If you want to know what happens when research doesn’t get done, ask Doug Wray.
“Where the hay yields haven’t increased in the last 10 years, the canola, wheat, and barley yields have,” says the cow-calf producer from Irricana.
“It’s created a real challenge to keep forages on the landscape in that dynamic where the productivity of the alternatives has gained so much. It becomes harder and harder to justify.”
A decade of depressed cattle prices led to the falloff in forage research — an area that depends on long-term studies.
“If you’re looking for quick answers, lots of times in the forage world those answers take a long time,” said Wray, who is also chair of the Canadian Forage and Grassland Association.
“You plant a pasture to be there for several years — you’re hedging your bets on the next five or 10 years. Whereas when you plant your cash crop, it’s the next 100 days.”
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But even annual crop producers need to look years ahead if they hope to continue competing with producers in countries that aren’t spending all their research dollars on ‘quick-fix’ projects, said the new dean of agriculture at the University of Alberta.
“When you put a (short) time frame around research, absolutely you will get results — you will get an annual report,” said Stan Blade. “But we live in a biological system, and some of those questions are not defined by three-year projects.”
A former crop research scientist and longtime head of Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, Blade said he understands the attraction to specific, short-term projects.
“With things like big differences in cultivars and big differences in tillage use, people pay attention to that because they see there’s something they can immediately respond to.”
But many in the agricultural community seem to have forgotten that “research is a long-term thing,” said Vern Baron, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lacombe.
“Often, producer groups get lulled into the idea that this will be a silver bullet that will solve issues, and then they’re very disappointed when that doesn’t reduce their costs by half,” said Baron.
“Unfortunately, research is expensive. It returns on the investment, but it’s a long-term investment.”
And that cost is only going up, which is another reason why a new approach is needed, said Blade.
As field work becomes more expensive, it makes sense for a wide variety of researchers — from entomologists and soil scientists to plant breeders and hydrologists — to co-ordinate their efforts and work in the same field, he said.
“I’m not sure we’ve done that in the past, because it’s easier to co-ordinate an experiment that you want a particular answer to,” said Blade. “This isn’t only about funding agencies or the production community. It’s also about the research community rethinking things.”
And right now, the system isn’t designed to support that kind of integrated research, said Blade.
“At the federal level, they fund by commodity. The production industry is mostly organized around commodity. The whole system militates against joint activities.”
Blade points to Australia as a model for what Canada could do.
An organization called the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) pools checkoffs from all the crop types and, rather than allocating funds based on the contribution from each crop type, invests in new opportunities that could benefit the entire system.
“The pulse industry there would get a significant amount of research done even though it was in an earlier growing part of its progression because there were forward-looking bodies like GRDC making some of those bets,” said Blade.
While the majority of research funding here is commodity specific and for three years or less, there are signs of change.
In October, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced $4.3 million in funding — with a five-year time frame — for the Western Grains Research Foundation to conduct sustainable agronomy research. That will allow for integrated research in crop risk management, rotational management, and soil fertility.
“Our board and our farmers recognize that you need to have some long-term support,” said Garth Patterson, the foundation’s executive director.
“There is a recognition of that from our board and farmers in general, particularly on the agronomy side, and also some concerns now that we’re losing capacity to support long-term research in different areas.
“The more we can learn by integrating our studies, the better the information is going to be for farmers.”
Farmer buy-in for longer-term, multidisciplinary research will be critical, said Blade.
“In the research community — as with everything else — signals have to be given, and if producers start talking about this and the researchers start talking about this, we will go to a different level in the way agronomy is done.”
No one can predict specific results of research that hasn’t been conducted, but Blade said co-ordinated research will lead to “more resilience in cropping systems.”
“When you do that kind of work, the answers maintain their relevance over a much broader spectrum of experience,” he said.
“Those answers will be more broad based and more valuable to a broader array of producers.”