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Seed Companies Pull Out Of Variety Trials

APrairie-wide program of canola variety trials has been cancelled this year after most of the participating seed companies unexpectedly pulled out.

Canola seed developers did not enter enough canola varieties in the 2010 Prairie Canola Variety Trials for it to go ahead, the Canola Council of Canada, which administers the trials, said last week.

Dissatisfaction by seed companies with the size of plots and the data they produce was the main reason for the decision not to take part, said Rob Pettinger, Manitoba Canola Growers Association president.

“They don’t feel that these small plots properly portray the yield capabilities of their varieties,” said Pettinger, who farms near Elgin.

ABRUPT DEPARTURE

The abrupt departure by major canola seed companies

“They don’t want independent data getting in the way of their sales and advertising strategy.”

– CRAIG RIDDELL

leaves growers without an independent third-party variety evaluation for at least a year.

“We always looked at these trials before we purchased seed. We valued them. We used them as another part of our decision-making process,” Pettinger said.

“It was one link that we used and that may be gone now. It certainly is gone for this year.”

However, the canola council had little choice but to cancel the 2010 PCVT trials, said Denise Maurice, vice-president of crop production. “We couldn’t get consensus in time for the season,” Maurice said.

“It was at a crunch time where we had to make some critical decisions before hitting the field. So that’s where we’re at.”

The canola growers’ association of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta issued an April 6 statement expressing shock at participants’ decision to pull out of the program all at once.

INDEPENDENT ASSESSMENTS LACKING

The decision deprives canola producers of valuable independent information which they need to make cropping decisions, the group said.

“This data is the most sought-after information by canola growers in developing their annual crop plans,” said Wayne Bacon, who chairs SaskCanola. “To only have company-created data is unacceptable to every single grower that our organizations have ever talked to about this.”

Maurice declined to name either the companies which withdrew from the trials or those which submitted varieties for evaluation this year.

One company that pulled out was Pioneer Hi-Bred, which submitted most of its product line last year.

Dave Harwood, technical services manager, said Pioneer Hi-Bred invests a lot of money in its own trials on large-scale field plots to evaluate different varieties side by side using commercial production practices.

NOT ADEQUATE

Small-scale plots such as those used by PCVT don’t generate adequate data, Harwood said from his office in Chatham, Ontario.

“It was our conclusion that that source was not generating robust contrasts of performance. The results were not well correlated with what we experience on a field scale,” he said.

“The small-plot technique has a difficult time reproducing those cultural practices and therefore is more at risk of producing results that aren’t well correlated.”

Harwood denied companies colluded in deciding to pull out, but said, “We mutually came to the same conclusion.”

Monsanto Canada submitted one product line to PCVT this year. But its concerns are the same as the others, said company spokesperson Trish Jordan.

“The small-scale plot data is a good predictor. It will rank varieties properly. But it’s not accurate in terms of yield and yield performance. Our goal is to give growers accurate data on performance of the varieties and when you scale up,” Jordan said.

MORE VARIABILITY

However, other industry sources say the small-plot argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Field-scale trials are spread over land that has more variability so it is more difficult to achieve uniform plots. As well, separate in-house trials won’t be standardized in the same way as the PCVT trials.

Craig Riddell, president of the Manitoba Seed Growers Association, said comparisons of the small-plot trial data against Manitoba Crop Insurance data on actual field performance often correlate quite closely.

Companies also complained that, although weeds in the trials were controlled, they were not controlled using the chemistry specifically to the herbicide-tolerant systems.

Riddell said the real reason companies are pulling out of the trials is that one canola production system has consistently demonstrated superior yield performance that other seed developers have so far been unable to match.

“They don’t want independent data getting in the way of their sales and advertising strategy,” Riddell said, noting that in his view, it’s a short-sighted reaction.

“Variety developers are placing undue concern on how they stack up in the yield category. Farmers are making choices based on a host of factors including herbicide system, maturity, and cost – but they need an objective and independent data set to make these choices from,” he said.

FUTURE PLANS

Pettinger said he hoped PCVT can be brought back in a way to accommodate seed companies.

“I really would hope that we can come to some new decision here. If the small plots aren’t suitable, then we have to have something independent to replace it,” he said.

“We shouldn’t just throw everything out and have no independent testing.”

Gary Martens, an agronomy instructor with the University of Manitoba, said that while independent testing and data published in Seed Manitoba and Yield Manitoba serve as useful guides for farmers, farmers tend to place too much focus on paying top dollar for the top-yielding variety anyway.

“I tell my students ‘don’t spend all your money on the best variety,’” Martens said. “It’s like buying a Cadillac with a four-cylinder engine.”

Even if they have a perfect season for weather and moisture, and maximize their use of fungicides, fertility and weed control, the closest they will get to achieving that variety’s full yield potential is 80 per cent. Choosing from among the top 10 varieties will still net a profitable return.

And while he agrees there is one canola production system on the market that outranks the others on yield, Martens noted farmers should still rotate between the different production systems for sustainable crop management.

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