Cattle producers across Western Canada rely on perennial forage grass species to provide their livestock with ample nutrition during the grazing period and for hay.
Mother Nature provided these grasses with winter hardiness and reasonable drought tolerance needed to prosper in the Prairie climate — but University of Saskatchewan researchers have done their part, too.
Their efforts date back more than 90 years and many of the perennial grass varieties used by producers today came out of work conducted in Saskatoon.
The program first began at the University of Saskatchewan, was moved to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and, for the last 10 years, has been a collaborative program between the two institutions.
The program allows forage crop breeders across Canada and the U.S. to do genetic studies and testing and exchange breeding lines. It has been under the direction of Bruce Coulman for the past 20 years. Making its debut in 1932, Fairway crested wheatgrass was the first variety the program released.
More recently, the program has developed hybrid bromegrass. The hybrid was produced by crossing smooth and meadow bromegrass, and then followed by many years of selection for forage and seed yield, uniformity, and resistance to diseases.
Hybrid brome combines many of the characteristics of its two parental species — high first-cut yields for hay production (similar to smooth bromegrass) along with fairly rapid regrowth for grazing (like meadow bromegrass).
The releases of two varieties, AC Knowles and AC Success, have been popular with beef producers on the Canadian Prairies. AC Knowles was named after the late R.P. Knowles who made the original crosses to produce hybrid brome in the late 1970s. Grazing studies at Termuende (Western Beef Development Centre’s research ranch near Lanigan, Sask.) and Swift Current have shown total beef production for animals grazing hybrid bromegrass to be equal or superior to meadow and smooth bromegrass.
Although hybrid brome has been highly productive in most areas of the Canadian Prairies, its performance in irrigated and higher-rainfall areas has been somewhat less than smooth. To improve productivity in these areas, Coulman made new hybrids, using more widely adapted “southern ecotype” varieties of smooth bromegrass in the crosses. Following several years of selection in this new hybrid population, a first line is presently under test in regional performance trials in Western Canada, and is also being evaluated in more humid climates in Eastern Canada and the U.S.
Meadow bromegrass and crested wheatgrass are two other major grasses for which new varieties are being developed in the Saskatoon program.
Armada, a high-yielding variety, and Admiral, a variety that stays greener longer into the fall, are both recent releases. Taller, high-yielding “tetraploid” varieties of crested wheatgrass, AC Goliath and Newkirk, have also been released.
Future work on crested wheatgrass will focus on the development of later-maturing varieties, which will maintain their forage quality longer into the summer period. Other grasses in the program include orchardgrass, timothy, intermediate wheatgrass, and hybrid wheatgrass.
In conjunction with Ducks Unlimited Canada and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Swift Current research centre, the Saskatoon program has released several “ecological varieties” of native bromes and wheatgrass for conservation and reclamation purposes.
There’s also more to come.
The program recently initiated a molecular genetics program for perennial grasses and it is likely that genomics will become increasingly important to improve the efficiency of selection in the program.
The Saskatchewan government has also funded a strategic research program chair in forage breeding at the University of Saskatchewan, with Bill Biligetu becoming chair a year ago. New funding from the Beef Cattle Research Fund, the provincial Agriculture Development Fund, and the Saskatchewan Forage Network will expand this forage-breeding and genetics program.
All will ensure this long-running forage-breeding program will continue well into the future.