When farmers have questions about how to improve crop quality and yields, researchers can usually help to find the answers
by Geoff Geddes
Like life itself, farming is about addressing the hard questions: How do I combat the latest crop pest? Which farming practices are most beneficial? How did Mother Nature get such a warped sense of humour?
If we put that last question aside, many of the answers can be found in research. As farming becomes more complex, the role of research increases in importance. The effects of research on the canola and wheat industries are perfect illustrations of how science informs growers’ daily decisions.
“Research is among the most important services we offer our members,” says Delaney Ross Burtnack, the executive director of the Manitoba Canola Growers Association (MCGA). “Whether we’re focusing on what growers need next year or what’s coming down the pipe 10 years from now, the dollars devoted to research are an investment in the sustainability of the canola industry.”
Just as the timeline for research varies, so does its scope. While some projects target agronomic practices that can be applied on-farm, other projects explore new uses for canola or help regulators understand the challenges that producers face and forge better policies.
“Some research activities impact growers and consumers at the same time,” says Ross Burtnack. “A current example is the study of canola as a protein source. Over the last eight to 10 years, we’ve been exploring how the same crop that is used in livestock feed could, with the right extraction process, be employed as a protein for humans as well.”
Work on alternative canola uses is one of many ways that research can add value for growers. On his 3,600-acre farm near Winnipeg, Chuck Fossay has seen the value of research first-hand. He is also the president of the MCGA.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in canola over the last 40 years,” says Fossay. “We’ve gone from conventional canola to a genetically modified crop that lets us better control weeds with special herbicides.
“Science is constantly developing new varieties that offer higher yields or new traits, such as specialty oils that fetch us higher prices,” he says. “There are also varieties more equipped to deal with insects or diseases such as clubroot, so the right variety in the right circumstances can have a huge impact.”
The MCGA’s leaders have identified five top concerns for the canola industry in 2020. Association staff will use the list to guide the spending of research dollars on behalf of growers. The areas of concern are
- flea beetles (one of the top pests in the southern Prairies in 2019)
- Sclerotinia control
- storage practices
- efficient use of fertilizer
- varietal deficiencies that impede tolerance of drought and floods
Whether it’s addressing the big picture or the finer details of production, canola research supports a vital industry. In 2018, canola accounted for $9.22 billion of cash receipts for Prairie farms, reports Statistics Canada.
Research is also a key player in the canola industry’s efforts to increase productivity by 40 per cent by 2025. The industry aims to produce 26 million tonnes of canola per year and 52 bushels per acre.
“A good chunk of that increase will stem from better agronomic practices that reduce yield loss and improve weed control in canola,” says Fossay.
Crunching the numbers of canola production underscores an important truth about research: if it isn’t relevant to the real world, it isn’t worthwhile.
“I try to always come at things from a producer perspective,” says Curtis Cavers, an agronomist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Portage la Prairie, Man. “Research must have a practical application.”
That reverence for relevance prompted Cavers’s latest project entitled compaction impacts on canola establishment. He evaluated the effects of tillage treatments on soil strength at a variety of depths and under both rain-fed and irrigated conditions.
Using canola as their main crop, Cavers and his team examined four tillage techniques, all using a seeding depth of 0.75 to 1.0 inches (2 to 2.5 centimetres) depending on seedbed conditions:
- standard conventional tillage with a cultivator
- vertical tillage with wave coulters
- deep tillage via subsoilers
- raised beds with bed shapers
The researchers also used four seeding densities that included four, seven, 10 and 13 plants per square foot.
“We had important findings in three aspects of the study,” says Cavers. “Added moisture had a positive impact on the soil to a point, but those benefits tailed off as moisture levels became excessive. We found that, when Mother Nature gives you dry conditions, it is hard to achieve enough saturation with irrigation alone.
“During those dry times, the two shallowest tillage treatments (conventional and vertical tillage) achieved the best results by leaving more moisture in that topsoil zone where it’s needed to get the crop growing.”
In evaluating tillage methods, the researchers found that the first three were comparable in their effects on soil strength. The raised-bed approach was the worst performer under dry conditions.
Finally, the scientists examined plant stand. They found no difference in yield until the density was lowered to four plants per square foot.
“You can probably get away with low plant stand if conditions are perfect and there is no extra stress on the plants. But, when you get down to four or five plants per square foot, there is no room for error and not enough plants to compensate if you lose a few,” says Cavers.
“Continuous improvement is important in any industry, and research supports that process,” says Lauren Comin, the director of research at the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) and Alberta Barley. “Wheat farmers have a lot of factors that affect their bottom line, so we try to fund research relating to factors that are under their control and that impact profitability.”
The range of factors includes how varieties respond to biotic and abiotic stresses and the management practices that reflect the unique environmental challenges each grower faces.
Wheat research funders like AWC try to diversify their portfolios by supporting longer-term projects that take considerable time and effort while also funding projects that can have immediate effects. The AWC first asks whether the research suits producers’ overarching priorities, such as resisting disease and decreasing inputs.
“At the next stage, we have experts who scrutinize research proposals to determine which ones have scientific merit,” says Comin.
“We also look at whether a proposed field of study has been covered in the past and, if so, whether there is a compelling reason to repeat it,” she says. “Finally, we must weigh the cost of a project against its potential benefits, as we have limited funding and need to make the best use of those funds.”
The power of research makes it the biggest budget item for AWC and makes producers like Hannah Konschuh feel the money is well spent. Konschuh grows wheat and other crops at her farm about 1.5 hours east of Calgary. She is also the vice-chair of AWC.
“Research informs almost everything we do on-farm,” says Konschuh. “Though we make some decisions based on experience, most of our choices are grounded in research. That includes everything from what and how we seed to how we control weeds.”
As scientific knowledge increases, it drives cutting-edge research in several areas.
“One topic getting a lot of attention right now is the soil microbiome,” says Konschuh. It is the collection of interacting micro-organisms living in soil. “Soil micro-organisms play such an important role in nutrient cycling and soil health.
“AWC is also funding a project looking at the impact of pesticides on the soil microbiome (to learn) how microbes can degrade chemicals that may stick around longer in the environment,” she says. “The microbiome is such a promising area of research, so I’m glad to see it increasing in prominence.”
More examples of progressive wheat research are emerging from the Lacombe Research and Development Centre in Alberta. One of the most heavily funded projects is using genome editing to alter the circadian clock in wheat.
“Most organisms are tuned into day and night cycles in terms of gene expression; a handful of genes regulate the circadian clock over a 24-hour period,” says Dr. John Laurie. He is a research scientist of enabling technologies at the AAFC’s Lethbridge Research and Development Centre. Together with Dr. André Laroche, Laurie is co-lead on the project entitled circadian clock editing to increase wheat yield.
Previous research has identified genes that affect the circadian clock in tomatoes, allowing a crop that is native to Central America to be grown in less forgiving climates in the northern hemisphere.
“Altering the circadian clock in wheat using conventional methods is almost impossible. With genome editing, we can go in, precisely modify each gene and measure the downstream effects,” says Laurie. “Our goal is to fine-tune wheat’s circadian clock as a means of increasing stress tolerance and enabling wheat to thrive in regions where it may have struggled in the past.”
Prairie farms produced $5.31 billion in cash receipts from wheat (excluding durum wheat) in 2018, reports Statistics Canada. So anything that supports this effort is bound to be embraced by industry. But the value of research stretches beyond national borders too.
“We are living in difficult times as far as the need to feed a growing world population is concerned, especially in the face of growing pressure from climate change,” says Laurie. “We know that stressors like heat, cold and drought have a major impact on crop performance, and all of those factors can be addressed through research.” BF