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Bio-industrial markets a good option for triticale

The Canadian Triticale Biorefinery Initiative is out of funding, 
but research into bio-industrial uses for triticale is still underway

Triticale, a human-made hybrid of wheat and rye, has never seen the demand enjoyed by its cereal cousins in Canada. Traditionally, western Canadian farmers have largely avoided using triticale in their rotations due to limited marketing opportunities. While triticale boasts high yields and high biomass, along with added benefits such as disease resistance and high tolerance to environmental stresses such as drought and poor soil, the lack of defined markets and poor crop insurance have made triticale seem like a bad bet to most farmers.

That may soon change, as research has shown triticale to be an ideal crop for bio-industrial uses such as ethanol production and even the production of bio-industrial composites. New varieties Sunray and Brevis, slated to become available for general production in 2014, boast higher biomass and starch content than older varieties.

According to Francois Eudes, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) cereal biotechnology specialist at Lethbridge, Alta., there are two major reasons why triticale is an ideal crop for industrial bio-refining purposes.

First, triticale is highly competitive, out-performing other cereals under abiotic stresses, says Eudes. “But also, in very good soil, triticale out-yields wheat. Per unit of land, you get more straw and more grain,” he says. “If you want to move into the industrial biorefining industry, you get more feedstock per unit of land from triticale than wheat.”

Second, triticale is not subject to the stringent quality requirements imposed on other cereals, such as wheat, says Eudes. This means that breeders can focus on yield and yield stability across regions. “The same variety can easily be grown on all regions of the Prairies. You won’t necessarily see that with wheat or other crop species, such as beans, which have very small regional adaptability,” Eudes explains. “With one breeding program, you can serve the farming community all across the provinces.”

Eudes says that as triticale is not an export commodity, it would theoretically be easier to adopt novel technologies to breed hardier varieties of the crop, or to make processing it easier. “To improve the genetic characteristics of triticale would be much easier than in wheat — you don’t have to go through the quality registration process as with wheat,” says Eudes.

The Canadian Triticale Biorefinery Initiative

Eudes is a board member of the Canadian Triticale Biorefinery Initiative, an organization which intends, according to its website, to see “significant triticale acreage grown in Western Canada, supplying locally established, world-scale biorefineries that produce a range of products and co-products: renewable energy, platform chemicals, biomaterials, biocomposites and more.”

Under the federal government’s Growing Forward 1, the CTBI was granted $15 million from Ottawa under the Agricultural Bioproduct Initiative Program to provide support to management and research teams all across Canada — including the National Research Council and AAFC, Alberta Agriculture, the University of McGill, the University of Alberta, and other universities and companies. In total, 11 different institutions were involved.

With the funding and governmental support, triticale seemed poised to take the Canadian biorefining industry by storm.

“And then, the drought! This program has been discontinued,” says Eudes. “Under Growing Forward 2, there are new clusters and target projects, and in all cases they call for industry matching, which is difficult to find for an emerging industry.”

All projects that were supported by this program have disappeared, but CTBI continues to exist with a core group of AAFC scientists who have pieced together enough funding to keep minimal research going. “I have some money for programs using triticale species,” Eudes says. “So we have a little activity but it has shrunk so much from the funding we got when the program was in place.”

In total, the project had six years’ worth of funding, even though the researchers had initially talked about 15 to 20 years’ worth of funding to develop the crop.

The way forward

Even if the CTBI has run out of funding, new opportunities in industrial biorefining only show signs of increasing. And while there are elements of risk in growing triticale for these markets, it may be a risk worth taking, says Eudes.

“One farmer in the Peace River area has grown a lot of spring and winter triticale, and he found a market in eastern Canada,” he says. “But he had to be more adventurous. Rather than saying, Well, we know that Canadian wheat will be purchased somewhere in the world, he took a risk planting, not knowing he would be selling his grain — and found a very good market.”

According to Brian Beres, a biologist and specialist in life cycles of triticale with AAFC, farmer who are considering including triticale in their rotations should follow the same principals they’d follow with any other grain, beginning with an assessment of markets.

“Are you going for a feed, a milling-type market, an ethanol market, or something where you want to produce lots of biomass? Variety selection is important, along with knowledge of production constraints that might be present in the coming year — whether pests or nutrient deficiencies,” says Beres. “Choose your variety and then position it in a way that allows you to maximize yield as much as possible.”

Assessment of the need for herbicides, which may be lower with newer varieties of triticale such as Brevis and Sunray due to their improved disease resistance, and timely application, is recommended.

Farmers in high-yielding production zones should focus on straw strength and shorter varieties, while those in lower-yielding production zones should select taller varieties, as these are more competitive, says Beres. The most important suggestion Beres can offer is that farmers should exploit the yield potential and remove constraints as far as possible. †

Uses: flour, breakfast cereal, livestock feed and forage

First bred: 1876, by Scottish breeders

First North American breeding program: 1953, at the Unversity of Manitoba

Name’s meaning: Com-bination of the Latin words Triticum (wheat) and secale cereal (rye)

Recent research: In a swath grazing trial at Lacombe, Alta., triticale for swath grazing showed almost twice the carrying capacity of barley. This was unusual, and related to seeding dates. Research in Saskatchewan has shown that when both crops are seeded in mid-June, production is about the same. †

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Julienne Isaacs

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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