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Maintaining momentum in forages

Research on the Record with Reynold Bergen

Canada’s pasture and rangelands have drier, colder, and shorter growing seasons than many other beef-producing areas in the world. The forage varieties that perform best in Canada are generally the ones that have been bred, selected and developed to germinate, grow, survive and thrive here. Forage varieties developed in foreign countries are sometimes marketed in Canada, but they weren’t developed under our climate and may not perform as well as homegrown varieties.

A total of 144 new perennial forage cultivars (grasses and legumes) were developed in Canada and registered between 1932 and 2017. Although private or not-for-profit companies often sell these seeds, these companies rarely did the actual breeding and development work. Nearly all (98 per cent) of these 144 cultivars were developed by public (government and university) breeding programs. It is critically important that universities and governments continue these breeding programs, because when a program stops it takes years to rebuild its momentum.

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Here are a few examples. Only eight new perennial forage varieties were registered during the 1930s; forage breeding programs that had lost manpower and momentum due to the First World War were still rebuilding when the Second World War started. Only three new perennial forage varieties were registered during the 1940s. Many more recruits were drafted and sent overseas during the Second World War, and some forage breeders who remained in Canada were reassigned to develop grasses that could reinforce and stabilize air force landing strips. The Second World War ended in 1945, but only four new Canadian perennial forage varieties were released in the 1950s, and only 15 in the 1960s. Forage breeding programs never really regained their momentum until the 1970s, with the release of 24 new varieties, and maintained their momentum through the ’80s (23 new varieties), ’90s (28), and 2000s (25 so far, including 14 perennial forage varieties since 2010).

It takes a long time to develop a new variety from scratch. Dr. Bruce Coulman of the University of Sask­atchewan (who provided me with this list of Canada’s forage varieties), recently recalled the start of his forage breeding career at McGill University. McGill had allowed its forage breeding program to collapse, and had no breeding lines under development when Coulman started. Starting from scratch in 1976, Coulman registered his first forage variety in 1993. After that, the new variety had to be commercialized, foundation seed multiplied and grown to commercial quantities, marketed and adopted. When starting with nothing, it can take the better part of two decades for a new variety to proceed from the initial crosses to commercial availability. The development pipeline is very long, so it takes a long time after the breeding tap is opened before any new varieties start to flow out the other end.

The reverse is also true. New varieties can emerge long after the breeding program has been closed. This can also give the false illusion that all is well as new varieties continue to trickle onto the market long after the tap has been turned off.

Funding determines whether governments and universities keep the taps open on their breeding programs. Historically, forage breeding (like all agricultural research) was funded almost entirely by tax dollars. Today, industry dollars are needed to help support and encourage continued government and university investment in these breeding and research programs. This is probably a symptom of how society has changed; in 1931, 32 per cent of Canadians lived on farms. In 2011, fewer than two per cent still lived on the farm. Agriculture’s contribution to the Canadian economy is still very significant, but agricultural research now faces increasing competition for public support from urban healthcare, education, etc.

The Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off provides a significant share of the industry funds that support government and university beef cattle and forage research programs in Canada. In recent years, provincial beef producer groups have increased the research allocation of the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off dollar from an average of six cents to an average of 18 cents. That has greatly increased the Beef Cattle Research Council’s ability to leverage producer funds, and fund a broader variety of research projects.

The current Beef Science Cluster has allocated 30 per cent of its funds towards forage breeding and production research. Industry investments like this have encouraged governments and universities to also renew their commitment to forage research.

Over the past two years the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Manitoba, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada stations across the country have hired at least nine new forage researchers. Some were even hired before their more experienced counterparts retired. This is especially beneficial, in that they have an opportunity to benefit from the experience and wisdom their mentors gathered over the course of their careers. And that helps to maintain the research momentum that invigorates the breeding and management of the Canadian forages of tomorrow.

The Beef Research Cluster is funded by the Canadian Beef Cattle Check-Off and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada with additional contributions from provincial beef industry groups and governments to advance research and technology transfer supporting the Canadian beef industry’s vision to be recognized as a preferred supplier of healthy, high-quality beef, cattle and genetics.

— Dr. Reynold Bergen is the science director of the Beef Cattle Research Council.

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Dr. Reynold Bergen is the science director of the Beef Cattle Research Council.

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