Capturing a cool opportunity
Developing winter barley varieties for Ontario.
September 18, 2023 By Carolyn King
As interest in winter barley production increases in Ontario, a few seed companies have tested and obtained registration for some promising varieties from other countries. Now, Gavin Humphreys with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) is leading a project to further support this growing opportunity by evaluating diverse winter barleys to find additional lines suitable for Ontario.
Humphreys has a wealth of cereal breeding experience, first as a spring wheat breeder in Western Canada for about 18 years, and then as a winter wheat breeder in Ontario for the past nine years. However, he’s pretty new to winter barley.
In fact, his first formal experience with winter barley was in 2019/20. That’s when his research group grew their first winter barley variety registration test at the AAFC Harrow Research and Development Centre, his southwestern Ontario testing site, to help the seed companies obtain data needed for registration.
Then last year, Humphreys decided to look more deeply into winter barley for several compelling reasons.
“The first reason is that I had heard from members of the Ontario Cereal Crops Committee who grow barley that the barley acreage over the past five to 10 years has been decreasing. They were quite concerned that there would not be adequate supplies to satisfy local barley demand if that trend continued. And they felt that perhaps winter barley would provide a mechanism to slow the decline, or ideally to stop it, and raise the winter barley acreage and production in Ontario,” he explains.
According to Statistics Canada data, barley acres in Ontario have been declining fairly steadily since 1986, when 603,000 acres were seeded to barley. By 2015, that had dropped to 115,000 acres, and in 2023 it was down to 52,500 acres.
“The second reason is that winter barley offers to winter cereal producers the option of having a different crop to market and not compete directly with all of the winter wheat that is produced.
“Third, it provides those same producers with all of the good things that go along with a winter cereal.” Those advantages include fall weed control, soil erosion control over the winter and early spring, spreading out of the farm’s workload, higher yield potential than its spring-seeded counterpart, and rotational benefits. “There is some data – more with winter wheat than with winter barley – that having a [winter] cereal in the rotation improves soybean and corn yields,” he notes.
“And then the last reason is double-cropping. Winter barley matures so early in Chatham-Kent and Essex counties that some producers there have already begun to double-crop. They sow winter barley in the fall, and it matures around mid to late June. They harvest it, and the next week they can plant an early maturing bean or soybean crop. This double-cropping renders the land more productive as well as potentially more profitable, and it keeps that winter cereal in the rotation while allowing the producers to grow other crops as well.”
Sourcing superior germplasm
With funding from Grain Farmers of Ontario, SeCan, Cribit Seeds and AAFC, Humphreys launched a three-year project in 2022 to develop new winter barley varieties for Ontario.
His first step was to source winter barley germplasm. “We didn’t have any germplasm because winter barley hasn’t been worked on in Ontario for years. Back in about the 1980s, barley breeder Ernie Reinbergs, who was at the University of Guelph, said that winter barley just doesn’t work for Ontario,” notes Humphreys.
“But with the improved genetics that are now available, I thought, if we can get material from elsewhere, perhaps we can find some lines that would be well adapted to Ontario, and we could support this initiative that the seed companies have begun.”
Plant Gene Resources of Canada (PGRC) in Saskatoon was a key germplasm source for Humphreys. This genebank has a large winter barley germplasm collection that includes varieties, breeding lines and even wild barleys. Because his current focus is on identifying winter barley lines that the seed companies could use, he sourced cultivars from PGRC.
He also obtained about 200 lines from Flavio Capettini, a barley breeder with the Field Crop Development Centre at Olds College in Alberta. “These lines are a subset of the international collection of winter barley lines generated at the University of Minnesota by the barley breeder there, and then tested [by Capettini’s group] for adaptation in Alberta and were found to have reasonable survival there. So I thought that material would probably survive okay in Ontario.”
Humphreys’ winter barley collection is very diverse. “Some of the material is fairly old; some of the Canadian winter varieties that were tested years ago are in it. There is a lot of U.S. material, particularly in the international collection. But we also have material from Sweden, France, South Korea, Russia and other Eastern European countries.”
Although Humphreys’ collection has some two-rows, most are six-rows. He explains, “If the germplasm has a bit lower winter survival, it can recover from that a little better by more profuse tillering. And profuse tillering seems to be a trait more often seen with the six-rows.” Most of the barleys in the collection are hulled types, but there are some hulless.
His collection includes both feed and malting barleys. He notes, “If you look at a longer-term vision of this in support of the craft brewing industry, if we could grow winter barleys that meet malting grade and the specs for these craft brewers, it might create a way to supply the local barley demand with some specialty products and potentially get better returns for the producers as well as satisfying the need of these craft brewers.”
Humphreys and his group are collaborating on this project with Helen Booker and her team at the University of Guelph. Humphreys’ group is growing the winter barley lines at AAFC-Harrow, while Booker’s group is growing the same lines at the University’s research station at Elora.
“We’re working largely in southwestern Ontario because of winter survival. I’m not sure that the genetics for winter barley yet have the winter survival required for eastern Ontario, but they seem to do relatively well in southwestern Ontario,” says Humphreys.
“They grow winter barley south of the Great Lakes; Ohio State University has a winter barley breeding program. So it makes sense that this crop should also work in southwestern Ontario – close to the Great Lakes where the winters are a bit milder.”
The researchers are assessing the lines for a wide range of traits in their field trials. “Obviously, the number one trait we’re looking for is winter survival, because if it doesn’t survive the winter then no one is going to grow it,” Humphreys says.
They are also evaluating the lines for resistance to common barley diseases. “We find net blotch infestations quite commonly on the breeding material that we are testing, as well as some of the varieties that are being brought in from Europe,” he notes.
“Powdery mildew resistance is quite important. Like winter wheat, winter barley can be quite susceptible to powdery mildew, so we want to get rid of those susceptible lines.”
Another key trait is maturity. “I noticed that the material from out West seemed to be later maturing than some of the lines we got from Plant Gene Resources. We want to make sure that the maturity fits the potential double crop system,” he says.
“And of course, the most important trait of all is grain yield. Once we get enough seeds [through seed increase], we will start doing yield trials.”
Variety registration trials to evaluate several winter barleys for SeCan, Semican and Sollio Agriculture have been conducted since 2019 at four southwestern Ontario sites, including Tupperville, Ridgetown, Winterbourne and Harrow.
So far, five winter barley varieties in these trials have been registered. SeCan has SU Ruzena and LCS Calypso, which are two-row varieties. Semican has Pixel and Visuel, which are six-row. Sollio Ag has KWS Orbit, a six-row. LCS Calypso, Pixel and Visuel are malting types, and SU Ruzena and KWS Orbit are feed barleys.
Although these varieties are best-suited to southwestern Ontario, Humphreys’ group conducted a small winter barley trial at the Ottawa Research and Development Centre, where he is based. They planted five lines last fall and evaluated them this summer. He says, “Some winter barley varieties appeared to survive the winter here quite well, but some of the other lines were somewhat hit-and-miss for eastern Ontario. We plan to resow the winter barley test at Ottawa this fall to confirm our 2023 results.”
Looking at the longer term
Asked about the future possibility of a full winter barley breeding program that includes making crosses, selections and so on, Humphreys says, “I’m not sure if the acreage is adequate at this time to merit a fully-fledged breeding program. Companies bringing in germplasm from elsewhere that they find fits the Ontario production areas is probably the best way to go for now. However, if winter barley production does become much bigger and has potential, then I suspect there would be interest in breeding.”
For Humphreys, the double-cropping potential of winter barley is especially exciting. “As our winters become milder, farmers in southwestern Ontario – especially in Chatham-Kent, Essex County, Ridgetown – can look at double-cropping as a potential opportunity to increase their production as well as, hopefully, their profitability,” he says.
“And my sense is that winter barley, because it matures so early, potentially could be a better avenue to meet malting grades in a malting quality barley. So it might be an easier way for Ontario to produce malting barleys going forward.”
He adds, “I do like this long-term vision of potentially giving the opportunity to farmers to not only double crop but to double crop something as valuable as malt barley.”