Oat and wheat varieties bred specifically to perform well in the low-input conditions of an organic production system are one step closer to becoming a commercial reality.
Two lines of wheat and two lines of oats developed by the Organic Wheat Breeding Program, based at Carman are now entering first-year co-op testing trials towards evaluation by the Prairie grain recommending committees for wheat and oats.
The four lines were selected during trials at the research farm for their ability to outperform conventionally bred wheat in the organic cropping systems.
Registration of any of these varieties will represent an important industry breakthrough for the organic sector, whose farmers currently have only varieties of wheat and oats bred for conventional farming systems to use.
But this has potential benefits for all types of farmers, conventional and organic alike, said Iris Vaisman, a technician with the University of Manitoba’s department of plant science. She spoke at an Organic and Ecologically Integrated Crop Production Field Day July 21.
“These varieties that we’re breeding will be good for organic farmers but also for someone who is just interested in low-input farming,” she said in an interview following the tour. “If a farmer decides that they don’t want to be using pesticides or they want to reduce their fertilizers, whether or not they’re certified organic, this is definitely something that could have the features they want.”
Currently, organic farmers have no access to any varieties bred under organic systems and depend entirely upon those bred for conventional farming systems.
The disadvantage of that lies with the major differences between organic and conventional farming, including the way soil fertility, weeds, diseases and pests are managed.
“Your variety is going to do best if you breed it under the same conditions that you’re going to grow it in,” she said.
It’s been shown that organic growers choose different varieties compared to those of conventional farmers, favouring varieties such as Somerset, AC Cadillac, AC Domain and Kane.
One of the key requirements of organic farmers is for crop varieties that optimally utilize the slow-release nitrogen of legumes, versus the applied fertilizers of conventional varieties. Varieties with natural disease resistance is also critical for use in organic cropping systems.
The organic wheat-breeding program here began nearly a decade ago in collaboration with Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada after studies by a University of Manitoba masters student found that organic lines performed better than conventional lines in organic systems.
After crosses were made from two parents selected based on their desirable traits such as good yield potential, subsequent generations have been grown out at the Carman site.
There’s increasing interest among farmers in having organic lines bred under organic conditions. That’s not only due to need for varieties that perform well under organic management. Farmers say they are losing access to even conventional seed stock varieties as seed companies consolidate or pursue biotechnology.
“Hopefully, in a couple of years we will have a variety available to organic farmers that they can use that they know can perform really well under organic conditions,” said Vaisman.
Participants on this portion of the tour also heard more about the Participatory Wheat Breeding Program, whereby farmers are asked to plant populations of wheat over three seasons then return the best seed for further research. Uptake has been good and the program now has nine participating farmers across Manitoba and Saskatchewan.