Despite a few stumbling blocks, the Canadian oat industry continues to advance and offer good opportunities for oat growers.
The good news is that researchers are looking at new, value-added products that provide increased health benefits to consumers. Thanks to improvements in oat breeding and agronomic practices, Canadian oat yields have increased by 18 per cent on average over the past five years, a greater yield increase than any other cereal crops. More new varieties that offer better disease resistance, improved yield and quality are being made available to growers, and expanded market access to countries like China are being explored.
The not-so-good news is the reduction in funding available to breeders. PepsiCo (owner of Quaker) has eliminated around $600, 000 in funding for Canadian public oat research and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) reduced its oat-breeding funding from 75 per cent to 50 per cent earlier this year.
“The loss of funding is a large percentage of the total amount of oat breeding dollars that were contributed each year,” says Shawna Mathieson, executive director of the Prairie Oat Growers Association (POGA). “Due to this, all the oat breeding programs are attempting to continue the good work they have been doing with significantly less dollars. Western Canadian oat breeders still receive breeding program support from every other major oat miller, oat growers through the provincial check-offs, and many other industry players to attempt to alleviate the shortfall this reduced funding has created.”
The reduction in funding means that breeders are asking producer organizations to increase their funding. “The oat grower commissions have increased funding to both the CDC and the AAFC oat breeding programs (both the conventional and organic breeding programs) which means there is less money for other research, marketing initiatives and policy work,” says Mathieson.
The show goes on
Oat breeders are, however, a determined bunch, and there is still a lot of work being done to develop varieties that meet the priorities of growers, millers and consumers.
Oat breeding work has been ongoing at AAFC since 1995, first at the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg until its closure in 2014, and since then at the Brandon Research and Development Centre. The program is part of the Prairie Oat Breeding Consortium, which receives provincial-federal cost-shared funding through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP), POGA and a number of industry partners.
The main focus of the program remains the development of high-yielding cultivars with improved abiotic stress, disease and pest resistance, that perform well across all of Western Canada and have the good milling qualities that the industry demands, says research scientist, Jennifer Mitchell Fetch, who heads the program.
Dr. Aaron Beattie at the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatoon has just wrapped up a three-year project to try and identify the pathogens that cause leaf blotch in oats. After sampling commercial fields over three years, Beattie discovered that the predominant pathogen is a close neighbour of the one that causes net blotch in barley and tan spot in wheat.
The good news is they found sources of resistance to multiple isolates of the pathogen in oat germplasm they evaluated and developed genetic markers to help incorporate the resistance into future oat varieties. “We believe that this gene, if deployed, should do a good job of looking after this disease,” says Beattie.
“I don’t know that we’re going to get it in Canada any time soon, but I am concerned about powdery mildew on oats, which has been a problem in Europe,” says Mitchell Fetch. “What breeders have to do is think 10 years down the road so that they can look for genes that will provide resistance to disease or pests and make those crosses 10 years before the problem arises in Canada.”
What makes an organic oat?
Most recent cultivars from Mitchell Fetch’s program are AAC Justice (distributed through FP Genetics) and the program’s second organic variety, AAC Kongsore that will be marketed through Grain Millers.
An organic cultivar is evaluated under organic management throughout its lifecycle. Mitchell-Fetch worked closely with Martin Entz at the University of Manitoba and Dean Spaner at the University of Alberta to test and select the best oat material under organically managed field plots which eventually led to the release of AAC Kongsore. In an organic cultivar, breeders look for specific traits that allow it to perform better under organic management conditions.
“That could be things like quick emergence where the oat plant can beat the weeds and cover the weeds so they don’t get as much light,” says Mitchell Fetch. “Or maybe the plant is more efficient at using nutrients that are available.”