Pioneer Hi-Bred, one of the world’s leading corn seed companies, has opened a new research centre here aimed at making corn a mainstream crop in Western Canada.
“We have a vision,” Pioneer Hi-Bred president Ian Grant said in an interview Aug. 6, before the grand opening of Pioneer’s Carman Research Centre. “Even if you could only convert 10 per cent of the cereals (barley and wheat in Western Canada) – say 35 million acres – you’d have a corn business the size of the eastern Canadian corn business.”
Carman is in the heart of Manitoba’s corn belt, blessed with good soil and most years enough warm weather to produce a good crop of earlymaturing grain corn. The 143,000 acres of grain corn seeded this year in Manitoba is down 29 per cent from 2008, but close to the five-year average.
Grain corn has been grown for years in this province but it is still a minor crop. And a risky one at that with a wreck occurring every 10 years or so. The last was in 2004 when corn yields averaged less than a bushel an acre due to a cool growing season.
Still, the 10-year average yield is 88 bushels an acre and the record provincial average is 117. As Grant points out, corn has the potential for big yields and where it can be grown, usually outcompetes barley in both raw bushels and as an animal livestock feed.
Earlier-maturing varieties are seen as the key to Pioneer’s success in the West. It might seem far fetched given corn’s tropical origins, but that’s what naysayers said about expanding
“Our objective is to become the leading supplier of canola in five years from now.”
– IAN GRANT
corn in Ontario 30 years ago, said Steven King, Pioneer’s senior research manager for Maize Product Development.
“We’re just doing the same thing we did in Ontario and doing it in Western Canada – opening up a new frontier for corn,” King said.
Pioneer Hi-Bred had a corn breeder working on earlier-maturing corn at its research facility in Moorhead, Minnesota, but that’s more than four hours away from Carman. There’s no substitute for having a corn breeder located close to his or her plots, King said.
Tariq Mahmood, Pioneer’s new Carman-based corn breeder and the only corn breeder in the West, agrees.
“With a local nursery we have the local problems and material will come out that is way more locally adapted,” he said. “That’s the main objective for starting a breeding program here.”
A cool spring and summer has delayed corn crop development in Manitoba, but the upside is if the corn that survives in test plots this year is hardy and earlier maturing.
The spread westward of corn will be gradual, starting with silage varieties in cooler parts of Manitoba and Alberta and then grain, King said.
Pioneer has purchased six corn seeders that it will loan to corn neophytes so they can try corn without having to invest in specialized equipment, Grant said.
“As you expand, you have to supply support or it won’t get done,” he said.
Progress is being made. In Manitoba’s corn belt 2400 corn heat unit corn is routinely planted, but this year a new 2010 heat unit variety was released.
Pioneer Hi-Bred has a track record developing earlier-maturing corn. Its hybrids account for 75 per cent of the grain corn grown in Manitoba, Grant said.
“The germplasm we’ve developed today works here really well,” he said. “To get it on four million acres means a significant investment in breeding.”
Canola and soybeans will also be researched at Pioneer’s Carman Research Centre. Canola, one of Canada’s biggest crops, will be getting more attention from Pioneer Hi-Bred as it chases Bayer CropScience to be the biggest seed supplier.
“Our objective is to become the leading supplier of canola in five years from now,” Grant said.
“But we’re catching up. This past year we made a very significant gain in market share. We’re really on a roll. Today is just one illustration of our commitment to canola and corn.”
Pioneer is the only company selling canola that’s resistant to clubroot and moderately resistant to sclerotinia – two serious canola diseases.
Meanwhile, Pioneer Hi-Bred is working hard to anticipate the future crop needs of farmers in Canada and around the world, said Bill Niebur, vice-president of Crop Genetics Research and Development at DuPont, which owns Pioneer Hi-Bred. Climate change is occurring but it’s an opportunity for Canadian agriculture, he said.
The Carman facility, which employs seven full-time and 10 seasonal staff is just the tip of the iceberg, Niebur said. Underneath is a global network of researchers working to boost crop yields in a sustainable way.
“The centre opening today represents a culmination of 90 years of Pioneer activity – more than 65 in Canada – and it really is our opportunity to bridge and connect the east with the west, the north with the south, the present with the future.” [email protected]