Farmers are suffering from drought conditions across much of the western Prairies, but one researcher is finding the tough agricultural times a good test for drought-tolerant crop research. And that, in turn, will benefit farmers in future years of drought.
Dr. Anthony Anyia at the Alberta Research Council believes the key to improving crop yields in dry climates relates to how efficiently a crop uses what little water is available. By focusing on genes that improve water use efficiency instead of yield, crops can cope better and perform more consistently through years when rain is scarce.
“Our research will help barley breeders selectively breed new varieties with genetic characteristics for dry prairie conditions,” he says.
Vegreville area crop producer Grant Durie knows about prairie conditions. He says while his barley is surviving, it is showing significant damage.
“Germination was a wild card, and the frost wreaked havoc on the crops,” he says. “This year, with only 20 per cent of the average rainfall in May and June, the barley is short and stressed. In addition to the yield loss, it is going to be a challenge harvesting due to the plant height.”
Anyia and his team have developed new barley lines through selective breeding combining three important traits: early growth to make full use of water that would otherwise just evaporate, the amount of plant growth per unit of water available in mid-season, and carbohydrate reserves that the plant can draw upon in times of heat stress and drought.
Anyia is using the barley lines to identify and validate the genetic markers for these traits. Plant breeders would eventually use these markers to develop more water efficient and stable yielding barley varieties.
The barley lines developed by ARC are showing signs of success in the field test plots at ARC’s Vegreville facility. “Several of the lines showed early vigorous growth and good canopy establishment,” says Anyia. “Early growth helps the plant to shade the bare soil surface to conserve water before the dryer, hotter weather arrives.”
Anyia’s research has so far focused on barley, as Canada is a leading producer and most barley is grown on the prairies. “If you are growing barley in an environment where rainfall is abundant all season long, water use efficiency is not an issue,” says Anyia. “But this is not the case on the prairies. Here, we may have good soil moisture early in the season, but this quickly evaporates, especially in a dry year like 2009.”
Durie says that Anyia’s type of research not only translates to survival in harsh prairie conditions, it also means maintaining supply and demand. “North Americans are used to a consistent food supply. If these traits can be used to improve barley as well as other food crops, we can maintain an affordable and consistent food supply.”
Anyia agrees. “Developing crops that make maximum use of available water will help sustain Alberta’s agricultural competitiveness.”