Clubbing Clubroot: An Update On Breeding Clubroot-Resistant Canola

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While Bayer CropScience undertakes much canola breeding research, such as in the greenhouse pictured, clubroot resistance research is conducted in a highly-secure lab to prevent the spread of the pathogen. (Photo: Bayer CropScience)

On the Prairies, clubroot appeared in Alberta in 2003, in Saskatchewan in 2008 and Manitoba in 2013. As any grower can tell you, it’s a nasty canola disease that usually worsens in a field every year, partly because the spores are very easy to spread and so hardy they can survive for up to two decades in the soil. Combine this fact with the strong prices that canola fetches these days – widely encouraging back-to-back or two-year rotations – and you have a big problem.

Companies are certainly moving as quickly as possible to produce seed with effective resistance to clubroot, but breeding to defend against this particular pathogen involves navigating a wide range of complex challenges.

“Clubroot has a very short lifecycle resulting in several generations per season,” explains Dr. Marcus Weidler, vice president of seed operationsat Bayer CropScience, “enabling the pathogen to react to changes in its environment very quickly, including new crop resistance genes.”

Dr. Jed Christianson,pathology lead at Monsanto Canada, explains that clubroot’s large and quickly-adapting population sizes means that it takes relatively long canola rotations of three or four years to see significant drops in the number of viable spores in the soil, and very long rotations of over 10 years for spores to effectively disappear.

“Each gall produced on a canola root can contain billions of spores,” he says. “So, given the numbers of spores generated, even very rare events like the emergence of individual spores that have gained the ability to infect resistant canola will happen over a fairly short number of cropping cycles. A one in a billion event doesn’t seem that unlikely to happen when you’re given 20 billion chances.”

Combine this with the fact not all clubroot pathotypes (races) have been identified, and it’s therefore difficult, explains Weidler, to develop a canola variety that is resistant to all potential pathotypes to which a plant may be exposed.

Dr. Igor Falak reminds us that it was in2013 that a new clubroot pathotype was identified, one to which all canola varieties on the market carrying resistance to the original 2003 pathotype were susceptible. Although hybrids with the initial type of resistance continue to hold their own on most infested acres, the number of fields with the new pathotype is increasing annually. Falak, senior research scientist with Corteva Agriscience, blames this situation on “years of canola-on-canola.”

In addition, he notes that although clubroot “is similar to another disease of canola (blackleg), where canola products may carry race specific resistance,” clubroot-resistant canola varieties “do not have ‘fallback’ resistance mechanisms, unlike blackleg-resistant products that also have a different type of stable resistance.”

More breeding challenges are found in the fact that because canola plants carry no clubroot resistance genes, all the major seed companies are actively testing resistance genes found in rutabaga, cabbage and turnip. However, Weidler notes that because these species are only remotely related to canola, it’s far from easy to transfer genes between them without also transferring additional unwanted genetic “baggage” that negatively impacts yield, canola quality or agronomics.

If all this wasn’t enough, clubroot is a challenging organism to deal with, having unique characteristics – described by Weidler as a form of life “somewhere between a bacterium and a fungus.”

Christianson concludes that the biggest challenge in creating clubroot-resistant canola seed is to introduce resistance “while continuing to improve hybrid performance for yield, maturity, standability, resistance to other diseases, harvestability, seed quality and all of the other attributes that are important to growers’ success.”

Breeding Steps to Develop Clubroot-Resistant Canola Seed

Christianson says the steps involved in breeding clubroot-resistant varieties are relatively simple, and that any breakthroughs relating to resistance genes “are really just the discovery and characterization of more of them through concerted screening efforts.”

The entire process is a matter of crossbreeding canola with resistant relatives through normal pollination procedures and recovering offspring that are clubroot-resistant. “Those offspring then have to be crossed with canola again and again through many generations, selecting the resistant offspring at each generation for use in the next cycle to obtain plants that maintain resistance, but have recovered the characteristics of high-performing canola,” Christianson explains.

Weidler adds that unwanted genetic material from the resistance donor that negatively impacts the agronomic performance of the offspring is removed through several crossings of the offspring with elite parent stock. “Using molecular breeding tools, we can check the progress towards the end goal,” he notes. “Ideally, only the genetic sequence conferring clubroot resistance has been transferred and no other parts of the donor genome remain in the offspring.”

Breeding Progress

DowDupontwasthe first company in Canada to market clubroot resistant hybrids in 2009 (45H29).

“Our hybrids have multi-source and multi-race resistance to clubroot, and have a high level of resistance to the most prevalent clubroot race – race 3 – along with resistance to races 2, 5, 6 and 8,” Falak notes. Pioneer has new canola hybrids that contains a new source of clubroot resistance that confers resistance to both the initial type and new pathotypes, and can be rotated with the original resistant hybrids.”

For its part, Bayer CropScience has “identified several new potential resistance sources,” says Weidler, “and we have been able to demonstrate that these are different from what is currently on the market.”

Christianson says that as Monsanto nears “actual commercial entry into the marketplace, we will have more to share about how second-generation resistance fits in with existing resistance traits to provide a sound disease management strategy.”

No matter what resistant canola varieties are marketed, no company can predict how long a new variety will last before it’s compromised. This depends on too many factors, explains Weidler, including the resistance gene, environmental conditions and management practices.

All the companies strongly agree that the existence of varieties with resistance is only part of the clubroot solution.

Weidler emphasizes the importance of an integrated disease management approach for clubroot, and fully supports the recommendations of the Canola Council of Canada.

Falak and Christianson echo the sentiment. “All resistance traits will be effective for longer periods of time if they are used judiciously,” says Christianson. “Choosing resistant seed is only one part of a successful disease management strategy. Growers need to include crop rotation, field scouting and early detection of clubroot, and minimizing soil movement between fields on equipment.”

Falak agrees. He says following a proper canola rotation as well as rotation of resistance genes, combined with preventing soil movement and other agronomic measures “would enable sustainable clubroot management that would prolong efficacy of any new resistance sources that are introduced.”

 

Pioneering Work On Fusarium Head Blight In Rye

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Based on the study’s preliminary results, some rye lines, like the one shown here, are susceptible to Fusarium head blight, but most are in the resistant to intermediate range. (Photo: Duoduo Wang, University of Manitoba)

Unlike other cereal crops affected by Fusarium head blight (FHB), very little is known about FHB in fall rye from a Canadian perspective. We don’t know how serious a concern FHB might be in our rye crops. We don’t know which Fusariumspecies are infecting rye. We don’t have FHB ratings for our current rye varieties. And we have limited information on optimal timing for fungicide applications to manage FHB in rye.

So Jamie Larsen with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) at Lethbridge and Anita Brûlé-Babel with the University of Manitoba have teamed up on a project to develop FHB-related information and tools that rye growers need.

“This research is new territory from a Canadian and even a North American perspective,” says Larsen, who has breeding programs for open-pollinated fall rye and several other cereals.

“Rye has not had a lot of attention from Canadian researchers and growers for a very long time. But the playing field has changed with the new rye hybrids. They are significantly higher yielding, they are shorter, and they are easier to harvest. So now there is renewed interest in rye,” notes Brûlé-Babel. “It’s important to get a sense of how rye responds to Fusarium head blight and whether there is going to be an issue with the disease and what rye growers should do in conditions where Fusariumis a concern.”

Larsen became interested in the issue due to several factors that have emerged in recent years. “Initially when I started working in rye, I had looked at the literature and I thought the disease wasn’t a major problem. Also, the main areas where rye is traditionally grown – north of Swift Current and around the Great Sand Hills area in Saskatchewan – aren’t huge Fusarium head blight areas. And rye has this natural ability to be tolerant to a lot of diseases. So I wasn’t too worried about Fusarium head blight,” he explains.

“But then I sent some rye varieties to Ontario as checks in a triticale experiment. And as I was walking along in those plots, I saw a rye variety with its head completely glued shut and pink with Fusarium. I’d never seen anything like it.” As well, he found out FHB occurs in Prairie rye crops through his work as the coordinator for the fall rye cooperative registration trial. Each year, the trial is grown at 15 locations across Western Canada, and in some years Fusarium-damaged kernels (FDK) have been found in the grain samples from the trials.

Another driver for Larsen was the potential, especially with the new hybrids, to sell more rye into the feed and food markets. To help in realizing that potential, he saw the need to know more about FHB’s impacts on rye yield and quality – particularly since Fusariumspecies can release toxins that can limit the use of grain in feed and food – and the need to develop FHB-resistant rye varieties and other tools to manage the disease.

A widespread concern in Manitoba, Brûlé-Babel conducts screening for FHB resistance as part of her winter wheat breeding program. So Brûlé-Babel and Larsen brought together their different areas of expertise to develop their plans for the project. Also joining the project is KWS, the German company that has developed several hybrid ryes for Canadian growers.

Evaluating Rye Lines for Resistance

Brûlé-Babel is screening fall rye lines for FHB resistance at her FHB nurseries at Winnipeg and Carman. To increase the potential for disease development, her research team inoculates the rye lines with Fusarium graminearum, the most common of several Fusariumspecies that cause FHB in Manitoba cereals.

The FHB responses of the rye lines are measured in three ways: disease levels in the field; FDK levels in the grain; and concentrations in the grain of deoxynivalenol (DON), the primary toxin produced by Fusarium graminearum.

In 2017, they evaluated about 70 rye lines, including materials from Canada, the United States, Germany, Russia and other countries, as well as lines from Larsen’s breeding program and from KWS. Current Canadian rye cultivars are included in the screening so growers will be able to get information on FHB ratings to help in choosing rye varieties for their farms. For 2018, the researchers have added more rye lines from KWS, so the total is now about 130 lines.

The 2017 results showed that FHB definitely occurs in rye and that some lines are more resistant than others.

“Overall, we’re not seeing very many lines that are as susceptible as our susceptible wheat checks. And most of the rye lines are in the resistant to intermediate range,” notes Brûlé-Babel.

The testing for FDK and DON in the 2017 samples will be done in the coming months by KWS. However, based on what Brûlé-Babel’s team observed in the field and as the grain samples were harvested, it appears that FHB infection often tends to cause the rye plant not to set seed. As a result, the FDK levels are lower than would be expected in a wheat crop with similar field infection levels.

Brûlé-Babel had heard anecdotally through their KWS collaborators that DON levels in rye tend to be quite low. She suspects this could turn out to be true if there aren’t many infected kernels in the harvested grain to contribute to DON in the samples.

“So my guess at this point is that the biggest problem from Fusarium head blight for rye producers might turn out to be yield loss as opposed to a crop that you can’t market [due to FDK and DON],” she says.

Once they have two years of data from the nurseries, Larsen will start making crosses with some of the FHB-resistant lines so he can develop new open-pollinated varieties with this trait.

Other Fusarium Species

Brûlé-Babel is also leading two other FHB/rye studies for the project. One study is looking into other Fusariumspecies that cause FHB in rye. “Not a lot is known about which Fusariumspecies infect rye [on the Prairies], so we’ve worked with Maria Antonia Henriquez at AAFC’s Morden Research and Development Centre. She does a Fusariumsurvey every year, collecting diseased plants from [spring wheat and winter wheat fields in Manitoba]. So we asked if she could also collect samples from rye fields,” explains Brûlé-Babel.

One of Brûlé-Babel’s graduate students, Duoduo Wang, has isolated the Fusariumspecies from the Manitoba rye samples. Wang has identified the species based on the appearance of the fungi when grown in the lab, and she will be doing some DNA marker work to confirm the identifications. The preliminary results indicate that the most common species was Fusarium graminearum, but other species were also present.

In 2018, Wang will be doing a greenhouse study to examine the infection process and see how the different Fusariumspecies interact with selected rye cultivars.

Optimizing Fungicide Timing

Wang is also working on the other study, which is investigating fungicide timing for managing FHB in rye. “Very little information is available on fungicide timing for rye for this disease. We need to develop some basis for timing recommendations,” says Brûlé-Babel.

According to Larsen, the general recommendation for fungicide timing for FHB in wheat is to spray two days after heading because wheat plants usually flower about two days after heading. But in rye, flowering might not start until seven to 14 days after heading. In that long heading/flowering period, what is the best time to apply a fungicide?

Brûlé-Babel also points out that, because rye is an outcrossing species, its florets are open for a longer period than the florets of a self-pollinating species like wheat, and it may be that a fungicide might interfere with pollination and seed set in rye.

From the rye lines being screened in the nursery, Wang has selected an FHB-susceptible cultivar, a cultivar with an intermediate response, and an FHB-resistant cultivar to use in the fungicide trials. The trials will take place at Winnipeg and Carman. The fungicide will be Prosaro, a commonly used fungicide that is registered for FHB suppression in wheat and barley.

The trials will compare four fungicide timings: at 50 per cent heading; at 10 per cent anthesis, which is when 10 per cent of the flowers on the spike have extruded anthers; at 80 per cent anthesis; and at six days after flowering. Brûlé-Babel’s team will be inoculating the plants with Fusarium graminearum. The trials will also have two types of check plots: inoculated with no fungicide and non-inoculated with no fungicide.

Larsen hopes they’ll be able to figure out an easy-to-use general rule for FHB fungicide timing in rye similar to the two-days-after-heading guideline for wheat. He adds, “The hybrids are typically a lot more uniform in flowering timing than the open-pollinated ryes, so fungicide timing for open-pollinated ryes might turn out to be a little trickier.”

Practical Results

This pioneering project will lead to practical information, improved varieties and other tools for rye growers in Western Canada and perhaps other regions of the country.

“Providing good information for farmers to make decisions is very important. Part of the reason we’re doing this research is to make sure there won’t be any surprises in terms of potential Fusariumproblems for rye growers,” Brûlé-Babel says. “I’m quite excited about the revival of interest in rye because it’s a very good crop for many uses and definitely contributes to diversification on the landscape.”

This FHB research is part of a larger project led by Larsen on rye disease issues that also includes work on ergot and rust. Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund, Western Grains Research Foundation, Western Winter Wheat Initiative, Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission, FP Genetics, KWS and Bayer CropScience are funding the project.

 

Brave New World

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The development and testing of the xarvio app holds lessons for seed growers and breeders, including the importance of AI and not trying to replace your agronomist with an app.

Analysis of large amounts of data – and the hardware to collect this data – is becoming the norm in many sectors, including seed.

In agriculture in general, this concept is being applied to everything from biosecurity (for example, the Canadian geo-fencing livestock farming system Be Seen, Be Safe) to crop management (the ‘xarvio’ Scouting App from BASF, available in Canada since June).

Collaboration and innovation have played a huge role in the development of xarvio — apps like it show a unique approach to technology development due in part to the unique needs of seed growers.

Featuring instant photo recognition, the xarvio app allows seed and crop growers to directly and more efficiently identify and map weed and disease threats in their fields. There is no cost to download the app and no subscription required, but the xarvio portfolio also includes some paid systems such as ‘Field Manager.’

As with an increasing number of software platforms, individual data collected by xarvio users is shared throughout the system, allowing its machine learning algorithms (artificial intelligence) to both continually improve the precision of results that everyone receives, and boost the collective functionality of the system itself. This means, for example, that data from disease threats identified in one area is turned into warnings for other close-by areas. Indeed, as the app is used more widely and the database grows, crop health challenges can be better identified on a global scale.

BASF reports that since the app was first used in Europe in November 2017 (launched at the Agritechnica event), it’s now being used in 90 countries with close to 60,000 users on board. It was launched in the United States in August. The app has already amassed a database of 150,000 weed and crop disease images and is on track to add an additional 100,000 images by the end of the year.

“Time is always a scarce resource for those in the field making decisions,” notes Tanja Rolletter, head of global external communications and brand strategy in BASF’s agricultural solutions division. “Instead of scrolling through menus or opening books and manually matching what you see in the field to a picture, xarvio SCOUTING uses a picture that you take for instant identification. This saves time and can reduce the risk of mis-identification of pests, especially for those who don’t have as strong a background in pest identification.”

Xarvio also measures the nitrogen uptake of wheat and rapeseed crops based on leaf cover, leaf green colour and estimated fraction of brown leaves.

System data is stored in the Amazon cloud and other certified service providers guarantee a high level of data security. How long an individual user’s data is stored depends on the terms and conditions during sign-up.

Collaboration in Canada and Beyond

 Prior to public launch in various global regions or countries, the xarvio recognition algorithms for pests and weeds were trained and improved upon through collaborations with academic institutions, extension organizations and more. In Canada, Linda Hall — a professor in the University of Alberta’s department of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences — was approached by BASF to take and share photographs of growing and adult weeds in the university’s greenhouse as well as in research fields.

“We did this free of charge as BASF (and Bayer before it) have provided graduate student funding and many other supports over the years,” says Hall. “We were happy to do it as a service within the collaboration. It’s how farmers work and it’s how agriculture works, and I think it’s a little different in that way from other sectors.”

BASF, she says, wanted images of Canadian weeds specifically, as they are in some cases a little different from the weeds found in the United States. Ellen Misfeldt, a plant science departmental assistant at the University of Saskatchewan, was also asked to provide weed pictures.

Farming Smarter, based in Lethbridge County, Alta., has also assisted in xarvio development through providing weed pics. Farming Smarter is a non-profit organization that conducts applied research that helps southern Alberta crop producers make informed choices around inputs, technology and management, and disseminates information through a wide variety of extension efforts.

“This is our second year on the project,” says Farming Smarter General Manager Ken Coles. “Basically, all we’ve been doing is taking thousands of pictures of weeds at various stages. Weed identification is important for proper choices in weed control options. It also helps with tracking shifts in populations. You only look at them at a particular growth stage maybe once or twice a year so it’s easy to forget what they look like at various growth stages.”

User Feedback

When asked what users around the world have identified as liking best about the app, Rolletter names ease of use as top of the list. “For users, the simplicity of taking a picture and sending it for instant recognition is the most common feedback we’ve received when showcasing the app at field days and events,” she notes. “When the result comes back to the users, they get a bit of an ‘ah ha’ moment. Most apps require you to have some basic identification knowledge and work through menus of features to find your probable result. The xarvio SCOUTING app has simplified recognition.”

One of the user challenges BASF has heard about is a non-recognition result after a picture of the weed or diseased vegetation isn’t recognized by the system. “This is by design,” stresses Rolletter, “so mis-identification doesn’t occur, and will also be more common in early days of the app as the algorithms continue to be added to with more types of weeds and diseases.” She notes that BASF continues to work hard in many countries to boost the collection of pictures that continue to train the algorithm. Software updates are added regularly through major app stores and users should be downloading these.

As with any new system, some changes have already been made since launch and more are to come. To date, that includes a synchronization of the xarvio app with online xarvio Field Manager accounts, allowing users to reference the archive of scouting reports and pictures inside a more robust field management system instead of just the one on their mobile device.

In Coles’ view, the app can “really help” with accurate identification and could eventually lead to autonomous scouting. However, he warns that it could be dangerous to try and replace a well-trained agronomist with an app such as this, and that it should be used only as a tool.

As is the case with other new high-tech tools in agriculture and beyond, at the same time current limitations are recognized, future potential should also be recognized. “So far, error is quite high,” says Cole, “but with more data it should get better.” And as we’ve learned, adding to that data and reducing error is all about further collaboration and collective use.

“Agriculture has been built on collaborative effort of people helping people for a greater good,” says Rolletter. “Growing a healthy crop is not as easy as hitting a single button. Collaborative companies allow for exponential improvement in agriculture and will always keep our sector improving sustainably and profitably to feed a growing population together.”

Is Intercropping the Future?

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Students counting aphids in peas in a pea-canola crop. Courtesy Scott Chalmers

The data is in: yield boosts, lowered disease and insect pressure are just some of many benefits of planting two or more crops together.

Derek Axten started intercropping by accident in 2009, when he seeded a field of brown mustard into lentil stubble. When he harvested the field, he expected to see an overall loss. Instead, the lentil yield matched that of his other lentil fields—and he got a great load of mustard to boot.

“I thought, ‘What if we do this intentionally?’” says Axten, who together with his wife Tannis was named Saskatchewan’s Outstanding Young Farmer in 2017. “It took us until 2011 to get to an organized intercrop. Since then, we’ve always seen a net benefit.”

On their land near Minton and Milestone, Sask., the Axtens grow peas/canola, flax/chickpea, flax/lentil, lentil/mustard, and forage pea, maple pea or winter pea with mustard or canola.

In terms of land equivalency ratios, or the amount of monocropped land needed to achieve yields equal to those of an intercropped system at the same management level, the Axtens average somewhere between 1.25 and 1.3, although they have seen years over 1.5, says Axten. In 2017, some of their intercropped fields were a wash. “But averaging with the other years we’re still ahead of the game,” he says.

This is in part owing to the fact that they don’t use any nitrogen on their intercrops, because N is supplied by the pulse in each combination. Added to this, disease and insect pressure is so low on their intercropped fields that they almost never have to spray.

The year they did spray a fungicide — 2016 — “was the wettest year I’ve ever experienced,” says Axten. “All my buddies and neighbours were going on their fourth round of fungicide. You go out there and you can talk yourself into anything, so we sprayed once. But I’m definitely going to deliberate a lot more in the future.”

Axten says intercropping is an attempt to mimic what happens in a “highly functioning, highly diverse” native ecosystem, where some 120 or more species might coexist. “We’ve been growing two crops together, which is nothing like it is in a native system. But we’ve been seeing an improvement with two crops over one, and since then we’ve added clovers as companion crops.”

But intercropping is not about altruism for the Axtens: it’s a business decision. “We’ve never ever had less profit from intercropping,” he says. “And with the reduction of inputs you’re carrying so much less risk. It’s about how much money you keep as well as how much you make.”

Disease and Insect Pressure

It’s not known exactly why most intercrops see a reduction in disease and insect pressure, according to Scott Chalmers, diversification specialist for Manitoba Agriculture’s Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO). But the data is there to prove this is often the case.

Chalmers has been studying intercrop mixtures since 2009, mostly focusing on yield and nitrogen and phosphorous interactions in pea/canola (or peanola) intercrops.

Intercropping with canola has major benefits for peas: because peas, which typically fall to the ground, are held up by the canola, they experience less disease pressure and pea quality is higher. They are also much easier to harvest. “You’re not having to drag your combine knife through the ground,” says Chalmers. “It’s easier on the equipment.”

A peanola intercrop also offsets N depletion in the soil after canola. Planted alone, peas can leave a 40 lbs. of N credit in the soil; producers can expect to see about half this credit — maybe 20 lbs. N — after peanola.

But the reduction in pest and disease pressure is perhaps the most fascinating result of intercropping peas and canola.

In a 2017 study, Chalmers showed that pea crops planted alone could see 16 or more pea aphids per plant. In the peanola mixture, that figure dropped to around two to four aphids per plant — well below the economic threshold levels for spraying.

Similarly, in a study in Hamiota, Man., Chalmers’ team found 18 per cent pea disease incidence in monocropped pea versus two to three per cent pea disease incidence on the intercropped peanola under the same environmental conditions.

Chalmers says intercropping is best used as a pulse production system: the intercropping system actually doesn’t favour canola, but there are huge benefits for pea.

“What we tell farmers is that if you’re good at growing canola, just grow canola,” he says. “Intercropping is a more economical way of growing peas per acre. You may grow fewer peas, but because the canola is there, your net income is greater than if you grow either crop separately — you’re overyielding.”

According to Colin Rosengren, a founding member of Three Farmers, a Saskatchewan-based business that manufactures camelina oil, it’s hard to get crop insurance on intercrop mixtures.

Starting from Scratch

For producers considering intercropping for the first time, Chalmers says it’s important to “start small,” and get comfortable with the process before growing whole quarters.

“Intercrops are a bit more finicky. There’s more to look after. It’s two crops on one field, which means twice the thinking power,” he says.

They’re riskier, too: according to Colin Rosengren, a founding member of Three Farmers, a Saskatchewan-based business that manufactures camelina oil, it’s hard to get crop insurance on intercrop mixtures. In Saskatchewan, producers can get specialty crop insurance on a portion of their intercrops, which guarantees producers the average on their other insured crops. But Rosengren, who intercrops perhaps three quarters of his 6,000-acre operation, says it isn’t worth it for him.

In fact, he believes most producers who intercrop do not carry crop insurance at all. It’s a catch-22 for the industry, as insurers generally won’t offer insurance until a minimum number of acres are intercropped in a province.

“Acres are very significant, but many aren’t insuring, so the numbers officially aren’t there,” says Rosengren.

In terms of harvesting and selling intercropped mixtures, Chalmers says producers might need to modify equipment or buy rotary harrows or a cleaner and will need at least two working augers. “Harvesting takes quite a bit of coordination,” he says.

Another risk is if buyers are not OK with a small amount of contamination if seed from another crop is found in a producer’s sample, Chalmers points out. “There’s no way you can clean out every canola seed in pea,” he says. “There’s always going to be half a per cent kicking around.”

In terms of agronomics, there’s both an art and a science to intercropping, and it takes keen observation and a lot of trial and error to figure out what works best.

For Rosengren, who this year will grow forage oats/peas, flax/chickpea, corn/soybean/flax, pea/mustard/lentil, camelina/lentil, and flax/chickpea/soybean, intercropping works best when the crops have different resource requirements — water, sunlight and topography.

“Peas and lentils perform better in hilltops on lighter soils, and soybeans and peas are wetter crops for us, so we change the populations to put them in the areas where they’re best suited. We’ve gained extra yield by doing so,” he explains.

Last year, Rosengren saw something extremely interesting in his barley crop, which was planted alone on a full soil profile following an intercropped mixture. Though it was a very dry year with only 2.5 inches of rain, he got the highest yields on barley he’d ever seen.

“I think there’s been more disease impact than I’ve appreciated in those particular zones, because even in the wet years when there’s moisture we haven’t seen the yields spike that high,” he says. “Why do we not normally achieve those yields? I believe it’s because of leaf diseases and sub-clinical or sub-treatment levels of diseases and stresses in a monoculture situation that’s suppressing the yield. Putting in other crops has been the best way by far to suppress the diseases, way better than fungicides.”

Rosengren runs full oil profile tests on his camelina for Three Farmers, and when intercropped, the camelina oil is of very high quality, quite apart from potential damage wrought by diseases and pests.

“This is an indication that we’re not fully capturing the potential that’s out there,” he says.

When Rosengren and his Three Farmers partners first started intercropping, they ran strip trials to compare intercropped and monocropped systems, but they soon abandoned the practice because the benefits were so obvious.

“There are a million products that offer two extra bushels of yield per acre, but that’s pretty hard to measure,” he says. “When you’re talking 25 to 30 per cent extra yield, it’s significant enough to measure. It was dramatic enough that we quit doing the strips.”

Axten also believes intercropping is the way of the future for Western Canadian farming.

“I think of all the problems that have happened in agriculture, things that have come to light in the last 15 years. We keep trying to do this monocrop thing, but I don’t think we’re showing that it works very well.”

Superclusters and Accelerators Might Transform an Industry

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Supercluster is one of the latest buzzwords beings bandied about in the ag media these days. A cluster, as defined by Canada’s Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, is a “dense area of business activity containing a critical mass of large and small companies, post-secondary and other research institutions” that “energize the economy and act as engines of growth.”

Superclusters build on the advantages of clusters. “These innovation hotbeds,” states the Ministry’s website, “have stronger connections, a long-term competitive advantage, global brand recognition and an outsized positive impact on job creation and economic growth.”

Through its new Innovation Superclusters Initiative, the feds are investing up to $950 million over five years in five select superclusters “with the greatest potential to build world-leading innovation ecosystems” and “secure Canada’s future as an innovation leader.” The initiative is specifically designed help Canadian companies grapple “with an unprecedented rate of change,” and partner in new ways to “remain at the forefront of competition, address key challenges and build a shared advantage.”

One of these five superclusters is Protein Industries Canada (PIC), a group of over 120 private firms, institutions and other stakeholders across Western Canada and beyond, allied to fully develop the potential of plant-based proteins from pulses, grains and oilseeds, from canola to hemp. PIC notes that plant-based protein is already a $13 billion market of which Canada currently holds a minimal share, and that the global need for plant protein will greatly increase in the decades to come.

The federal funding received by PIC supplements roughly $400 million of cash, in-kind and venture capital commitments already made by PIC members. PIC’s projects – which are expected to be finalized this fall – will focus on crop breeding, crop production, value-added processing and export development.

Wilf Keller, president and CEO of Saskatchewan-based Ag-West Bio, believes superclusters can be transformational for agriculture and the seed industry in that they involve a large number of organizations working cohesively and setting aside provincial borders. Ag-West Bio is a founding member of PIC and itself a bioscience industry alliance of research institutions, private firms and other groups that started in 1989.

Keller adds that “it’s important that PIC is sustained over the long-term, 25 to 50 years, so it can do its part to make Canada as a whole much more competitive.”

In terms of seed-related projects that PIC may undertake, Keller notes that breeding seed with higher protein and better-quality protein are certainly possibilities, as is breeding to making protein easier to process.

“Canola is a $27-billion industry, mostly based on oil,” he says. “If you can remove the hull that adheres to the seed more easily, even breed for seed where the hull is not so strongly adhered, that would save a lot of money and open up opportunities for canola protein. Most canola protein (meal) is used in the U.S. dairy industry, but there are many more opportunities in companion animal, aquaculture and other markets.”

Canola Council of Canada (CCC) Chair David Dzisiak agrees that PIC could be transformative for the canola industry.

“Within the next five years, there will be a $300-million investment in R&D, focussed around the development, production, processing and commercialization of protein from canola and other crops,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary amount of money. This is the protein decade. The growth used to be around oil, and that still exists but not at the pace that it was. Vegetable protein for human consumption and feeding animals is in demand, and there is also demand for specialized protein that canola hasn’t been able to participate in. PIC may change that.”

CCC President Jim Everson agrees that development of canola protein is very important. He reiterates that the R&D PIC undertakes may help answer the question, “How do you develop seed that has more of the protein that’s desired and sets you up so that it’s easier to access and fractionate?”

Dzisiak points out that PIC’s creation is timely, in that high-quality genetics can now be harnessed with high-tech methods to improve yields and employ novel processing technologies. “The latest generation of plant breeding tools like gene editing and advanced genomics will be used to develop new high-protein seed types,” he says. “It will take five to seven years instead of 15 to 20 years.”

SASC Supercluster and Bioenterprise Accelerator

 Shortlisted for the Innovation Superclusters Initiative, but not chosen for current federal funding, is the Smart Agrifood Innovation Supercluster (SASC), a consortium of over 90 industrial, academic, farmer and government partners aiming to make Canada the preferred global supplier of sustainable, high-quality, safe food. Its central areas of focus are better use of existing ag data, improvement of trade opportunities and job creation.

Interim CEO Rob Davies says he and his team arebusy looking for opportunities to continue to advance the SASC agenda. “The good work that was done by all participants was very valuable, and obviously not something we want to lose,” he notes. “There is an opportunity to set up an entity that allows us to continue to work through an Innovation Community structure and provide some coordination of efforts, as well as significant funding leverage. While it may not look quite the same as what we had originally envisioned for SASC, we believe that there are still ways to accomplish many of the objectives.”

Accelerators are similar to clusters in that they promote innovation and commercialization, but differ in that they offer support for existing startups in the form of a range of support services and funding opportunities. The best-known ag sector accelerator in Canada is Bioenterprise Corporation. Through its six locations across the country, the organization provides agri-businesses with scientific and technical expertise, industry knowledge, business services and global connections. In January 2018, Bioenterprise awarded 24 firms in Ontario with grants of up to $30,000 each, along with coaching and mentorship (added to the 65 recipients that received funding in 2016 and 2017).

One seed-related startup supported by Bioenterprise is called Agri-Neo. This Toronto-based firm has developed Neo-Pure, an organic, government-approved pathogen control treatment for low-moisture foods such as seeds, sprouted grains, nuts and spices. “Agri-Neo has also developed a patent-pending treatment process for Neo-Pure that makes it easy for food companies to integrate it into their existing operations,” says Rattan Gill, Bioenterprise analyst of Agriculture & Regulatory Affairs. “This high-throughput system can process large volumes of seeds each hour, applying Neo-Pure to ensure that each seed or grain is uniformly coated.”

Another firm to have received Bioenterprise support is Katan Kitchens, which developed ‘Quinta Quinoa’ at its research farm in Brookville, Ont., over the last few years. Quinta Quinoa is a ‘supercharged version’ of the South American seed crop, bred to thrive in local growing conditions and containing significantly higher levels of protein, fibre, iron, calcium and magnesium than traditional varieties. Bioenterprise has assisted Katan Kitchens with building pitch decks, securing funding, providing feedback on business plans and making important connections with industry partners.

“Innovation is the backbone of Canadian agriculture,” says Gill. “The innovation continuum starts with idea conception, R&D, grows with prototype development/pilot project and technology transfer and commercialization, and completes with technology adoption. The synergy and collaboration among organizations supporting each of these stages is critical to ensure that we can develop effective solutions to the challenges that agriculture is facing.”

Five ‘superclusters’ to have recently received funding under the ‘Innovation Superclusters Initiative’:

The Protein Industries Canada Supercluster (based in the Prairies) will fully develop the potential of plant-based proteins from pulses, grains and oilseeds like hemp and flax.

The Ocean Supercluster (based in Atlantic Canada) will work to improve competitiveness in Canada’s ocean-based industries, including fisheries, fossil fuels and clean energy.

The SCALE.AI Supercluster (based in Quebec) will build intelligent supply chains through artificial intelligence and robotics targeted to the retail, manufacturing and transport sectors. The Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster (based in Ontario) will connect Canada’s technology strengths (mostly based in southern Ontario) to the manufacturing industry.

The Digital Technology Supercluster (based in British Columbia) will use big data and digital technologies to unlock new potential in sectors like healthcare, forestry and manufacturing.