As the ethanol industry revved up in Western Canada, farmers on the board of the Western Applied Research Corporation (WARC), based at Scott, Sask., wanted to know just which cereal types and varieties would make the most ethanol. The answer, it turns out, is not as straightforward as you might think.
Launched in 2005, WARC put together a large-scale evaluation of mainly wheat for ethanol production. Varieties needed to produce high yield and low protein under dryland conditions. Sherrilyn Phelps, regional crops specialist with Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, led WARC’s portion of the project. “We wanted to look at soft white spring wheat specifically under dryland production, as it’s typically grown under irrigation. We didn’t hold a lot of hope, but were surprised with the results,” she says.
The trial set up differed from province to province, but typically included several soft white and CPS lines, three triticale varieties as well as one hard red spring variety. Nearly all lines tested were registered. One wheat line was in the process when the trial began and has since cleared registration.
After a successful first year in 2005, the project was expanded to Alberta and Manitoba. Both provinces took the trial in somewhat different directions. Brian Beres, agronomist with Agriculture and Agri-food Canada’s Lethbridge research station, evaluated triticale’s potential up against soft wheat varieties. Scott Day, diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives, was especially keen to vet out those varieties with weaker disease packages given that province’s wetter conditions.
Up against a few Eastern feed varieties, some CPS varieties, one hard red spring and triticale, the soft white wheats were some of the highest yielding in the Saskatchewan trials, Phelps says. “We did include Hoffman, an eastern variety, in the trials, but it lodged, was later maturing and had a poor disease package for western conditions,” Phelps says. Soft white wheat lines are typically criticized for the same drawbacks, though new varieties are in development to solve these issues. (See the chart on page 6 for yield results for 2008.)
TRITICALE HOLDS IT OWN
In Beres’s first year of trials, triticale looked downright promising. That prompted Beres to launch another trial to benchmark triticale in a three-year pan-Canadian study funded by the Agricultural Bioproducts Innovation Program (ABIP).
The goal of the study paralleled the WARC project except that the primary focus was to benchmark the relative performance of triticale versus wheat ethanol feedstocks. The two projects combined their treatments into a joint experiment for 2008.
Preliminary results revealed potential for triticale as a feedstock for ethanol, and the team sees applications beyond ethanol. “Today’s interest is in ethanol, but we’re looking longer term as well and thinking ahead to a broader, biorefining application,”
Quality is in the eye of the beholder. Lowprotein rejects from milling wheat breeding programs can work really well for livestock feed and ethanol production. These end users want starch — protein is inconsequential —but for now they have to make do with bread wheats.
All that may change, as the Western Feed Grain Development Co-op is poised to submit two promising general purpose (GP) wheat lines for recommendation this February.
A group of like-minded farmers formed the co-op to develop and breed an end-use specific wheat line, regardless of what it looked like, and share the variety within a closed-loop system, circumventing typical registration. Now that KVD requirements are lifted and the GP class of wheat has been introduced, the co-op can develop and register a variety without a closed loop.
David Rourke is a founding member of the co-op and farms at Minto, Man. He says that the co-op has stayed relevant despite the elimination of KVD because public and most private wheat breeding programs still solely focus on producing for human consumption. “We were at the discussions that set up the general purpose class, and the hog industry and ethanol industry both stressed the importance of a high starch wheat that produced significantly more yield in hopes of creating profitability for the farmers growing it,” he says.
“Yield and protein content are inversely related,” he says, “making achieving much higher yields easier when protein content isn’t a factor.” That’s not to say that the co-op’s breeding program is a walk in the park. Creating a variety that has good starch yield, stellar production, a good disease resistance package and that is adapted to a wide growing area is a challenge even without protein as a factor.
The co-op works at a scale similar to other breeding programs. It screens upwards of 10,000 lines a year and members are happy to have one or more lines per year to bring forward for more testing. Having a variety up for recommendation in five years is fast, and Rourke credits the large-scale screening of lines from all over the world for their success. In addition to rejected public lines destined for food use, the co-op has screened lines from Europe, Asia and the U. S. — wherever they could find high starch, high yielding varieties.
THE FIRST TWO VARIETIES
The co-op’s efforts are coming to fruition with the first two lines likely to be brought forward for recommendation — W411 and W409. As is common with all new wheat varieties, each has a fit in specific growing areas. W411 is a shorter-season variety (11 days earlier than AC Andrew) and is a good fit for more northern growing regions. W409 has a stronger disease package and needs a bit more time to mature making a better fit for the eastern and southern Prairie areas.
Rourke says that the soft white wheat AC Andrew is typically the “starch check,” as it’s the most common variety grown with feed and ethanol use in mind. Rourke and the co-op have concentrated on improving not just yield and starch content versus AC Andrew, but also consistency, disease resistance and adaptability across different growing regions. “In our experience, AC Andrew can under-perform versus hard red spring wheat in some areas or blow it out of the water in others,” he says. For example, AC Andrew yielded a whopping 30 bushels more per acre for one co-op member, but lagged 10 bushels per acre behind red wheat in another area.
With an eye to adaptability, the co-op tests its more advanced lines at four main stations — Minto and Elm Creek, Man., Saskatoon, Sask., and Taber, Alta. Each main site has several satellite locations.
Similar to other programs, the co-op also screens for leaf and stem rust resistance, tolerance to fusarium head blight and resistance to tan spot/septoria, smuts and bunts. “Yield potential really means nothing without a strong disease package,” Rourke says. Take Hoffman, an eastern variety that will out-yield any variety in the complete absence of disease. If a disease is present, however, the variety has zero tolerance and flunks out.
Rourke is understandably excited about the introduction of W411 and W409, should they receive registration. Both an ethanol producer and swine feed manufacturer have tested the lines and offered positive feedback. Combined with the significant yield bump the lines have offered in the public co-op trials, Rourke is confident farmers looking to supply the feed and ethanol markets will like the new lines.
Success of these lines is important for another reason, too. As a private entity, the co-op depends on membership fees and grants to continue operating in the absence of royalties or other income. Now in its fifth year, the co-op is running lean financially. Rourke and other members would like to see their numbers more than triple (currently the co-op is made up of 110 members) in order to ease the financial stresses and keep the breeding program rolling. “We think that will happen,” he says, “but only once we’ve registered a variety.”
Lyndsey Smith is a field editor for Grainews. She lives in Lumsden, Sask. Her email is [email protected]