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Kernza plant breeder recognized

Faces of Ag: Doug Cattani has spent his career working on perennial grasses

And to think, he could have been an accountant.

Plant breeder and researcher Doug Cattani received provincial recognition in October for his work in developing perennial grains.

Since 2010, Cattani has worked with Kernza, the trade name for organically produced intermediate wheatgrass, which is being developed for grain production.

As a perennial grain, Kernza causes less disturbance to the soil, requires fewer inputs, and may capture more carbon than annual crops.

Minister of Sustainable Development Rochelle Squires recognized Cattani for innovation in sustainability on October 17.

“Our government is pleased to recognize and celebrate the successes of Manitobans, and local organizations and businesses in our community that are taking action to reduce their environmental footprint,” she said in a news release.

Beyond accounting

Over 40 years ago, Cattani was an accountant who was looking for something more out of life.

“I like numbers, but it tells you what I think about just sitting there all day,” Cattani joked to the Co-operator.

He added that accounting is important, of course, it just wasn’t his thing.

“Agriculture I saw as having a benefit to society,” he said. “That’s what drew me in.”

Cattani returned to school as a mature student at the University of Manitoba. Initially he didn’t know if he wanted to go into animal or plant science.

He was interested in perennials, though, and “plants don’t kick,” he said.

His first summer job was with perennials. He worked with a forage breeder at the University of Manitoba. After he completed his PhD at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, he worked in the United States, also in perennial development.

Family brought him back to Manitoba, and in 2010 he was hired to work on Kernza, alongside researchers from the United States, Belgium and France.

Kernza is organically produced intermediate wheatgrass. Intermediate wheatgrass has been used as a forage crop in North America for many years. Cattani said its use originated after the dust bowl years, when researchers were looking for crops to hold the soil together.

The plant is distantly related to wheat.

“Like third — fourth cousins as opposed to siblings,” said Cattani.

Like wheat, its grain contains gluten, but not to the extent or quality that wheat has. It works well in pasta, chips and crackers, but isn’t able to raise bread without being mixed with wheat.

General Mills has taken an interest in the grain because of its sustainable qualities — even making a limited run of “Honey Toasted Kernza” cereal as part of a fundraising campaign earlier this year, according to a news release.

Once planted, Kernza can produce for three to five years without the need to disturb the soil and replant. This means it can establish deep, hearty root systems which remain year round.

It can turn more sunlight and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, or as the buzzword goes, “sequester carbon.”

Cattani said when agro-Manitoba was tall grass prairie, the soil was very high in organic carbon.

“We’ve used that and we’ve degraded or lowered that over time,” Cattani said. “Having these perennials I think at worse would stop that decline, and depending on how long we can keep it productive will increase the soil carbon eventually.”

Not yet ready

As of yet, this remains mostly theory. Kernza is a few years away from being commercially available as seed, said Cattani, and they’ve yet to truly understand what makes it tick.

Right now, the research group is working to determine what makes Kernza move from a vegetative state to reproduction — in which it begins to develop the grain-bearing head. It appears to be a combination of a winter season followed by a certain day length of sunlight.

These factors seem to give Manitoba an advantage. Here, the end of winter and correct day length pretty much coincide, said Cattani.

Cattani said once the Kernza is established weeds are barely an issue, as long as they can keep weeds out in the first year.

“So now you have our plants beginning this reproductive growth as spring develops,” he said. “Once established, it stays ahead of the weeds.”

The hang-up is yield. This is something Kernza breeders have been working on, and have doubled the average yield in Manitoba to about 1,000 kilograms per hectare (just under 15 bushels per acre) from the historical 500 kilograms per hectare.

Cattani said that early in his career, he was already asking, “Why not a perennial grain?” and the objection was always yield.

“That’s still true, but we’ve never tried,” he said.

“We’ve spent 4,000 to 5,000 years selecting wheats for adaptation and yields and we’re maybe 10 to 15 years in with intermediate wheatgrass; we’re a few millennium behind wheat in developing yields.”

Cattani pointed to canola, which has sprung to prominence in recent history, though this was due to billions in government and private funding, and loads of research. While he says Kernza is unlikely to be the next canola, it has potential to be much more than it is.

“You put the effort in, quite often you get the benefit,” he said. “We have made progress. We’ve still got to make a lot more.”

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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