, chickpea, faba bean and soybean in Alberta. Our vision is to have Alberta pulses recognized by consumers as environmentally friendly, healthy, nutritious, and recognized by all producers as being an essential element in a sustainable cropping system.

How climate change alters plant growth


Global warming affects more than just plant biodiversity – it even alters the way plants grow.

A team of researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) joined forces with the Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry (IPB) to discover which molecular processes are involved in plant growth.

In the current edition of the internationally renowned journal Current Biology, the group presents its latest findings on the mechanism controlling growth at high temperatures. In the future this could help breed plants that are adapted to global warming.

Plants react much more sensitively to fluctuations in temperature than animals. They are also unable to seek out warmer or cooler locations.

“When temperatures rise, plants grow taller in order to cool themselves off. Their stalks become taller and their leaves become narrower and grow farther apart. Yet this makes the plant more instable overall,” says Professor Marcel Quint, an agricultural scientist at MLU. This is noticeable, for example, during grain harvesting. Instable plants bend faster in the rain and generally produce less biomass. There is also a reduction in the proportion of key substances, like proteins, that can be stored in the grain kernel.

“While the correlation between temperature and plant growth at the macrolevel is relatively well understood, there are still many open questions at the molecular level. We are just starting to understand how plants detect the changes in temperature and translate this into specific reactions,” Quint notes.

Earlier studies have shown that the protein PIF4 directly controls plant growth and that this protein is also dependent on temperature. When it’s cold, PIF4 is less active – in other words the plant doesn’t grow. At higher temperatures, PIF4 activates growth-promoting genes and the plant grows taller.

“Up until now it had been unclear how the plant knows when to activate PIF4 and how much should be released,” says Quint. “There were large gaps in our knowledge about the exact signalling pathway of temperature-controlled growth.”

And that is precisely what the research group in Halle has now discovered. They investigated the growth behaviour of seedlings of the model plant thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana). Normally its seedlings form short stems at 20 C (68 F). These stems become considerably longer at 28 C (82.4 F). In the lab, the scientists identified plants with a gene defect which still only formed short stems at 28 C. Then they searched for possible reasons for this lack in growth. They discovered a hormone that activates the PIF4 gene at high temperatures, thus producing the protein. This reaction did not occur in the mutated plants.

“We have now discovered the role of this special hormone in the signalling pathway and have found a mechanism through which the growth process is positively regulated at higher temperatures,” says Quint.

The findings of the research group from Halle may help to breed plants in the future that remain stable even at high temperatures and are able to produce sufficient yields. To achieve this, the findings from the basic research on model plants first have to be transferred to cultivated plants like cereals.


Combination of resistance genes offers better protection for wheat against powdery mildew


Wheat line without Pm3 alleles, infected by powdery mildew. (Photo: UZH)

University of Zurich (UZH) plant researchers have tested newly developed wheat lines with improved resistance to powdery mildew in field trials. They have demonstrated that a combination of two variations of a resistance gene provides wheat with better protection against the fungal disease.

For several years now, UZH researchers have been investigating a wheat gene that confers resistance to powdery mildew (Blumeria graminis f. sp. tritici). The gene, called the Pm3 resistance gene, exists in different variations, so called alleles. In previous studies, plant researcher Beat Keller and his team demonstrated that single Pm3 alleles are able to confer resistance against powdery mildew fungi. And yet, a single resistance gene can quickly lose its effectiveness. Thus when it comes to plant breeding, it is important to combine multiple resistance genes. This is exactly what researchers at UZH have now tested in field trials using transgenic wheat lines.

The researchers created new wheat lines by crossbreeding transgenic Pm3 lines. This resulted in four new wheat lines, each containing two different Pm3 gene variations. “These four new wheat lines showed improved resistance against powdery mildew in field trials compared with their parental lines – during the field seasons 2015 to 2017,” explains Teresa Koller, lead author of the study.

Back in the laboratory, the scientists proved that the parental lines’ gene activity is added up in the newly created lines. Each Pm3 allele in the four new lines displayed the same activity as in the parental line, which results in increased overall activity, since it came from two different gene variations. “The improved resistance against powdery mildew is the result of the increased total transgene activity as well as the combination of the two Pm3 gene variations,” summarizes Teresa Koller. The high overall activity of resistance genes did not cause any negative effects for the development of the wheat or its yield.

The findings of these trials improve our general knowledge of the immune system of plants, and in particular of fungal disease resistance of wheat. Besides contributing to fundamental research in the area of plants’ immune systems, the findings can also be applied in wheat breeding. Thanks to the precise testing of Pm3 alleles, the best variations and combinations are identified and can then be used directly in traditional breeding by crossbreeding them into modern wheat varieties.

Pot Genetics: Why cannabis strains don’t all live up to their billing


Canopy Growth, a cannabis company in Smiths Falls, Ont., is actively breeding pot and drilling into its genetics to create new strains with consistent characteristics. (Photo Mia Sheldon/CBC)

Red Diesel, Moby Dick, Lemon Burst, or how about Girl Scout Cookies? All names for “bud,” the cannabis flower, and when the black market product goes legal in Canada this summer expect some heavy marketing of fancy names and their tantalizing effects.

But plant scientists say the “sell” is hazy. Those buds have a mixed-up lineage and don’t always match what’s advertised.

It’s about genetics, and cannabis is a mixed breed, to say the least.

With more than 100 creative names for pot, each variant is said to have slightly different properties and that translates into different effects, according to vendors.


Uncovering a Genetic Mechanism to Enhance Yield Potential in Cereal Crops


Andrea Eveland, Ph.D.

Solving the world’s food, feed and bioenergy challenges requires integration of multiple approaches and diverse skills. Andrea Eveland, Ph.D., assistant member at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and her team identified a genetic mechanism that controls developmental traits related to grain production in cereals. The work was performed in Setaria viridis, an emerging model system for grasses that is closely related to economically important cereal crops and bioenergy feed stocks such as maize, sorghum, switchgrass and sugarcane.

The Eveland laboratory’s research findings, “Brassinosteroids modulate meristem fate and differentiation of unique inflorescence morphology in Setaria viridis”, were recently published in the journal The Plant Cell. In their study, Yang et al. mapped a genetic locus in the S. viridis genome that controls growth of sterile branches called bristles, which are produced on the grain-bearing inflorescences of some grass species. Their research revealed that these sterile bristles are initially programmed to be spikelets; grass-specific structures that produce flowers and grain. Eveland’s work showed that conversion of a spikelet to a bristle is determined early in inflorescence development and regulated by a class of plant hormones called brassinosteroids (BRs), which modulate a range of physiological processes in plant growth, development and immunity. In addition to converting a sterile structure to a seed-bearing one, the research also showed that localized disruption of BR synthesis can lead to production of two flowers per spikelet rather than the single one that typically forms. These BR-dependent phenotypes therefore represent two potential avenues for enhancing grain production in millets, including subsistence crops in many developing countries that remain largely untapped for genetic improvement.

“This work is a great demonstration of how Setaria viridis can be leveraged to gain fundamental insights into the mechanisms that govern seed production in the grasses – our most important group of plants that includes corn, sorghum, rice, wheat and barley,” said Thomas Brutnell, Ph.D., Director of the Enterprise Institute for Renewable Fuels, Danforth Center. “It’s also worth noting that this project was conceived and work initiated after Dr. Eveland joined the Danforth Center – an impressive feat for a junior faculty member that speaks to both the advantages of working on a model system and the great team that she has assembled at the Danforth Center.”

At the Danforth Center, Eveland’s research focuses on the developmental mechanisms that control plant architecture traits in cereal crops. Specifically, she investigates how plant organs are formed from stem cells, and how variation in the underlying gene regulatory networks can precisely modulate plant form. Her team integrates both computational and experimental approaches to explore how perturbations to these gene networks can alter morphology, both within a species and across the grasses, with the ultimate goal of defining targets for improving grain yield in cereals.

“The genetics and genomics tools that are emerging for Setaria enable more rapid dissection of molecular pathways such as this one, and allow us to manipulate them directly in a system that is closely related to the food crops we aim to improve,” said Eveland. “It means we are just that much closer to designing and deploying optimal architectures for cereal crops. The prospect of leveraging these findings for improvement of related grasses that are also orphan crop species, such as pearl and foxtail millets, is especially exciting.”


David Sippell Joins Cibus to Lead Canadian Operations


Cibus, a leading trait development and plant breeding company, has appointed David Sippell as Vice President, and General Manager, Canada. He will manage Canadian operations from Cibus’ new office in Winnipeg.

Sippell has more than three decades of experience within the agribusiness sector. With the recent launch of SU Canola in Canada, Sippell will direct Cibus’ growth and expansion into the Canadian canola market.

“David’s addition to the Cibus team as the leader of our Canadian operations will steer the company’s progress in this geography and provide innovative profit-yielding options to Canadian farmers,” said Peter Beetham, Ph.D., President and Chief Executive Officer, Cibus. “David’s extensive knowledge of the seed business and international agribusiness expertise will strengthen and grow Cibus’ expanding presence in the world’s most valuable canola seed market.”

David Sippell

Sippell will bolster Cibus’ growing commercial team. “David’s expertise in the agribusiness sector and his deep knowledge and passion for the canola industry will contribute to the expansion of Cibus’ operations in Canada,” said Bradley Castanho, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, Commercial and Business Development.

Sippell’s experience includes decades of leadership experience in the canola seed business in Canada with a range of companies that include Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Syngenta, and Sippell was the founding President and CEO of Canterra Seeds Holdings Ltd., a grower-owned seed company. Sippell holds a Bachelor of Science, Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy in Plant Pathology and Plant Breeding from the University of Guelph.

According to a news release, SU Canola offers Canadian growers valuable, non-GMO hybrids that provide a new option for weed control. Cibus’ first canola hybrid was registered for sale in Canada in spring 2017. Led by Sippell, Cibus’ Winnipeg office is the flagship for expanding Canadian operations as Cibus launches its expanding product portfolio.

Speed breeding technique sows seeds of new green revolution


Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom was one of the authors of a new study that reveals a method called "speed breeding."

Pioneering new technology is set to accelerate the global quest for crop improvement in a development which echoes the Green Revolution of the post war period.

The speed-breeding platform developed by teams at the John Innes Centre, University of Queensland and University of Sydney, uses a glasshouse or an artificial environment with enhanced lighting to create intense day-long regimes to speed up the search for better performing crops.

Using the technique, the team has achieved wheat generation from seed to seed in just eight weeks. These results appear in Nature Plants.

This means that it is now possible to grow as many as six generations of wheat every year – a threefold increase on the shuttle-breeding techniques currently used by breeders and researchers.

Dr. Brande Wulff of the John Innes Centre, Norwich, a lead author on the paper, explains why speed is of the essence: “Globally, we face a huge challenge in breeding higher yielding and more resilient crops. Being able to cycle through more generations in less time, will allow us to more rapidly create and test genetic combinations and find the best combinations for different environments.”

For many years the improvement rates of several staple crops have stalled, leading to a significant impediment in the quest to feed the growing global population and address the impacts of climate change.

Speed breeding, says Wulff, offers a potential new solution to a global challenge for the 21st century.

“People said you may be able to cycle plants fast, but they will look tiny and insignificant, and only set a few seed. In fact, the new technology creates plants that look better and are healthier than those using standard conditions. One colleague could not believe it when he first saw the results.”

The exciting breakthrough has the potential to rank, in terms of impact, alongside the shuttle-breeding techniques introduced after the second world war as part of the green revolution.

Wulff goes on to say: “I would like to think that in 10 years from now you could walk into a field and point to plants whose attributes and traits were developed using this technology.”

This technique uses fully controlled growth environments and can also be scaled up to work in a standard glass house. It uses LED lights optimized to aid photosynthesis in intensive regimes of up to 22 hours per day.

LED lights significantly reduce the cost compared to sodium vapour lamps which have long been in widespread use but are ineffective because they generate much heat and emit poor quality light.

The international team also prove that the speed breeding technique can be used for a range of important crops. They have achieved up to six generations per year for bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, pea and chickpea; and four generations for canola. This is a significant increase compared with widely used commercial breeding techniques.

Speed breeding, when employed alongside conventional field-based techniques, can be an important tool to enable advances in understanding the genetics of crops.

“Speed breeding as a platform can be combined with lots of other technologies such as CRISPR gene editing to get to the end result faster,” explains Dr. Lee Hickey from the University of Queensland.

The study shows that traits such as plant pathogen interactions, plant shape and structure, and flowering time can be studied in detail and repeated using the technology.

The speed breeding technology has been welcomed by wheat breeders who have become early adopters.

Ruth Bryant, wheat pathologist at RAGT Seeds Ltd., Essex, UK, said: “Breeders are always looking for ways to speed up the process of getting a variety to market so we are really interested in the concept of speed breeding. We are working closely with Dr. Wulff’s group at the John Innes Centre to develop this method in a commercial setting.”

Dr. Allan Rattey, a wheat crop breeder with Australian company Dow AgroSciences, has used the technology to breed wheat with tolerance to pre-harvest sprouting (PHS), a major problem in Australia.

“Environmental control for effective PHS screening and the long time taken to cycle through several cycles of recurrent selection were major bottle necks. The speed breeding and targeted selection platform have driven major gains for both of these areas of concerns.”

Source: John Innes Centre

The 4-P Funding Model


(Photo courtesy Harpinder S. Randhawa)

Taking a look at one very successful Alberta-based initiative.

The 4-P model (public/private/producer partnership) for crop R&D involves funding contributions from government, private companies and producers. This type of initiative is seen as an effective way to pool resources and ensure the growth of total overall investment in variety development in Canada – and according to those directly involved, the 4-P involving Agriculture and Agri-food Canada (AAFC), Canterra Seeds and the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) is no exception.

This particular 4-P started in 2014 and runs through to the end of 2018, but Tom Steve reports that discussions about renewal will begin in early 2018.

Tom Steve

“It’s the main CPSR (Canada Prairie Spring Red) wheat breeding program in Western Canada,” says Steve, general manager at the AWC. “Three-quarters of this wheat class is grown in Alberta as it’s well-suited to the climate. It goes into both feed and milling markets.”

The partnership’s main benefit for producers in his view is the continuation of a program that was in danger of being shut down. The main CPSR breeder at AAFC in Winnipeg had retired and the program was in jeopardy, he recalls. AAFC put out a request for partnership proposals in early 2014, and Canterra Seeds submitted one that was accepted in March. AAFC then held discussions with multiple grower groups that had expressed potential interest in participating, and by mid-2014, notes Canterra Seeds president and CEO David Hansen, AWC had joined the partnership with the full support of his company. All three parties are contributing $3.4 million in cash and in-kind items over the five-year timeline.

“It’s overall a great way to develop new varieties with higher yields and better disease resistance,” Steve notes. “Alberta farmers, through the AWC, will get a share of royalties on seed sales, likely starting with a variety called AAC Crossfield in the fall of 2018, and those royalties will go back into further research investments.”

Two other lines are already also approved for registration, and Hansen says there are many new candidates in the variety registration trials “that are showing amazing promise.”

Harpinder S. Randhawa

Dr. Harpinder Singh Randhawa, based at AAFC Lethbridge, is the partnership’s breeder behind these varieties. He notes the 4-P model is not just about funding, but about providing other resources critical to ensuring a strong breeding program moving forward.

“With AAFC sites that have closed, for example the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg around 2012, and also the downsizing of satellite research sites, there really was no room for my breeding work,” he explains. “Through this partnership, I have access to trial sites through Canterra and this is very important. Money is certainly needed for variety development, but you also need other resources. To have the increased research capacity over a greater geographic area in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta greatly benefits the research. Canterra is also providing evaluation work.”

Canterra Seeds is also providing insight into commercial opportunities, says Hansen, as well as the ability to use different production and commercialization models based on what is best for a particular variety to maximize its distribution and value. In addition, Canterra is providing links to end-users and an understanding of their requirements in Canada and the U.S. in order to help guide development of new varieties in the program.

Beyond all this, Steve lists another benefit of this arrangement for producers: AWC’s close relationship with Dr. Randhawa. “It’s a great exchange of information,” he says.

Hansen agrees. “The relationship among the three partners continues to grow,” he notes. “We are well-aligned, and with an effective governance model in place we are able to work well towards the objectives of the agreement. Partnerships make sense when you are able to bring various elements required to the table to further the advancement, versus everyone trying to do things on their own. Wheat is a very complex crop that requires a significant investment in order for it to remain a competitive option for the farmer. This may not apply for all crops, but for wheat and durum, this does seem to be true, and so the arrangement definitely makes sense.”

David Hansen

Hansen adds that Canterra Seeds’ interest in continuing the three-way relationship is strong, and that it fully intends to explore new opportunities, including perhaps the involvement of Limagrain Cereals Research Canada if it makes sense. Limagrain and Canterra Seeds have a partnership, and this relationship could provide opportunity for expanded future collaboration, including germplasm and breeding tools.

For his part, Steve notes that for AWC, the 4-P model for breeding Canada Prairie Spring Red wheat has been very successful and he looks forward to discussions on a renewal.

“We really like this model, and with it, we have the resources in place for a world-class program,” he says. “We look forward to more varieties over the next few years.”

Harpinder adds that from his perspective, it would be wonderful to continue on, and he looks forward to sitting down and discussing it early next year.

“It’s been wonderful,” he says, “to work both with Canterra and also the Alberta Wheat Commission.”

Alberta Regional Variety Trials


In 2017, the cereal and flax RVT program under ARVAC expects to generate $76,700 through a $1,300 annual testing fee charged for each variety being tested, excluding checks. (Photo: Janet Kanters)

The Alberta Regional Variety Testing program (RVT) is the most trusted source of variety information for producers in Alberta. Farmers need accurate, regional and the most current variety information to stay competitive.

The Alberta Regional Variety Advisory Committee (ARVAC), the official body that establishes policy for the variety-testing program, takes this responsibility very seriously, and constantly strives to present the data in the most appropriate and understandable manner.

According to Alex Fedko, RVT program coordinator and crop research technologist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, the goal of the RVT is to provide cereal, flax and pulse crop growers, and industry and extension specialists with scientifically valid crop variety performance information under different agro-climatic conditions. Data is published in the Alberta Seed Guide and in Alberta Agriculture’s Varieties of Cereal and Oilseed Crops for Alberta pamphlet.

“There are many sources of variety information for producers,” says Fedko. “However, this program is unique because the data comes from two independent sources: the co-op trials where new crop cultivars are tested before registration and data from post-registration (regional) trials. For example, the spring wheat co-op data that is reported in the Varieties of Cereal and Oilseed Crops for Alberta factsheets includes days to maturity, resistance to lodging, shattering and sprouting, and resistance to five different diseases. It is hard to find a third-party source of information that would have all the relevant material in one package.

“Free access to independent variety performance information helps producers to select varieties that perform well in their commercial fields, and also this data is helping seed growers to choose a cultivar that will meet their customers’ needs,” adds Fedko.

Accurate Data

The RVT program is responsible for generating unbiased post-registration information for varieties of wheat, barley, oat, rye triticale, flax, field pea, chickpea, lentil, dry bean and faba bean.

Good field trials are required to generate reliable data, and several quality control steps are in place to achieve this. Fedko annually reviews test protocols with collaborators to detail the conduct of the trials and the expectations. All of the field trials are also inspected; cooperators receive 35 per cent of the plot payment for seeding, but unless the trial passes a July inspection, no further payment is made.

Crop specific coordinators, individuals who are experts in the crop, review the raw data prior to analysis. After the data are approved, statistical analysis is performed and measures of variability similar to those used in crop registration trials are used to determine the reliability of the trial prior to entry into the database. Finally, the crop specific coordinators review the tables prior to presentation before the committee, where they are discussed and ultimately approved for publication.

“We constantly strive to present the data in the most pertinent and understandable manner. As examples, in recent years we’ve changed the method of yield data presentation, used actual ratings to report disease resistance and added various columns of new information,” notes Fedko. “And finally, producers have asked us to enter a few more cultivars that they may be able to relate to more readily. The entries in the trials changes every year and it is made up of new varieties that producers are likely to see within the next two to three years.”

The inclusion of some older “benchmark” cultivars that are well known to producers started this season and Fedko says that should help producers make better-informed decisions. The selection of the benchmark varieties is based on the most popular varieties from data published in Yield Alberta. It means that wheat, barley and oat trials now have three to four checks instead of one.

Understanding Cereal Variety Data

When comparing varietal performance data, growers should find as much information as they can from various sources.

“The RVT tables done by independent cooperators is really just another set of data to compare the results producers are seeing from company data, variety registration data, crop insurance data or their own field trials,” says Fedko. “Consistency among the different sources of data sets is the key. If a variety is repeatedly coming out in the top, the confidence that it will perform well goes up.”

However, in case there are substantial differences among those different data sets, it doesn’t necessarily mean a grower should stay away from a variety, but rather it should be the signal to do more research. In this case, digging deeper into background of those trials may help. Protocols used, weather conditions, or other growing season stresses may have caused the poorer performance at some locations.

Looking at other factors besides yield is important to get a complete picture. In many cases, the varieties included in the trials are top performing varieties from various programs, so the yield differences may be small. In this case, a variety that has a larger number of station years can increase confidence.

Other factors that may be as important as yield data are maturity, lodging and disease ratings. Growers have many options at their disposal, however, spending a lot of money on good genetics will not compensate for poor agronomic management. Starting with good genetics is a foundation to have a successful crop, but it can’t make up for poor management down the road. It is still important to get adequate plant population established early, sufficient nutrients for an appropriate target yield, and then protect the yield potential from pests and harvest losses.


Conducting regional variety testing for numerous crops over the large agricultural area of Alberta is a huge undertaking. The RVT program is funded in four ways: industry funds via annual entry fees for lines in the regional trials; Government of Alberta contribution of the RVT coordinator; funding from parties with interest in regional crop performance data for Alberta producers; and in-kind contributions of time/seed/trial coordination/plot data from collaborators who do not receive monetary compensation. There are some differences in funding between the cereal and pulse crops.

According to Fedko, in 2017, the cereal and flax RVT program under ARVAC expects to generate $76,700 through a $1,300 annual testing fee charged for each variety being tested, excluding checks. In addition, a major contribution from the Alberta Wheat Commission along with funding from the Alberta Barley Commission, the Oat Growers, the Alberta Seed Growers and the Alberta Seed Processors (half goes towards ARVAC) helps to defray modest expenses to deliver the program.

“This revenue is used to fund regional variety trials at nine to 11 core sites in Alberta,” notes Fedko. “A few additional unfunded sites are also grown by interested parties, largely for extension purposes, and those data are available to us, provided that all quality controls are met. “

Fedko adds that in recent years, it has been generally accepted that $50 per plot is required to defray the direct costs of growing small plot variety trials. “We are not quite there yet, however. Thanks to the very generous contribution from the Alberta Wheat Commission, we are much closer to the goal than two years ago.”

The pulse crops regional variety-testing program has been sustainable thanks to $100,000 funding through the Growing Forward II program. The funding is a contribution from the industry and Alberta Pulse Growers, and is matched on a 3:1 basis by the federal government.

“Finally, the funds we receive are solely for the benefit of Alberta producers and do not leave the province,” says Fedko. “Moreover, of the $278,000 collected last year for the RVTs, less than $15,000 or five per cent was used for seed setup, shipping, administering the funds and maintaining the crop information system database.”

At the end of the day, industry contributions, including those from Alberta Wheat Commission, Alberta Barley, Alberta Oat, Alberta Seed Growers and Alberta Seed Processors are priceless, contributing to the inherent success of the RVTs.