Yadeta Kabeta is Breeding Barley in the Heart of Cattle Country

by | Jul 25, 2022

Yadeta Kabeta runs Canada’s only dedicated feed and forage barley breeding program in Canada at FCDC.

Alberta is known as cattle country. The Rocky Mountain province is recognized for its sprawling cattle ranches and legendary rodeos such as the Calgary Stampede. So, it’s no surprise Canada’s only purpose dedicated feed and forage barley breeding program is located in the wild rose province.

“FCDC is really the only dedicated feed and forage program that exists across Canada. There’s a few bits and pieces that happen at other breeding facilities, but to have that focus on feed and forage within the province and within the country is really valuable to our industry,” Karin Schmid, the lead for beef production and extension with the Alberta Beef Producers, explains in a phone interview.

Yadeta Kabeta, head of the feed and forage barley breeding program at the Field Crop Development Centre at Olds College. Photo: Olds College

At the helm of the feed and forage barley breeding program at the Field Crop Development Centre (FCDC) at Olds College is Yadeta Kabeta. The plant breeder has been working at FCDC breeding barley since 2008.

“We’re really situated in the right place. The livestock industry is so big in Alberta. And really, feed is important, both feed and forage are important for the livestock industry. So, this gives us the opportunity to work with hand in hand with the industry,” he says in a phone interview.

For Kabeta breeding barley in a province that runs on the crop is what drives his breeding work.

Just a Country Boy

Kabeta was raised in Ethiopia on a mixed livestock and grain farm. He would help on the farm where he could, weeding crops by hand, taking care of the animals and assisting with harvest.

“Farming back in Ethiopia is quite different compared to the farming here,” he explains. “Things are changing a bit, but back then it was really manual. The farms are actually much smaller — the family can handle it and people rely on farm family labour.”

Growing up on the farm he knew he wanted to work in agriculture, so when he was old enough, he applied to Alemaya University of Agriculture. During his third year of school, he found himself becoming interested in plant breeding.

“I really liked plant genetics, how the genes work, and how the genes interact and the theory behind it,” he says.

Kabeta received his bachelor of science and master’s degrees from Alemaya University of Agriculture. After graduation he started working as an assistant plant breeder, which lead him to visit an international plant breeding centre in Syria. While there he met a researcher from Canada, the two formed a friendship and afterwards Kabeta asked if he could study for his PhD under him at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre. Kabeta didn’t study under this researcher, but a colleague who’s research interests better lined up with his studies.

Kabeta started at the U of S in 2002  and spent the following five plus years there, first as a PhD student and then as a postdoctoral fellow. He studied pulse crop breeding while there. Following his studies, Kabeta started applying for plant breeding positions including as the feed and forage barley breeder at the Field Crop Development Centre in Lacombe, Alta.

“I’d just graduated from university, I finished my PhD and working just over a year. So, it’s a good time to really learn new things. So, I said, OK, maybe we should take on a new challenge,” Kabeta says.

Barley Breeding

The FCDC barley breeding program at Olds College has two barley breeders — Kabeta, who focuses on feed and forage varieties, and his colleague Flavio Capettini, who focuses on malt varieties. The FCDC feed and forage breeding program is the only Canadian barley breeding program that specifically focuses on breeding barley for those uses.

With the breeding program, Kabeta focuses on grain yields, agronomics, and disease resistance. For agronomics, Kabeta is looking for varieties that have improved lodging resistance and early maturity. With disease resistance he focuses on having varieties with multiple disease resistances such as scald and stem rust.

Breeder plot of SR18524 barley

A breeder seed plot of SR18524, a semi-dwarf six-row barley variety with good lodging resistance. It has improved nitrogen use efficiency and is flexible to be used for either feed or forage. Photo: Olds College

“We also look at quality, both grain and forage quality. On the grain side, the plant has to have plump kernels and a high test weight or bushel weight,” he explains. “On the forage side, the quality will mainly be based off of fiber digestibility, but there are several other desirable forage attributes such as smooth awn and longer window of harvest for silaging.”

Kabeta is also working on more sustainable varieties — barley varieties that have improved nitrogen and water use efficiency. When he was first hired at FCDC one of his directives for the breeding program was to breed varieties with better nitrogen use efficiency.

In the last five years, the FCDC program has released eight new feed and forage varieties including AB Cattlelac, AB Advantage, AB Tofield, SR18524, AB Wrangler, AB Hague, AB Prime and FB20601.

One of the varieties that Kabeta is most excited about is SR18524. The six-row feed and forage variety has improved nitrogen use efficiency and is flexible to be used for either feed or forage. It’s a semi-dwarf variety with good lodging resistance.

“This is the kind of variety that comes at the very right time, right? Because everybody’s concerned about input costs, and as well as also the environmental component. So, it would help a bit,” Kabeta adds.

AB Hague, a two-row variety, had a lot of food companies excited about when it was released, as it’s high yielding and has a good disease resistance package. While AB Prime, another two-row variety, is also garnering a lot of attention. Kabeta notes data is showing the two varieties have the potential to take over a significant portion of Alberta feed and forage barley acreage.

Heart of Cattle Country

At the heart of the feed and forage barley breeding program is its connections within the livestock industry. Alberta is known for its cattle ranches and feedlot alley, which makes having an in-province feed and forage barley breeding program a perfect fit.

“We rely heavily on barley, whether for silage or for feed grains that go into the feedlot system. So, I think it really is a critical component to help maintain our sustainability and competitiveness,” Schmid explains.

Yadeta Kabeta barley field

Yadeta Kabeta next to a field of an upcoming feed and forage barley line. Photo: Olds College

Kabeta works closely with the livestock industry to make sure the varieties they are focusing on are the right fit for the industry. He doesn’t only work with Alberta livestock associations, but also with ones outside of the province such as the Saskatchewan Cattlemen’s Association.

With FCDC having moved from being under the provincial government to Olds College in early 2021, it has brought opportunities for further collaborations, especially with the school’s livestock unit.

“Moving into all this college she came with so many opportunities for us,” Kabeta adds. “Internal collaboration itself with the school’s livestock unit, we’re collaborating working with and there is also the Smart Farm Group where we’re collaborating and working with.”

At Alberta Beef Producers, Schmid says their main focus for barley varieties is the yield and lodging resistance. Also important is the digestibility of the grain or forage — the more digestible it is the more efficiently cattle can maintain their weight or put on weight.

“We need our barley to have high yields, whether that seed or grain, and we need it to stand up, so it’s easily harvested,” Schmid says. “We also look at some of the quality parameters or ability to be adaptable to stress, environmental stresses. I think there’s several traits you can work on improving in a barley breeding program.”

Kabeta looks forward to continuing the work he has been doing on barley breeding through increased research access at Olds College and using new technologies to bring more options to Alberta farmers.

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