Cereals
With the high risk of disease in very short crop rotations, many Prairie growers these days have questions about how to most effectively use fungicides and seed treatments. So Kelly Turkington, a plant pathologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), is leading a project to help answer some of those questions for malting barley growers.

The project is assessing the impact of seed treatments, plant growth regulators (PGRs) and/or fungicide timing on crop disease levels, grain yield, microbial populations on the grain, and malting quality.

Turkington explains this project builds on past research and observations. One of his research interests is the role of seed treatments in cereal disease development. Back in the late 1990s, he did some preliminary work in the growth cabinet to see if seed treatments affected early-season leaf disease development. “We saw some activity of a product that is not registered any more in terms of protecting the second or third leaf of a seedling from barley scald.” Then in 2012, when Turkington was visiting some barley scald and stripe rust trials in Australia, he was intrigued to see that the plots with only a seed treatment had noticeably better leaf disease control than the untreated plots well into the growing season. So he wanted to explore that possibility under Canadian conditions.

He adds, “We get lots of questions about early-season disease development in wheat and barley, especially in tight rotations like canola-wheat-canola-wheat, or canola-barley-canola-barley, or in continuous wheat or continuous barley, because the disease risk is high. So [in our current project] we wanted to look at strategies to try to address some of that early-season disease development.”

Another longstanding area of interest for Turkington is the timing of fungicide applications. His previous research has shown herbicide timing is not a very good option for applying a fungicide because it won’t directly protect the upper canopy leaves, which are crucial for grain filling and yield. An application at the flag-leaf stage or at head emergence is much more effective. Now growers often ask whether it’s better to spray at flag-leaf or wait until head emergence.

In his present project, Turkington wanted to determine if a seed treatment would provide enough leaf disease control to perhaps allow a grower to delay a fungicide application until head emergence. Also, he wanted to compare the effectiveness of a flag-leaf application alone, a head emergence application alone, and applications at both timings. He notes, “In more favourable and higher yielding environments, like New Zealand or perhaps the U.K. or Europe, often growers need to put on a fungicide at flag-leaf, or maybe slightly before that, and then again at head emergence to prolong the protection of that upper crop canopy and provide some suppression of Fusarium head blight.”

Turkington included PGR treatments in the project for a couple of reasons. PGRs are used to shorten and stiffen plant stems as a way to reduce lodging, and could influence microbial growth. “If a crop is lodged extensively, the heads are down in the canopy, close to leaves that may be carrying the net blotch, scald or spot blotch pathogen. And they’re in a humid environment and may be more prone to have more extensive microbial growth on the developing head tissue and kernel tissue,” he explains. “One of the characteristics that maltsters and brewers look for in barley is a reduced risk of having a lot of microbial growth on the grain – they often refer to that as ‘microbial load.’ Microbial load can have implications in the malt house and the brew house.”
WTCM17 4 net blotch KTCrop diseases, like this net blotch on an untreated check plot in the trial, may contribute to the microbial load on the grain. Photo courtesy of Kelly Turkington.

Also, Turkington wondered if a reduction in plant height due to a PGR treatment might influence Fusarium head blight levels. He says, “In all the work that has been done on Fusarium head blight over about the last 25 to 50 years, one observation is that shorter statured varieties tend to have a bit more Fusarium head blight. So we wanted to see, if we address lodging via a PGR reducing the height, does that increase Fusarium head blight?”

Turkington’s project (which started in 2013 and ends in 2018) is evaluating those four factors – seed treatment, PGR, flag-leaf stage fungicide application, and head emergence stage fungicide application – alone and in combination to see if there might be some synergies.

The seed treatment used in the project is Insure (triticonazole, metalaxyl and pyraclostrobin), and the fungicides are Twinline (metconazole and pyraclostrobin) at flag-leaf, and Prosaro (tebuconozole and prothioconazole) at head emergence. The PGR is Ethrel (ethephon); it is currently registered for use on wheat, but not on barley.

Turkington’s project team is collecting data on such factors as disease severity ratings, the level of lodging, grain yield, 1,000-kernel weight, bushel weight, plumps, thins, and so on. As well, harvested grain samples from the plots are analyzed to determine the microbial load on the grain and the malting quality. Tom Graefenhan, a mycologist at the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC), is leading the microbial analysis, and Marta Izydorczyk, a barley scientist at the CGC, is leading the malting quality research.

The project’s sites are at AAFC research locations across the Prairie region, including Beaverlodge, Lacombe and Lethbridge in Alberta; Scott, Indian Head and Melfort in Saskatchewan, and Brandon, Man. The project also has a site at the AAFC research centre at Charlottetown. All the sites are using AC Metcalfe – a well-known malting variety.


WTCM17 4 Milling Malting micromalting barley MIAs part of the quality evaluation for the project, the barley samples are malted in a micromalting system at the Canadian Grain Commission. Photo courtesy of Marta Izydorczyk.

Preliminary results
Turkington highlights some of the key results from the first three years of the agronomic component of the project.

The impact of the seed treatment on disease levels in the upper canopy and on yield has been variable. “We have seen some positive aspects of seed treatment but not at all sites. Where we’ve had some benefit perhaps has been where we’ve had a higher level of disease development, which was especially Melfort in 2013 and to a certain extent in 2015,” he notes. “However, we didn’t see a synergism between using a seed treatment and using either a flag-leaf stage or a head emergence stage fungicide application.”

It’s possible the variability in these results reflects the fact that the project wasn’t able to get the particular seed treatment product that was used in the 2012 Australian trials. Turkington is hoping to test that product in some of his future work.

“The key factor in terms of controlling leaf disease development in the upper canopy was either a flag-leaf stage application or a head emergence stage application,” he says. “Looking at the data over the last three years, the head emergence application tended to be somewhat better, but it wasn’t necessarily always statistically better than the flag.” Reduced disease levels from a fungicide treatment resulted in higher grain yields.

He adds, “We haven’t seen a huge benefit of applying fungicides at both the flag-leaf and the head emergence stages, although there were some hints of it at sites that had really high disease pressure.”

For the most part, the PGR treatments had an impact only at sites with a significant risk of lodging. “The best example of that was 2013 at Melfort. They had a moderate level of lodging, and applying Ethrel significantly reduced lodging and that translated into better yields. In other years and other sites where the risk of lodging was lower or nonexistent, we really didn’t see a huge impact of using a PGR,” Turkington notes. Overall, the PGR applications did not have a strong impact on disease levels on the leaf tissue. The results for the microbial levels on the grain are still to come.

Analyzing microbial loads
Graefenhan explains the microbes found on barley kernels reflect the microbes in the environment surrounding the barley field. They usually include a wide range of bacteria, yeasts and fungi, including some plant pathogens. He says most, if not all, microbes on the grain are killed during the malting process, especially in the kilning stage when the grain is heated to a high temperature. However, some substances produced by the microbes do remain on the malted grain and may get transferred to the next stages in the beer-making process. For example, some fungi, such as Fusarium, produce proteins that can cause gushing (when beer gushes out of a beer bottle).

To analyze the microbial communities on the barley grain, Graefenhan’s lab first washes off all the microbes sitting on the surface of the seed. Then they extract the DNA of all of those microbes. Next, instead of sequencing the entire genome of each microbe, they look at a segment of the DNA that encompasses the “genetic barcode,” a short sequence of the DNA that identifies the species of the microbe.

“These genetic barcodes are unique for each of the microorganism species we’re dealing with. The barcodes are very accurate and specific. We match them against a reference database that has [the most well-known] fungi, bacteria and yeasts,” Graefenhan says.

“The method is very sensitive, so just because we detect a particular microorganism, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was vigorously growing on the plant. There are a lot of ubiquitous organisms out there in the environment, in the air, on the trees surrounding the fields, on the grasses, and they do spread out onto the grain as well,” he notes.

“In our study, we take subsamples of 15 to 25 grams of seeds. On those 25 grams that we extract DNA from, we have hundreds of different microorganisms.”

Along with identifying the different species, the DNA analysis also provides an indication of the species populations in the sample. “It gives us a good hint of how many of each of these organisms are there, whether there was just a single cell or a single population, or whether there was a diverse, growing population on the seed. By the number of DNA sequences from each of the species, we can tell whether it was a predominant species or just a single event.”

Although most of the microbial results are too preliminary to make any general statements, it does appear that the geographic location of the sites is an important factor. Graefenhan explains, “Geographic location is always tightly linked to precipitation. For example, in the Red River Valley in Manitoba, precipitation is almost twice as much as in parts of Alberta. That is also reflected in the microbial composition and load on the grain. In general, we find more microbes in areas where the precipitation is higher, like the eastern Prairies in Manitoba and Eastern Canada.”

The malting quality analysis is evaluating properties that are important for malting and brewing. Turkington expects to get a clearer picture of the microbial load and malting quality results over the next year as those analyses continue. The project’s agronomic fieldwork will be completed this year.

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This project is funded through the Growing Forward 2 National Barley Cluster, with support from AAFC, Alberta Barley, Western Grains Research Foundation, Rahr Malting, and the Atlantic Grains Council. AAFC scientists and especially the technical staff at the field sites are helping with these trials.
Hybrid rye varieties have been grown on the Prairies for a couple of years now. They continue to live up to their initial promise, outshining open-pollinated (OP) rye varieties in key traits, and work is underway to help the hybrids capture a greater share of rye’s small marketplace.
Imagine yourself as a winter wheat kernel. You’re planted in the fall, germinate and grow a bit, then hibernate until spring when you start growing again. Meanwhile, fungus and insects are attacking your roots and shoots throughout the fall and spring. No wonder poor stand establishment is a major constraint for high-yielding winter wheat crops.  
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"Most of the barley varieties that we grow in Western Canada tend to be malt varieties; growers are hoping to get the extra premium if it makes malting grade. But only about 20 per cent of the acres sown to malting barley each year actually make malting grade,” says John O’Donovan, a semi-retired research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC).
The Ontario Winter Wheat Performance Trials have always been designed to give growers useful information to help them make decisions, but the historical data is equally helpful because it shows how varieties perform over time under diverse conditions. The intensive management data introduced in 2013 proved invaluable in 2016 and could have an impact on growers’ choices in the future.
Optimal fall planting conditions in 2015 resulted in approximately 1 million acres of winter wheat being seeded.  Excellent weather conditions through to November provided an opportunity for wheat to be well tillered before winter.
According to Joanna Follings, cereals specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) based in Stratford, Ont., stand establishment problems in winter wheat tend to happen depending on the year.

In 2015, Ontario producers saw excellent fall conditions for planting, and most got their crop in early, so plants were well established going into the winter.

In 2014, producers weren’t so lucky: a wet fall meant delayed planting, and to make matters worse it was followed by a cold winter. Many producers experienced problems with winter survival.

“It can be a challenge for growers to get out in to the field in a timely manner,” Follings says.

Peter Johnson, an agronomist with Real Agriculture, is currently working on studies examining the impact of soil type, seeding rates and seeding dates on stand establishment.

“Typically here in Ontario we get about 70 per cent stand establishment,” Johnson says. “We get higher levels if we seed earlier into excellent conditions. Last year we were getting fields with 85 per cent stand establishment, but typically we seed under less than ideal conditions.”

There’s a growing body of research pointing to agronomic methods that can improve stand establishment in winter wheat even in bad years, Johnson says. This year, he and technician Shane McClure wrapped up a three-year “seeding rate by seeding date” interaction study, and the data should be available soon.

But Johnson says it’s clear that the earlier producers seed, the lower their seeding rate can be. The later they seed, the higher the seeding rate should be in order to maximize sunlight interception.

“We seed ultra early, two weeks prior to the recommended date, and at that stage we recommend decreasing seeding rate by 25 per cent,” Johnson says. “Our normal target is about 1.5 million seeds per acre, and when we seed two weeks ahead of optimum date, we can drop that to 1.2 million seeds quite easily, with no impact on yield.” On heavy clay soils, he recommends starting at 1.8 million seeds per acre and adjusting seeding rates according to date from there.

“Once you’ve moved past optimum seeding date, my standard recommendation is to increase seeding populations 100,000 plants per acre for every five days past that optimum date.”

In areas prone to heavy snow loads, snow mould infestations are much more severe with early seeding dates and high seeding rates. “Lodging concerns increase when growers seed heavy seeding rates early,” Johnson says. “But with highest wheat yields coming from early seeding dates, seeding early at lower seeding rates just makes sense.”

Seed treatments?
This year, Kelly Turkington, a pathologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Lacombe Research and Development Centre in Lacombe, Alta., and Brian Beres, an agronomist with AAFC’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre in Lethbridge, Alta., published new research pointing to the effectiveness of seed treatments used in tandem with appropriate sowing density to overcome poor stand establishment in winter wheat.

In one study, Beres and Turkington argue seed treatments are best used to offset weak, low-yielding systems.

If producers are starting with high quality seed with good germination rates, good vigour and low levels of pathogen infection, and they’re putting seed into a system with good seed-to-soil contact and using appropriate seeding rates, Turkington says the impact of seed treatments will be limited.

“Where we’ve seen seed treatments are a real benefit is when seed-borne disease, diseases that will impact germination, seedling growth or stand establishment, or diseases like smuts, are present in a field,” he says.

Turkington’s work was all done in Western Canada, but Johnson says similar results have been seen in Eastern Canada. “If you’re seeding into ideal conditions from a stand establishment point of view with no disease pressure, you may not see the benefit of seed treatments,” he echoes. “But if you get bunt in your wheat crop, that’s 100 per cent crop loss. For $3 per acre of seed treatment, or even $5 per acre, whatever that premium is, we can’t afford to take that risk.”

Johnson recommends every producer use a good fungicide seed treatment. Insecticide on the seed isn’t needed everywhere, but is more regionally isolated according to soil type and insect pressure. But he feels fungicide seed treatments are essential, even though they don’t always increase yield. “If I get dwarf bunt or common bunt in the crop, the grain comes out of the field smelling like rotten fish. The industry simply won’t accept it. That risk is simply too high,” he says.

“In terms of stand establishment, we see a benefit in stand establishment if you apply a fungicidal seed treatment under adverse conditions.”
Malting barley is a higher-value cereal crop that could be a good option for Eastern Canadian growers. A key factor in the successful adoption of this crop is the availability of varieties suited to the region’s growing conditions. Now a project is underway to identify which of the existing malting lines would be best for the east and to develop improved germplasm for further breeding work.

Thin-Meiw (Alek) Choo, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Ottawa, is leading the project. He notes, “Before we started this research project, we had already identified two good malting barley varieties for Eastern Canada: Cerveza and AAC Synergy. Cerveza is on the list of recommended varieties for Quebec and the Maritimes. AAC Synergy is now being tested in the registration and recommendation tests in Quebec and the Maritimes. These two varieties have performed well in Quebec, the Maritimes and New York State. They were developed by Bill Legge at AAFC’s Brandon Research and Development Centre [in Manitoba].”

Now Choo’s project is helping to identify more and better malting varieties for Eastern Canada. Called the Eastern Canada Malting Barley Test, it runs from April 2013 to March 2018. It involves screening hundreds of advanced breeding lines and varieties from other regions to find ones with three essential traits: resistance to Fusarium head blight, resistance to lodging, and high yields under Eastern Canadian conditions.

“Resistance to Fusarium head blight is a must for successful malting barley production in Eastern Canada,” Choo says. The region’s warm, humid growing conditions favour this serious fungal disease. Fusarium head blight reduces grain yield, but more importantly it can produce mycotoxins on the grain. He notes, “The maltsters and brewers do not accept any barley grain contaminated with mycotoxins.”

The often rainy and stormy conditions in Eastern Canada increase the risk of lodging, which can result in lower yields and poorer grain and malting quality. So Choo is looking for malting lines with shorter and stronger straw that are better able to resist lodging.
And, of course, yield is a top consideration. “Any malting barley varieties must yield well in Eastern Canada. Otherwise, producers will not grow them,” he says.

Choo’s project team is testing malting barley lines from the Prairies, where most of Canada’s malting barley is grown, and some cultivars from other countries. “Every year, we have evaluated 23 lines from the Field Crop Development Centre of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, 38 lines from the University of Saskatchewan, and 36 lines from the Brandon Research and Development Centre. We have also tested seven barley varieties from Argentina, seven varieties from Australia, and 21 varieties from Brazil,” he says.

The evaluation process involves several steps. “[First] we plant these barley lines at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, and compare them with our standard varieties such as Leader [a recommended feed barley variety] and AAC Synergy. Last year, we identified 26 of these lines as high yielding. Therefore, in 2016, we have planted these 26 lines at three locations across Eastern Canada: Charlottetown, Normandin, [Que.] and Ottawa.” This fall, they will be analyzing the results from the 2016 growing season, and they’ll continue the testing work in 2017. In the years ahead, very promising lines that have not yet been registered in Canada could be entered into the variety registration tests for Eastern Canada.

The project is only testing two-row barley lines. Choo explains, “Six-row barley is more susceptible to Fusarium head blight than two-row barley. Therefore, we do not encourage our producers to grow six-row barley for malting in Eastern Canada.”

Choo is collaborating on this research with Bill Legge, Aaron Beattie at the University of Saskatchewan, Patricia Juskiw at the Field Crop Development Centre, Denis Pageau at AAFC’s Normandin Research Farm, and Marta Izydorczyk at the Canadian Grain Commission. The project is funded by AAFC, the Alberta Barley Commission and the Atlantic Grains Council.

The project’s results will give eastern growers more varietal choices for malting barley production. As well, Choo will be using the superior lines identified through the testing work as parents for crossing in his barley breeding program. Promising malting barley lines from his program will be sent to the Canadian Grain Commission for malting quality analysis. Eastern growers can look forward to possible further improvements in malting varieties down the road.

If growers can achieve malting quality with barley produced in Eastern Canada, it could potentially be a very good opportunity. “Malting barley typically has a higher value than barley grown for livestock, for example. So it would be a value-added proposition for growers,” says Neil Campbell, general manager of the PEI Grain Elevators Corporation.

“I’m not sure what the potential is for malting barley production in Atlantic Canada, but it could be quite substantial because the [craft malt and brewery] business has exploded here in the Maritimes in the last three or four years. Nova Scotia alone has 40 different local breweries that use malting barley and other grains,” Campbell says.

He also points out that, in addition to Choo’s work, other malting barley research is underway in the Maritimes. For example, Aaron Mills at AAFC in Charlottetown is developing recommendations for malting barley agronomic practices and is testing modern and heritage malting varieties in Eastern Canadian conditions.

Campbell also notes the combined sales of Canadian malting barley and malt are worth about $1 billion per year. “So if the Atlantic provinces could even get one per cent of that, it’s a nice little number!”
With increasing frequency and vehemence, fingers are being pointed at farmers over the issue of nutrient runoff into key bodies of water, like Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

Until now, the gap between agricultural producers and those who blame those producers for eutrophication has seemed unbridgeable. Farmers argue they have a right to earn a livelihood from their land. Environmentalists – and, increasingly, politicians and laypeople too – argue water quality and the good of all must override farmers’ land use needs. Now, plant breeders are working on developing new perennial cereal crops that may meet the requirements of both sides.

“There are limited options for a cash crop grower who is concerned about nutrient runoff into watersheds. They might think about planting something like grass for a considerable distance around a water body, but that might mean that they give up a considerable amount of revenue,” says Jamie Larsen, a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, Alta., and lead plant breeder on a new perennial rye study. “In the future, an option would be to plant a perennial grain crop that would [be] productive, but also provide significant environmental benefits.”  

“Perennial grains require a change in mentality about how cropping is done. They’re different, no doubt about it. But times have changed. Perennial grains offer the potential for economic benefit, while also considering sustainability priorities,” adds Doug Cattani, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who is currently developing a perennial wheatgrass to suit Canadian growing conditions.

Though cereal grains have been treated as annuals for decades, many cereals are willing to function as perennials if given the chance. Rye, for example, is a robust and surprisingly hard to kill plant. Each plant in some varieties of rye can produce productively for three or four years. Other cereals are even longer-lived: Cattani says intermediate wheatgrass can live at least eight to 10 years, and may produce grain productively beyond the four years he has tested them for.

In addition to producing a harvestable cereal crop each year, perennial cereals also offer grazeable forage each fall, erosion control and the absence of yearly seeding-time pressure on the producer. Most importantly for those concerned about healthy water systems, perennial cereals have the potential to slow nutrient runoff in a host of ways.

“If you can have something in the ground all year round and actively growing every day of the growing season, you’ll have much less nutrient runoff than if you plant a seed in spring and pull that plant out of the ground 95 or 100 days later,” Cattani says.

First and most obviously, perennial plants capture and remove nutrients from the soil each and every day of their growing season.

In addition to the number of days they are able to capture nutrients each year, perennials also easily surpass annuals regarding the depth of soil from which they can capture nutrients and the total volume of nutrient capture. At between two and three metres in length, perennial cereal roots reach twice as deeply into the soil as do annual cereals. The longer, denser root biomass serves to capture nutrients more efficiently and more deeply in the soil, decreasing nutrient movement through the soil and limiting the need for additional fertilizer application.

Actively growing perennial cereals also help to use up water that would otherwise sit on the land in early spring, decreasing the likelihood of leaching.  

And there’s more: perennial crops’ strong roots, taller plant height and early spring start mean they are more competitive than their annual counterparts. As such, they often require far less weed management. Wheatgrass’ many tillers take competitive advantage a step forward, forming a tight, almost sod-like layer that is highly effective at limiting weeds.

Perennials excel on the disease resistance front too. The fact that they are long-lived typically means they have accrued a superior disease resistance profile that allows them to survive, resulting in fewer fungicide requirements.  

Larsen’s perennial rye study has barely begun, but already he is hopeful perennials may have a real place in tomorrow’s agricultural reality.

“The more I work with perennial grains, the more applications I see for them, from the perspective of limiting nutrient runoff to conserving soil, to saving producers input dollars and planting time. This is the next step in cropping efficiency,” he says.

For all of perennial cereals’ benefits, one fairly serious drawback remains: because a perennial plant must put some energy into its root reserves, it cannot yield as much as its annual cousin. Currently, perennial cereal crop yields are significantly lower than annual cereal crops. Cattani’s intermediate wheatgrass, for example, yields between 10 and 20 bushels per acre.
That said, breeders are already making significant leaps forward in perennials’ yield potential. And, because there is increasing market demand for more sustainable agriculture, farmers might capture better prices for perennial grains compared to conventional annual grains.

“Perennial grains are not going to be as productive as annual cereals. That’s the truth. But it could be a high-value grain that some companies might be willing to pay a little extra for. That’s the potential,” Larsen says.

“There is certainly interest in perennial grains. Quite a number of producers would probably be willing to grow a perennial cereal if we could provide them with a variety that is adapted to their growth area, that offers good yield potential for at least three or four years, and that has a good agronomic package ready when we release the variety,” Cattani says.

Cattani expects perennial cereals are likely still a good number of years from commercialization.

“I’m excited. I see the potential,” he says. “But having said that, I think we’re 10 to 15 years away from releasing an intermediate wheatgrass for our regions. We can’t say ‘plant it’ when we don’t yet know how best to grow it. I think perennial cereals are an area of research you’ll see explored relatively significantly over the next 10 years.

For naysayers who are pessimistic about the potential for a lower-yield crop to find success in Canada, Cattani says: “Before we had canola as a major human-use oil, a lot of people said it had too many issues. But canola is a good example of what is possible when we apply resources to a potential crop to help solve key issues.  

“What makes the concept of perennial cereals interesting is – even as it is now – it is a much more productive option than simply planting a forage grass, and it’s really sustainable. It has the potential to make a lot of people with conflicting priorities happy.”
When the title of “bread basket of the world” was coined, settlers were breaking up long established prairie and plowing down the perennial grasses that made the soil rich. Today, researchers in Canada and the United States are looking to re-establish perennial wheatgrass as a means for soil recovery and food production. Collected from Siberia, perennial wheatgrass could, when adapted and bred for consistent North American production values, be the next grain crop to sweep across the land.

Of numerous iterations of wheatgrass, the most promising and the closest to field production is Kernza, developed by The Land Institute in Kansas. Now under examination in Western Canada for adaptation to this climate and growing conditions, Kernza is a new class of grain that will eventually spawn varieties for all growing regions in Canada. But growers need patience because it could be a decade before the first variety is perfected and seed is available.

“We are narrowing down our germplasm and will be harvesting plots this year,” says Doug Cattani, the lead researcher working with Kernza in Canada. The University of Manitoba plant scientist adds there is a lot to learn about Kernza production besides developing varieties adapted to the Canadian growing system.

Ideally, a perennial grain would be left in the field similar to forage for a number of years. The heads would be harvested annually, but the crop would continue to grow. It’s not known how many crops can be harvested before production decreases when the field can be turned into forage for a year or two. 

“Perennial wheat has deep roots that can reach deep moisture,” explains Jamie Larsen of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lethbridge, Alta. “It might work well in less productive areas to reduce erosion and build up the soil. Or it could be planted along a stream to protect the area, but there would be a crop as well. Typically, it is also disease resistant and it will compete strongly with weeds.” While it is in the field, it will be useful to break up weed and disease cycles while also replenishing the soil.

“From a seed industry perspective, I think this could look like a model similar to forage crops,” suggests Ellen Sparry, genetics and general manager for C & M Seeds in Palmerston, Ont. “I can see this potentially having a fit for soil recovery and for drier areas.” From a seed standpoint, she says, end use and production would have to match the annual wheat varieties that growers currently rely on.

This is where Cattani is focusing his attention. He is selecting and crossing to get Kernza varieties that are well-adapted to Canada’s growing areas, that have consistent quality and yield year after year, and which offer all the benefits promised by annual crops.

“We need to work out the system,” Cattani admits. “What do we need to do to get it ready for the following year? We can harvest it and cut it back, but what happens if we cut it right to the ground? We need to look at post-harvest management to see if we can get a consistent second and third crop.”

Larsen says perennial grain crops will mine moisture and nutrients lower in the soil strata because they put down a long root system. However, he adds, there may still be a need to add nutrients. But how much?

“You will get better drainage, better soil health, access to nutrients that are below the access of annual crops,” Cattani continues. “There’s a host of benefits that could accrue for future crops when perennial grains are included in the rotation and we want to be able to maximize the yield every year. But we’re still in the initial stages of development and we are at least 10 to 15 years away from a variety with a known production package to give producers.”

Nevertheless, Sparry believes it is good for growers to know about Kernza and to begin thinking about how it could fit in their operations. “From a seed standpoint, it would market similar to forage,” she suggests.

“Certainly, this will fit in any operation,” Larsen adds. There are also many potential uses for Kernza, he says, from basic livestock feed to bread-making. A company in the United States has also incorporated Kernza into beer production.

Unlike current crops that have been tweaked over time and continue to be improved, Kernza and other perennial grain crops need to be perfected before they enter the field, from production recommendations to management advice to end use requirements. Cattani reports there is an issue with kernel shattering in some Kernza varieties and he is working on selections to minimize that while also looking at yield potential and field readiness.

As Cattani prepared to harvest his plots of Kernza in August, he considered the best methods to accomplish the task and how to prepare the plots for production in 2017. 

“We’d like to get three seed yields per crop no matter what the growing conditions are each year,” Cattani says.

For his part, Larsen would like growers to learn about Kernza and other wheatgrass prospects. He suggests they need to consider how and where these new grain crops could fit into their operations. Those with experience with forage will have a good idea how Kernza can be managed, but there will still be some adjustments they will have to make to ensure continued success for both human consumption and possible grazing for livestock. The researchers believe it would be ideal if the two could be accomplished simultaneously each year, but, again, that possibility still needs to be examined.

When something as promising as Kernza comes along, it’s difficult to wait until there is seed and a complete set of recommendations to ensure success in the field. Research in both the United States and Canada suggests Kernza is the closest to field readiness of the perennial grains. In the near future, when perennial grain is in a rotation, it could be possible to recover soil to the standard early settlers flocked to the untouched prairie to get. It may have taken 100 years to undo the value in those untouched soils across Canada, but within a decade a solution to revisit those heady days of early crop production could be field-ready.
Peter Johnson has a theory: if you don’t invest dollars in spring barley breeding, you won’t get the results you want.

In Ontario, 110,000 acres were seeded to barley in 2014, with a farm value per bushel rated at $4.16, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

Even if barley has yet to catch up to higher-value crops in Ontario, Johnson — OMAFRA’s former provincial wheat specialist — hopes to increase the value of the crop for growers by updating nitrogen (N) recommendations.

Along with Shane McClure, a research lead for the Middlesex Soil and Crop Improvement Association, Johnson has just begun the third year of a three-year trial looking at potential synergies between nitrogen response and fungicide interactions in spring barley in Ontario.

“What we’re hoping to find are ways to increase yields on spring cereals to make them more competitive economically and keep them in farmers’ rotations,” Johnson says. “Spring cereals have a fit in Ontario agriculture, but the yield increases have not kept pace with corn, so acres continue to drop. We were hoping to find a good synergy between N and fungicides in barley, oats and spring wheat, so that we can find ways to increase yields and make them more profitable for growers.”

The nitrogen-fungicide synergy in winter wheat was “virtually proven” by 2010 in Ontario, says Johnson, following research he began in 2008 with colleagues David Hooker and Jonathan Brinkman. Since then, they’ve performed multiple studies to try to finish the response curve with and without fungicides.

For the spring barley study, four field scale trials were established across southern Ontario in spring 2014, followed by six in 2015, each using two replicate, randomized N rates, both with and without fungicides. Plots were also set up at New Liskeard and Winchester. The studies hoped to show — as in winter wheat — a strong synergy between nitrogen and fungicide applications.
This year, the funding dried up, but Johnson and McClure are continuing the study regardless.

“We’re essentially doing it for free. We thought it was important enough to do the third year,” Johnson says.

One plus one equals two
The results were different than expected: in most plots, the researchers did not observe a strong synergy between N and fungicide applications.

“In southern Ontario we saw a clear yield response to N, and we saw a clear yield bump to the fungicide, but with the synergy, it’s one plus one doesn’t equal two,” Johnson says. “In winter wheat on our best varieties we’ve seen one plus one can equal 3.5. In spring barley, one plus one equals two. Full stop.”

There are two potential reasons for this, Johnson believes: climate and genetics. The heat in southwestern Ontario tends to be a limiting factor. But genetics are even more telling.

“If you look at the trend lines in Ontario, winter wheat has gone up at about a bushel per acre per year over the past 35 years, while spring barley has only gone up at 0.2 bushels per acre per year,” he says. “The genetics aren’t there yet to show that synergy.

“We have AAFC breeders who are supposed to breed for all of Eastern Canada, but the barley breeder at the University of Guelph was rolled into the winter wheat breeder position. In terms of private interests, the one company doing that barley breeding has stopped doing it. The dollars invested in barley breeding in Ontario — there’s no comparison, compared to wheat.”

But the study’s results are not all negative. In New Liskeard, where the climate is much more suited to spring crops, a small synergy was observed between N and fungicide in spring barley.

The New Liskeard data set was small, but much higher final yields (115 bushels per acre) were observed there, along with evidence of a small synergy between N and fungicides. “That’s very hopeful, so now what we should be doing is looking at that synergy across varieties,” Johnson says.

“Based on the average data 80 pounds of N with fungicide was the most economical treatment in southwestern Ontario, while 50 pounds of N with fungicide had the highest rate of return at Winchester (eastern Ontario),” concludes Johnson and McClure’s Crop Advances Field Crop Report for the study. “New Liskeard had the highest response to N with 127 pounds of N and fungicide being the most economical treatment.”

The report concludes N response was significantly greater than recommendations in the Agronomy Guide in both the southwestern and New Liskeard regions, and so the recommendations require further assessment.

The data from this study will be brought to the Ontario Soil Management Research and Services Committee (OSMRSC), which makes fertility recommendations for the province, in hopes they’ll update the rates.

“Growers are certainly looking at this data and asking if it can work for them — they’re experimenting with higher rates than the official recommendations,” he says. “The recommendations are based on old varieties and the climate from the 1970s and 1980s.”

McClure says he was surprised by the high yields — and the high maximum economic rate of nitrogen — in the two years of the trial. “I didn’t expect the maximum economic rate of nitrogen to be as high as it was. I think it might have something to do with how high the yields were in general over those two years. They were fairly cool summers. I’m interested to see what happens if we see the same results as we did the last two years in a hot, dry year,” he says.
Mildew guidelines will be adjusted in Western Canadian milling wheat classes to allow for an increased presence of mildew in the visual guides and standards.
Public and private plant breeders continue to bring new cereal varieties to market, with improved yield, disease resistance, and agronomic performance. Available in commercial quantities for the 2017 planting season, these new varieties continue to push yield boundaries.
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