Farming is all about colours: staying in the black and avoiding the red to keep your business in the pink of health. That’s no small feat, which is why genetic improvement and variety development in chickpeas is needed to keep farmers on the cutting edge and keep those greenbacks coming in.
“For any crop you need to develop varieties that are high yield, easy to grow, adaptable to the target areas and desirable for consumers to generate profits for producers,” said Bunyamin Tar’an, associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan and chickpea breeder at the university’s Crop Performance Centre.
In regard to chickpea breeding, Tar’an said there are three main goals that researchers address.
“First there has to be a competitive advantage for farmers or no one will grow it,” said Taran. “That translates to high yield and larger seed size especially for Kabuli chickpea, as price correlates to size. The basic formula is yield + seed size + price = money in the producer’s pocket.”
Breeders are also seeking to improve the nutritional quality of chickpeas such as boosting iron content and levels of Vitamin A.
“If we can breed varieties that appeal physically, have a high yield and offer better nutrition in the seed, we can become a more preferred source for both domestic and international markets.”
This is evident in their approach to the rapidly growing humus market in North America as they work to identify the characteristics needed to make the best humus and address them in their breeding program.
Making it simpler
Since chickpea is a relatively new crop and is considered “high risk,” the second goal is to reduce that risk and minimize production costs through such things as early maturity and enhanced disease resistance. For example, originally farmers had to spray four or five times with fungicide to control ascochyta blight disease, whereas new varieties under normal conditions need only be sprayed twice, thereby lowering both risk and production cost.
Lastly, there is a focus on ease of management.
“By making crops more herbicide tolerant, you can use different herbicides for weed control as part of an integrated weed management program. You also make the crops stand upright so they are easier to combine.”
Of course, if genetic improvement and variety development in chickpeas was easy, you wouldn’t need eight letters behind your name to do it.
“In chickpea and other pulses, we use a conventional breeding app-roach where we make crosses and follow the progeny from one generation to the next. In general it takes eight to 12 years to develop a new variety, so you need to invest a lot of time and money before you see results.”
Not surprisingly then, Tar’an and his colleagues are exploring ways to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of selection in their breeding programs. Like many things these days, the answer may lie in genomics — the study of mapping genomes.
“Through genomics, we can increase our ability to select for the best cultivar that has all the characteristics desired by producers and consumers. In effect we are using conventional breeding but with enhanced tools.”
They are also accelerating the process by employing winter nurseries in Arizona or Mexico, giving themselves two growing seasons per year. To some extent they can do the same thing by means of greenhouses and growth chambers on site, but the capacity is limited and they must be shared with other commodities.
“Increasing that capacity requires a big capital investment. We are probably the largest chickpea breeding program in North America but we still have limited resources.”
Those resources are needed because in spite of Saskatchewan’s position as the highest yielding chickpea zone in the world based on yield per acre, challenges still exist for growers. Chief among them are disease, early maturity and excessive moisture.
“This past year we had too much moisture which delayed maturity and increased humidity, leading to more disease issues. Fortunately, 2016 was a bit of an anomaly so if we can continue to make progress on the breeding front, we should be in good shape going forward.”
And if that progress leads to more “green” in producers’ jeans, both researchers and the industry at large will be tickled pink.