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Barley research gets a boost

News Roundup from the October 24, 2016 issue of Canadian Cattlemen

The barley breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan Crop Development Centre (CDC) received a boost of $2.4 million over five years from barley growers across the Prairies.

The commitment was announced in September by the Western Grains Research Foundation (WGRF) and three provincial commissions — Alberta Barley, SaskBarley and the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association.

Funding assurance and support from all three provinces for the CDC’s barley breeding program provides stability for the program’s highly qualified technical staff, continued development of resources including genetic markers, and ongoing research to improve yield, disease resistance and malt quality.

Since 1971, the CDC has developed and released more than 70 malt, feed and food barley varieties. Some well-known malting varieties through the decades have been Harrington in 1981, which set the standard for two-row varieties for more than 20 years, the centre’s first six-row malting variety, Tankard in 1990, and the currently popular two-row, CDC Copeland in 1999. Five new malting varieties have been released within the last five years alone.

Approximately half of the CDC’s releases have been food and feed varieties. CDC Cowboy (2004) was the first two-row forage barley, followed by the smooth-awned version, CDC Maverick (2011). The high-yielding two-row feed varieties, CDC Coalition (2005) and CDC Austenson (2008), along with the two-row malt variety, CDC Meredith (2008), have proven their merit as forage varieties as well in the Alberta Regional Silage Variety Trials.

Alberta is the only prairie province that runs variety trials to compare yields in total-plant tonnes per acre and nutritional qualities of barley, oat and triticale varieties and cereal-pulse mixes suitable for for silage, greenfeed and swath grazing. The results are published each year in the Alberta Seed Guide.

Aaron Beattie, who heads the CDC’s barley and oat breeding program, says the forage barley program will build on the strengths of the two CDC varieties most suited for silage and swath grazing, CDC Cowboy and CDC Maverick. The aim now is to continue to improve their nutritional characteristics and total-plant dry-matter yield.

On the quality side, the team will be working to reduce undigestible fibre content and improve digestible fibre content.

Improving disease resistance to common foliar diseases such as spot blotch and scald as well as emerging diseases such as stripe rust, is a priority for the barley breeding program overall, and particularly important for forage varieties to ensure the leaves remain healthy and growing to their full potential. On the feed-barley side, healthy plants maximize the crop’s genetic potential to produce grain, Beattie explains.

Whenever grain yield is the focus, improving straw strength (lodging resistance) is always a goal because harvestability is so important.

The CDC’s program is now centred on two-row varieties since demand for six-row barley from big U.S. buyers has dwindled and breeders have been able to substantially improve the two-rows.

“My predecessors here did a good job of closing the gap between two-row and six-row barley for yield, quality and agronomic traits, including straw strength in the newer feed varieties, which used to be a big advantage of six-row barley. The advantage of two-row over six-row barley is that there is less head breakage with the two-rows,” Beattie explains.

Since 1995, the barley breeding program at the CDC has received nearly $15 million through the WGRF from the barley checkoff, formerly collected by the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB). The WGRF, a farmer-directed organization formed in 1981, received some of the checkoff from the CWB for wheat and barley variety development and field crop research.

Having all three producer-elected commissions on board with the WGRF supporting the CDC barley breeding program is of special significance with this renewed commitment because of the change in how the barley checkoff has been collected since the CWB’s single-desk marketing power was dissolved in August 2012. The Western Canada Deduction (WCD) was established by the federal government at that time as a transitional checkoff until provincial commissions could be established to collect wheat and barley checkoffs.

SaskBarley was formalized as a producer-elected commission in 2013 and Manitoba’s producer-elected wheat and barley commission was established in 2014. Alberta Barley, established in 1991 to collect the provincial barley checkoff, became the administrator of the WCD with the WGRF continuing to invest those funds in research and development. The provincial commissions will assume responsibility for the checkoff when the WCD expires as of July 31, 2017.

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