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At Pickseed, forages are No. 1

Acquisition by a Danish company has allowed a sharp increase in research trials across the country

Quality samples are taken from every plot, assessing diseases, stand establishment and re-growth, among other observations.

Forages may lack for attention in Canada’s overall research budget, but not at Pickseed, which has long focused most of its attention on the forage and turf sectors.

Now owned by Denmark’s DFL-Trifolium, Pickseed operates seven research stations across Canada, with its main facility in Lindsay, Ont., and another near Port Hope. There are also two at Ste. Hyacinthe, Que., one near Portage la Prairie, Man., and two at Taber and Josephburg in Alberta.

The facilities test Pickseed’s own varieties as well as those from select competitors, governments and universities. It’s part of the company’s commitment to improving overall feed quality and production in forages.

“One of the ways we’ve always tried to differentiate ourselves is to select for forage yield — there’s no question about that — but we’re also selecting for forage quality,” says Matt Anderson, lead researcher with Pickseed. The company has always had a strong research focus and with the acquisition by DLF-Trifolium, that interest has increased considerably.

“To some extent, there’s always been a solid background and a strong emphasis on research within our forage portfolio. That’s why it was such a good fit going from Pickseed to DLF because a lot of their beliefs are the same beliefs we had before as a private company.”

Before the acquisition, Pickseed’s Lindsay facility had up to 1,000 replicated trials per year. It’s now performing 4,000 trials, and combined with the Port Hope location, Anderson oversees more than 7,000.

He says the additional trials make for better data.

“We have four replicates within each test, so we’d have the variety entered four times and randomized within the trial. We’re measuring yield and feed quality from each of those plots, which makes our data more reliable, plus the fact that we’re entering that same replicated trial at seven stations across Canada.”

HarvXtra — beyond Roundup Ready

One of the more interesting advances in research and development is Harv­Xtra alfalfa, a unique double-stacked trait variety that combines Roundup Ready technology with a reduced lignin feature. It’s part of a strategic alliance that Pickseed has formed with Forage Genetics International, the developers of the HarvXtra technology. It’s intended to provide a wider harvest window, plus broad-spectrum weed control for difficult-to-control species such as chickweed.

“What that allows a producer to do is that because you have the reduced lignin, it’ll allow a wider window for harvest, so you can delay for up to a week later and still maintain the same feed quality that you would have been doing on a 30-day cutting schedule,” says Anderson. “Or you can harvest on your 30-day cutting schedule and the feed quality will be extremely high.”

Pickseed has worked closely with Forage Genetics throughout the development of the technology. When their initial idea was to launch single-trait Roundup Ready alfalfa with no reduced lignin component, Pickseed started testing in 2011. At that time there was no other company in Canada putting the seed into replicated trials.

In 2014, Pickseed then planted their first HarvXtra trials, and then put in another in 2015 and again in 2017.

“Again, we’re taking three to four cuts off those trials per season, we’re taking quality samples from every plot, numerous field observations — with disease being one of them,” says Anderson. “But we’re also looking at establishment, and the winter survival rates on those varieties, what’s the regrowth — how quickly do those varieties come back after cutting?”

Good varieties need good management

Anderson says that Pickseed’s motivation has never altered, even with DFL’s acquisition. It’s always focused on newer genetics and trying to increase feed yield and quality.

“The other side of that is where newer products like the HarvXtra alfalfa will come into play, and that’s in determining how to increase production while at the same time decreasing your input costs,” says Anderson. “Those two things combined will prove to be a huge advantage going forward.”

Anderson agrees that forages have lacked not only research attention, but attention to good management.

“For the good managers who are out there, there have been improvements in seed genetics and breeding — there’s no question about that,” says Anderson. “But when you combine that and management, think of the level you can get to. That’s what you really have to be paying attention to. If you’re just going to fall back on the advances in breeding, they’re not going to make up for a lack of attention in management. Management is the key.”

He mentions items as simple as ensuring a firm seed bed. That can be missed in the rush to get the crop planted as fast as possible, but a firm seed bed will dramatically improve the stand during its three- or four-year lifespan.

A new species

The list of advances in breeding doesn’t stop with HarvXtra. With the plots at Lindsay and Port Hope, Anderson is looking at red clover, white clover, birdsfoot trefoil, timothy, bromegrass, orchardgrass, tall fescue, annual ryegrass and perennial ryegrass.

All are entered into their replicated trials and follow the same guidelines as those for alfalfa: comparisons with current varieties from competitors and government or universities. They measure yield and quality as well as other observations on establishment and winter survival.

Festulolium is a new species consisting of two hybrids — crosses of different ryegrass species and different fescues. photo: Supplied

One of the other developing stories for Pickseed is the development of festulolium, a new grass species that consists of two hybrids. DLF-Trifolium is the developer. One hybrid is a cross of tall fescue and perennial ryegrass while the other is a cross of meadow fescue with Italian ryegrass. The tall fescue with perennial ryegrass hybrid has the appearance of the former, but has the feed properties of the ryegrass.

“If you’re looking for a long-term stand that’s going to persist, you’d go with the fescue-type of festulolium,” says Anderson. “You’re going to get a little more feed quality advantage than what you’d see with a straight tall fescue, but you’ll also get a little more winter hardiness than you would have from just a perennial ryegrass alone. So when you’re meeting in the middle, you’re getting the best of both species.”

The meadow fescue/Italian ryegrass festulolium hybrid looks more like a ryegrass, yet it’s an annual crop so it’s better for short-term and emergency forage situations, or as a good cover crop option. Growers opting for this will get a little bit more persistence than just an annual ryegrass, but still get the improved feed quality over meadow fescue.

It may sound confusing but Anderson says growers who select one or the other to suit their operations will see huge advantages in stand improvements. It really depends on the duration of the crop that’s desired.

“The fescues contribute qualities such as high dry matter yield, resistance to cold and drought tolerance persistence. Then the ryegrass will add more in terms of rapid establishment, good spring growth, good digestibility and higher sugar content.”

Pickseed is also studying the potential for a hybrid bromegrass, a true cross between smooth bromegrass and a meadow bromegrass. As with the festulolium, researchers are trying to get the best of both varieties, including the yield of a meadow brome and the feed quality of the smooth brome.

There’s also a hybrid ryegrass — a cross between perennial ryegrass and an annual ryegrass, although festulolium is expected to eclipse a lot of the ryegrass hybrids.

This article was originally published in the 2017 Forage & Grassland Guide.

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