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Made-for-Canada sunflower varieties

Sunflowers’ deep roots make them drought and excess moisture tolerant, and let them drill down to nutrients in the lower depths of the soil. Photo courtesy of NSAC.

The quality and yield of crops like canola and wheat have improved markedly in Canada over the past couple decades, thanks to the investment of significant research time and dollars. Until now, the same cannot be said for sunflowers. Despite a strong domestic and international market for both oilseed and confection (hull-on, snacking variety) sunflower seeds, the acreage of sunflowers grown in Canada is small and dropping due to a variety of unresolved disease and hardiness issues.

However, the recent injection of almost $4 million towards developing hybrids specifically suited to Canadian conditions may finally make this crop an attractive option for Canadian growers.

“At our board’s strategic planning session in 2010, we asked ourselves how we could convince producers to plant sunflowers. Our number one problem is we do not have any new, adaptable hybrids coming into the marketplace because there is no public or private breeding program for sunflowers in Canada. All new hybrids for North America are being developed in the U.S., and those hybrids don’t necessarily suit our climate here in Canada,” Darcelle Graham, executive director of the National Sunflower Association of Canada (NSAC) says. “One of the main confection hybrids we grow right now is a 20 plus year old variety. You never hear of that in canola or wheat because new varieties are always being developed.”

So, NSAC – small in represented acres and operating funds, but big in vision – decided to attack the research challenges head-on.

Their efforts have paid off to the tune of $3.6 million split between two rounds of funding. The first, started in September 2011 and completed in March of 2014, totaled $1.361 dollars with 85 per cent of funding from the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program and 15 per cent from grower check-off dollars. The second, recently announced round of funding will provide an additional $2.5 million for research through 2018. This funding comes from the combined commitments of the federal and provincial governments, the Western Grains Research Foundation, and producer check-off.    

With these dollars, NSAC purchased a collection of confection sunflower genetics from Mike Hagen, an independent sunflower breeder. They then contracted Hagen to continue adapting the germplasm from his warehouse in Fargo, North Dakota to achieve hybrids with traits necessary for Canadian growers and marketers.

The top breeding priority, interestingly, is shape. In Canada, sunflower seed lovers prefer to eat round confection seeds. Internationally, however, big sunflower consuming regions like Asia, the Middle East, Germany and the U.S. prefer a long seed rather than round.

“In certain countries like China, instead of having peanuts at a bar they have sunflower seeds. Some people have notches in their teeth from eating so many,” Graham says. “Those are the lucrative markets, the markets Canada needs to sell into, and our seeds need to blend in with what they grow and prefer.”

In addition to shape, other trait priorities include improvements to days to maturity, height, lodging attributes, and disease resistance, especially to downy mildew and rust. And, to make growing the crop simpler for producers, NSAC is also looking to develop a non-GM form of herbicide tolerance.

“Sunflowers will always be a non-GMO crop because they are native to North America, so if we tried to go GM it would just be a mess once it got into the wild population,” Graham says.

Instead, the herbicide tolerance trait will be based on genetics from a natural mutation that occurred in a wild sunflower in 1996.

Already, NSAC has completed three years of strip trial testing on Hagen’s first hybrids, and will continue testing them in larger scale plots this coming summer. Additional hybrids are at a variety of other stages in the development process.   

“The genetic program we purchased had some almost finished hybrids when we purchased it, so we’re in the process of pre-commercialization trialing on those hybrids in Canada,” Graham says. “Those are the first out of the gate because they were almost fully developed, and gave us a good indication that maturity and seed size was what we were looking for.

“But at the same time, Mike keeps developing and testing more hybrids in Fargo and, in the winter, runs a second nursery in Chile. We’re running a 200 row screening nursery in Manitoba every year to look for more possible hybrids, and advanced two rep, two row; four rep, four row; and strip trials at different locations around Manitoba,” Graham says. “If they show enough promise, the final step is small and then large-scale pilot production. We don’t want to jump into the market with anything we don’t fully know.”

The first herbicide tolerant hybrid from this program will be tested in a two rep, two-row trial this coming summer.

Producers should greet this research work with enthusiasm, Anastasia Kubinec, oilseed specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (MAFRD) says.

“There are lots of benefits to growing sunflowers. They are very good for rotation. Their very deep roots make them drought and excess moisture tolerant, and let them drill down to nutrients in the lower depths of the soil. And they are highly profitable if you can control the head rot. If you can get yield, plus the quality buyers want, most times growers say they are the most profitable crop,” says Kubinec.

“But up until now, varieties have had issues with our northern climate, and they’ve provided no head rot resistance traits. I’m really hopeful that gains will be made that make it a more attractive crop for Canadian producers,” she says.

Graham agrees. “This work is incredibly important to producers. This is their check-off dollars being put to work, with the benefits directed right back to producers. This is a purely Canadian focused program that they’re not going to see from anyone else. And, given that we have such a low rate of check-off refunds – less than three per cent – I take that to mean producers are onside with this work.”

NSAC hopes that improved hybrid options will help almost triple Manitoba’s sunflower acreage. Bringing acreage from its current 87,000 acres to 200,000 acres would provide sufficient check-off dollars that the association could use to meet its operating needs, retain an on-staff agronomist, and complete necessary additional research on key topics like fertility and fungicide.

“I’m hoping acreage is on its way up now,” adds Graham.