DuPont Pioneer expands Saskatoon research facility

Julian Heath, research operations lead at the newly expanded Saskatoon facility, explains the Saskatoon plots to open-house guests. (Leeann Minogue photo)

DuPont Pioneer announced the expansion of its Saskatoon multi-crop research facility at an open house on Friday.

The expanded facility will house breeding programs for canola, soybean and “ultra-early maturity” corn.

“DuPont Pioneer is focused on developing early-maturing products, and high-yielding products for Canadian farmers,” said Bryce Eger, president of DuPont Pioneer Canada.

DuPont Pioneer has invested $35 million in research and development in Western Canada over the past five years, opening and expanding research centres at Edmonton and Lethbridge, Alta. and Carman, Man., in addition to the Saskatoon expansion.

“And,” Eger said, “we’ve opened and expanded our (seed) production plants in Alberta and Ontario in order to support the business in Western Canada.”

Eger attributed this expansion to opportunities for market growth through the development of crop varieties bred to fit the Prairie climate, saying Western Canada has “huge potential, long-term.”

New crop varieties suitable to Western Canada’s relatively short season would be welcomed by farmers looking for new crops to expand rotations. “We’re actually breaking new ground in terms of earliness of products and adaptation to environment,” said Dave Charne, research director at DuPont Pioneer Canada.

— Leeann Minogue is editor of Grainews at Griffin, Sask. Follow her at @GrainMuse on Twitter.


Bryce Eger, president of DuPont Pioneer Canada announced the expansion of the company's multi-crop research facility near Saskatoon. (Leeann Minogue photo)
In a back corner of the Ian N. Morrison Research Farm here is a nursery of what most farmers would consider butt-ugly plants with spindly stems, tiny seeds, and weedy characteristics.But they might just be the salvation of grain farming if the impact of climate change falls hard on the Canadian Prairies.The plots contain intermediate wheat grass, wild sunflowers, and cereal ryegrass, along with a growing collection of assorted native plants. None are anything you would want to plant, but all share a common trait that is of growing interest to researchers: They're perennial relatives of important food crops."Our main concern is perennial ability," says Doug Cattani, a University of Manitoba plant breeder who specializes in perennial crops. "If they are not going to survive and produce for at least three growing seasons, they are of no use to the program."So researchers are at work separating and selecting those plants, some imported from more temperate climates, that can thrive through Canada's bitterly cold winters and short growing seasons. Only then will they start selecting for yield and other traits, Cattani told the field station's annual tour July 20.The researchers are essentially revisiting a decision made by mankind 10,000 years ago when the first farmers began selecting seeds for annual crops.When you're only looking at the seed yield, it makes sense to choose plants that put all their energy into seed production at the expense of their own survival, notes Gary Martens, an agronomy instructor with the University of Manitoba."If we cannot depend on the stability of our climate or rainfall, as we are seeing now — we go from excess moisture to not enough moisture in one month — we are going to have to expand the range of these adaptations."But if that plant needs to do other things too, such as stabilize and feed the soil, soak up excess moisture, and help fight off weed invasions — all the while thriving in a more volatile climate, perennial traits become more significant. And perhaps just as appealing to those farmers horrified by rising input costs, is that perennial crops don't require annual purchases of seed, fertilizer and herbicides. The research, which is still in its preliminary stages, is also identifying plant communities that would work together as part of a polyculture."A lot of these species will have ecological benefits in the types of insects they attract," said Catanni. "The more diverse the insect population, the less damage to the crops from insects."But while the potential is appealing, the time frame for realizing that potential is long.It could be decades before this perennial stock can be turned into viable crops. For example, the perennial sunflower, which boasts resistance to sclerotinia, produces multiple heads during a long flowering season, which results in seed loss due to shattering. To make such a crop commercially viable, breeders hope to select plants that produce fewer flowers that mature more evenly.On the other hand, Manitoba farmers are already growing intermediate wheat grass as a forage seed crop and getting 14 to 15 bushels per acre."If we could double that in 10 to 15 years, we are within reach," Martens said, noting it gives farmers in areas plagued by excess moisture another cropping option.While this kind of research seems far from commercially relevant at the moment, Martins predicts that could change as the climate change reality hits home."If we cannot depend on the stability of our climate or rainfall, as we are seeing now — we go from excess moisture to not enough moisture in one month — we are going to have to expand the range of these adaptations," he said. "We will grow some annual summer crops, we will grow some winter wheat, and we will have some forage seeds and maybe we will have grazing livestock."Martens said farmers may not be aware of it, but they are already adapting to climate instability by expanding the range of crops they grow on their farms. Just a few decades ago, corn and soybeans were virtually unheard of in Manitoba. Today, some farmers in southern Manitoba practise a corn and soybean rotation similar to southern farmers. Others are dipping a toe into polyculture farming by planting two crops, such as peas and canola, into the same field and mechanically separating them at harvest. And even more are questioning — and changing — long-standing practices."There are people now who are grazing nine months of a year and there are (a) very few who are grazing all year round," said Martens.He predicts it won't stop there."Farmers should be diversifying even outside of traditional agriculture," he said.Martens said farmers in areas of the Interlake plagued by excess moisture for several years may have to find ways to convert that water into a revenue stream, such as growing cattails, which both cleanse water and can be harvested as biomass.Meanwhile, carp, a shallow-water fish, could be harvested for protein, either as a supplement to livestock feed or processed for human consumption.
For farmers in areas where corn is a relatively new crop, growing it for the first time can be daunting. "Our goal is to give growers the best experience we can the first time," Ellis Clayton, technical product manager at DuPont Pioneer told attendees on a tour of DuPont Pioneer plots outside of the Saskatoon facility. (Leeann Minogue photo)
Canada's role in a research program aimed at further cracking wheat's complex genetic code, opening the door for faster development of new varieties, has now picked up the bulk of its funding. The federal and Saskatchewan governments on Friday announced $4.102 million and $1.534 million respectively for an $8.507 million project dubbed Canadian Triticum Advancement through Genomics (CTAG), marking Canada's contribution to the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium (IWGSC). "This investment in research will undoubtedly strengthen and advance cereal breeding programs across Western Canada," Western Grains Research Foundation chairman Keith Degenhardt said in the governments' joint release Friday. "With the potential to accelerate the crop breeding cycle and speed the release of improved varieties to the market, this project is a worthwhile and powerful investment that will provide a great return for crop producers," he said. The WGRF will put up $1.127 million for the project. The three-year CTAG project aims to help geneticists and breeders to characterize wheat's genes at the "most fundamental level," meaning the plant's DNA sequence, the governments said. Wheat's DNA sequence "holds the key to genetic improvements, allowing growers to meet the increasing demands for high-quality food and feed produced in an environmentally sensitive, sustainable and profitable manner." The DNA of other crops such as corn, soy and rice has been sequenced in recent years for significant trait development. Wheat's relatively complex genome -- which scientists have said is five times larger than the human genome -- has held back such development, leaving wheat breeders with relatively few tools to select at the genetic level for the breeding traits they need. The IWGSC has said its goal for this worldwide research is a "high-quality reference sequence" of the wheat genome, which would yield "high-resolution links" between wheat traits and variations in the DNA of different wheat varieties. "Stress issues" "Up till now, cereal crops like wheat have been getting less and less competitive to grow each year; wheat is becoming a crop I have to grow for rotations instead of a crop I want to grow," Stephen Vandervalk, a farmer at Fort Macleod, Alta. and president of Grain Growers of Canada, said in a separate release Friday. "It is imperative that increased investment dollars continue to focus on improving wheat and our Canadian cereal crops to build better wheat strains suited to our climate, helping our farmers deal with unique stress issues" by developing traits such as cold hardiness, drought tolerance, and resistance to crop diseases and insects, he said. The federal $4.1 million for CTAG will flow through Genome Canada's 2010 Large Scale Applied Research Project Competition, which was announced in March this year as part of $60 million in federal funding for applied genomics research projects meant to help "improve key sectors of the Canadian economy." Saskatchewan's $1.5 million will come through the province's Agriculture Development Fund. CTAG research in the province will be led by Curtis Pozniak and Pierre Hucl at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. Other CTAG funding partners include India's National Agri-Food Biotechnology Institute ($999,999), Viterra ($120,578), Genome Alberta ($207,779), the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund ($295,636) and France's National Institute for Agricultural Research ($120,000). "We need to see more of this type of public/private research collaboration," Gerrid Gust, a farmer at Davidson, Sask. and chair of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, said in a separate release Friday. "Collaboration and the sharing of knowledge will put improved varieties into the hands of farmers faster." "High utility" Scientists at Britain's University of Liverpool said last August they had "decoded" the wheat genome, but the IWGSC said in September that the British team's claims were "premature." The sequence readings that the British team produced "could be viewed as similar to having an unordered string of all of the letters from a set of encyclopedia volumes," the consortium said at the time. The consortium was then quoted as saying the Liverpool team's claim could well have jeopardized international efforts to "truly achieve a genome sequence with high utility for wheat in the next five years." Wheat production today contributes about $4 billion a year to the Canadian ag industry, making up over 20 per cent of Canadian farm crop income during the years 2005 to 2009, with a total value of about $11 billion when factoring in value-added food processing, the federal government said Friday.


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