Oats is a small acreage crop, so many companies aren’t interested in providing significant funding for research,” says Shawna Mathieson, executive director of the Prairie Oat Growers Association (POGA). “Most Canadian oat projects receive funding through our organization or through provincial and federal government funding that we apply for.” (POGA receives funding from the Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba Oat Development Commissions, which are primarily funded through farmer levies.)
POGA is currently helping to fund 18 research projects, including projects at Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) Brandon Research and Development Centre in Manitoba, the Crop Development Centre (CDC) at the University of Saskatchewan and Oat Advantage, a private oat breeding program near Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
All of these projects are looking to improve the agronomic performance and marketability of oats. They include efforts by Dr. Jaswinder Singh at McGill University to identify genes responsible for characteristics such as higher beta-glucan and stronger straw.
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Dr. Xiao Qui at the University of Saskatchewan is looking at improving the nutritional and health benefits of oats through projects to identify oat germplasm with higher levels of oleic acid, a healthy fatty acid, and clone the genes responsible for these traits. Dr. Qui is also trying to identify the genes responsible for beta-glucan in oats and develop functional markers for breeders. Another aspect of his research involves increasing the level of avenanthramides, a novel bioactive compound in oats that has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
“We are making progress towards developing markers to utilize in marker assisted selection in breeding programs,” says Jennifer Mitchell Fetch, an oat breeder at the Brandon Research and Development Centre. “It’ll be very helpful if we can have a marker for certain traits where we can look at them earlier in the life cycle of our varieties.”
Dr. Chris Willenborg at the University of Saskatchewan is working on projects to develop integrated weed management strategies to optimize oat production. “The first thing we are doing is something called ‘many little hammers’ which is combining multiple tactics to manage weeds,” says Willenborg. Those “little hammers” are comprised of three components. First is a five-year crop rotation trial using three different rotations and assessing three different cultural control methods — oat cultivar (comparing short or tall), different seeding rates, and row spacing. The second is looking at different herbicide options. The third is ecological effects.
Although the project has only completed its first year there are some encouraging results. “Even after the first year, we see multiplicative effects between the different cultural methods that we had,” said Willenborg. “We had an interaction between row spacing and seeding rate, so the effects of going from a 40 cm to a 20 cm row resulted in a 0.75-fold reduction in wild oat contamination. At a higher seeding rate of 400 seeds per m² we saw a 1.5-fold reduction in wild oat contamination over a seeding rate of 200 seeds per m². But when we combined both of those factors together, we in fact saw a three-fold reduction.”
Willenborg is also leading a project investigating the response of oat yield and quality to different harvesting approaches, including the use of glyphosate as a harvest aid.
Dr. William May is conducting a large cropping sequence trial at the Indian Head Agricultural Research Farm to see if there are particularly beneficial combinations of new and traditional crops. He is also leading a project to evaluate the relationship between test weights and nitrogen fertilization in different oat cultivars.
Other projects are looking at improving resistance in oats to diseases such as crown rust and leaf blotch, and Dr. Linda Hall at the University of Alberta is focusing on enhancing the yield and profitability of oats in central Alberta through variety selection, optimizing nitrogen fertilization and the use of plant growth regulators.
Independent oat breeder Jim Dyck of Oat Advantage in Saskatoon is working with a U.S. researcher to evaluate of winter oats. Dyck says it’s not likely growers will see an oat variety in the near future that could survive Canadian winters, but is hoping that he can introduce some extra cold tolerance into spring oats. “Oats used to be the last crop to be seeded because it was often used for feed. It wasn’t really important so it suffered from bad timing. That’s one of the reasons why I want to try to breed some cold tolerance into oats for people who are seeding oats sooner in their planting schedule,” says Dyck.