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Flax for the northern Prairies

Photo courtesy of J. Slaski.

Nov. 15, 2013 - Flax is grown mainly on Canada’s southern Prairies, so flax varieties and production practices have been developed with that region in mind. Now the Northern Adapted Flax Variety Development Project (NAFVDP) is taking on the challenge of moving flax production onto the northern Prairies.

“The project has two components, a breeding program to develop new cultivars adapted to the northern Prairies, and an agronomy program to optimize agronomic practices for flax grown in the north. Without proper agronomy, the new cultivars cannot perform to their potential. Including both components from the beginning has made this project very potent,” says Dr. Jan Slaski, an agronomist and crop physiologist with Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures (AITF) in Vegreville.

Slaski leads the NAFVDP’s agronomy program, and Michelle Beaith, a flax breeder with Viterra in Saskatoon, leads the breeding program. The NAFVDP officially started in 2010, although Viterra did some initial crosses starting in about 2007.

The Saskatchewan Flax Development Commission (SaskFlax) is co-ordinating the NAFVDP. Along with support from Viterra, AITF and SaskFlax, the project has received funding and/or in-kind contributions from Saskatchewan’s Agriculture Development Fund, Western Grains Research Foundation, Manitoba’s Agri-Food Research and Development Initiative, Flax Council of Canada, Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) and BC Grain Producers Association (BCGPA).

Slaski sees several benefits for northern farmers from producing flax. He notes that oilseed flax is one of the more profitable crops on the Prairies, and he says the number of flax fibre opportunities, at least in Alberta, is increasing. “Also, we have very limited rotation options in the northern Prairies. Most farmers here grow canola, barley and sometimes wheat. Really short canola rotations lead to problems like blackleg in canola. Diversifying their rotations by adding flax would help reduce such problems and benefit farmers.”

According to Slaski, there are other potential advantages too. The higher moisture conditions typical of the northern Prairies could help flax yields, compared to the south where drought can be a problem. “Also it has been proven experimentally that when flax is grown where temperatures at night are lower, the seeds contain oil of better quality, particularly higher levels of omega 3 [fatty acids] and other characteristics that are important for the flax oil industry,” he notes.

Breeding northern flax
“We want to breed varieties for the northern Prairies, but we’re also hoping these varieties will perform well in the traditional flax growing areas as well,” says Beaith. “Essentially we’re trying to develop varieties with a broader adaptability.”

Her breeding program is focusing on several traits that are especially valuable in northern growing conditions. “We are looking at early season vigour, so the flax plant is able to germinate quickly and get a good start on growth early in the growing season. We’re also working on improving its ability to germinate in cooler soils, and on reducing the days to maturity,” she says.

As well, the program aims to improve two traits that would make flax harvesting easier, which is very important for northern production but would also be an advantage in the south.

“One of the major issues with flax is that some varieties tend to still have green stems when the bolls are ready to harvest, making swathing and combining really difficult. We would like to develop varieties that dry their stems right down so they are brown, not green, at harvest,” explains Beaith.

“Another common characteristic of flax is that towards the end of the growing season, when the bolls dry down, the plants often start to produce new flowers and then green bolls. So you can end up harvesting a lot of green matter. We’re trying to develop lines with a more determinant habit, so they flower for a more definite period of time and don’t re-flower before harvest.”

The breeding program is drawing from a wide range of flax germplasm, including lines from other parts of the world. As in any breeding program, the most promising lines are selected from each generation. Beaith says, “We start with tens of thousands of lines, and by the time we enter material into the Northern Co-op trial, we’re down to perhaps 10 lines.”

For the first few generations, the plants are grown at two Viterra sites just north of Saskatoon. NAFVDP materials are also grown at Viterra’s winter nursery in Brawley, Calif., to gain a second growing season each year. By about the fifth generation, the most promising lines are tested in larger plots so yield data can be collected. The yield trials are conducted by Viterra and other organizations, such as BCGPA, AAFC and MAFRI, at northerly locations across Western Canada. After about two more years, the best lines enter the two-year co-operative testing system established by the Prairie Recommending Committee for Oilseeds.Co-op testing for northern flax cultivars is done at nine locations.

Last year was the first year that NAFVDP lines reached the co-op testing stage. In 2013, Beaith has three northern lines in second-year co-op tests. She says, “If these lines perform as well as they did last year, they could be registered in 2014. Of the three lines, probably the best one is two days earlier maturing than CDC Bethune, and the yield is equivalent to CDC Bethune.”

As well, other lines with greater improvements are coming down the pipe. “From the results of our 2012 field trials, at the pre-co-op stage we had material that was three days earlier maturing than CDC Bethune and up to 13 per cent higher yielding. And at two years prior to co-op, we had material that was four days earlier maturing and up to 45 per cent higher yielding,” she says.

“While that sounds good, often a lot of those lines get dropped as we move them through the breeding process. [For example], we don’t usually do our disease screening until one year before co-op. So some of those lines that look extremely promising two years prior to co-op might be dropped because they don’t meet disease tolerance requirements.”

Beaith emphasizes that the major challenge with this project is to develop lines that are high yielding and early maturing. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time the highest yielding lines are the latest maturing. We have developed lines that are 10 days earlier than CDC Bethune, but their yield may only be 75 to 85 per cent of CDC Bethune, so we still have quite a bit of work to do to develop high performing, significantly earlier maturing lines,” she notes.

The breeding program will continue for 2014. Then Beaith and the various agencies involved in the program will assess the results and determine what the next steps should be.

“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made to date, and am excited to see so many commercial flax fields this year,” she says. “It’s a really good time to be involved in flax research, and I look forward to registering a couple of northern flax varieties in 2014.”

Optimizing agronomics
The NAFVDP’s agronomy program has two phases. Phase 1 was a three-year study, which was completed in 2012. Its purpose was to identify agronomic practices for growing southern flax cultivars in the north. “We tested three cultivars developed for the south because in 2010 the industry didn’t have any northern adapted cultivars. The cultivars were CDC Bethune, AC Prairie Grande and Viterra’s NuLin 50,” explains Slaski.

The Phase 1 trials took place at Vegreville and at Melfort, Saskatchewan, in co-operation with AAFC. “At both locations, we ran seven trials addressing pretty much all agronomic factors that typically affect crop performance, including seeding rate, date and depth, tillage, nitrogen fertility, seed treatments, herbicide tolerance, and a fungicide,” he says.

The results from Phase 1 showed major benefits from two key practices: seeding date and fungicide application.

Seeding date strongly affected seedling establishment and seed yield of all three cultivars. “At both locations, we found that the highest yield and the most reliable yield was obtained when flax was planted between May 17 and 19,” notes Slaski.

Seeding either earlier or later than mid-May resulted in poorer yields. “With seeding in early May, plant germination was slowed down and compromised, and the crop was subject to spring frosts, resulting in lower stand density and lower yields. Seeding in late May or early June, which is quite typical here, resulted in significantly reduced yields. Late-seeded plants are taller, so they use more photosynthetic resources to generate taller stems and less resources go to the seeds.”

The results of the fungicide trial were a surprise to Slaski. “Headline EC is typically used in flax to control pasmo, a fungal disease that can have drastic yield impacts. The fungicide is typically applied when you see a disease problem. However, some farmers have observed a yield increase from applying this fungicide even without seeing pasmo symptoms. I was very skeptical, but I decided to run a small trial,” explains Slaski.

“The farmers were absolutely right: application of Headline EC to flax without visual symptoms of pasmo led to significant yield increases, in some instances up to 30 per cent increases.”

Several other agronomic practices also helped improve yields. For instance, direct seeded flax did better than flax seeded into minimum tillage plots. Slaski explains, “Direct seeding reduces weed pressure, which is very important for flax because it is a poor competitor.”

Seeding depth made a difference too. “Shallow seeding [0.5 to 1 inch deep] was the worst option. It significantly reduced seed yield. However, there was no yield penalty for seeding deeper, even two inches deep, providing you are seeding into moisture,” notes Slaski.

Moderate seeding rates were better than high rates. “High seeding rates are not recommended for flax because higher stand density makes the stand more prone to disease, such as pasmo, which leads to lower yields. Also, if flax is seeded at a lower rate, about 30 kg/ha, the plants can compensate by developing secondary branches. So a lower seeding rate will produce good yields and the farmers will spend less on certified seed.”

In the fertility trials, flax responded well to higher nitrogen rates. However, there was not a significant yield difference between the urea and the slow-release nitrogen fertilizer plots.

Phase 2 of the agronomy program will start in 2014, when sufficient seed will be available from the breeding program so that Slaski and his research team can run agronomic trials with the NAFVDP’s advanced lines and cultivars. The Phase 2 trials will be based on the key agronomic factors identified in Phase 1.

“Phase 2 will be critical because we’ll be providing flax growers in the northern Prairies with some crucial information to optimize production of the new cultivars. Also, the results from the Headline EC trials will be applicable not only to northern flax but also to flax grown in the southern Prairies. So we are looking forward to making a difference,” notes Slaski.

He adds, “We are really proud to have this team effort of breeding and agronomics. I see great potential for our efforts to contribute to farmers’ well-being and their bottom line in both the northern and southern Prairies.”

November 15, 2013  By Carolyn King


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