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Variety selection using the Alberta Seed Guide

By Sheri Strydhorst, PhD, Agronomy Research Specialist | Alberta Wheat and Barley Commissions, Regional Variety Trial Coordinator, Alberta Regional Variety Advisory Committee (ARVAC); Rob Graf, PhD | Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Chair for ARVAC 

The greatly anticipated Alberta Seed Guide will hit producer mailboxes at the end of January, and growers will be scouring the tables to see the latest, greatest options for the next growing season.

Variety selection is a huge part of decision-making on Alberta farms. Each year, farmers decide if they will be ‘upgrading’ to a new variety. After harvest, growers will assess the yield performance, standability, disease tolerance, insect resistance and grain quality of the variety they grew. There are many scenarios where growers are looking for something better. However, it is a challenge for growers to know what the best variety choice is for their farming operation.

When selecting a new wheat or barley variety for the farm, the seed guide is one important source of third-party, independent data that has been vetted by over 40 industry experts from all ranges of the seed production value chain. To get full value from the Alberta Seed Guide, it is important to understand how the data was generated and how it should be interpreted.

Data for the Alberta Seed Guide

Data for the seed guide comes from the Alberta Regional Variety Trials (RVTs). These are small plot trials, grown at multiple locations (up to 15 sites depending on the crop type) across Alberta, that compare the performance of newly registered wheat, barley, oat, flax and triticale varieties with the performance of well-known check cultivars. These field research plots are conducted by trial cooperators from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Applied Research Associations, Nutrien, Lakeland College and InnoTech Alberta.

New varieties are tested for three years to understand their performance under different environmental conditions. For example, the growing conditions, disease and insect pressures at Lethbridge are very different than those experienced in Fort Vermilion. To support confident variety selection for Alberta farmers, it is important to understand how varieties perform. The RVTs provide this testing.

Information collected from the Alberta RVTs is used to populate the height, yield, lodging, maturity, and protein data columns of the Seed Guide tables.

The RVT trials are grown using the following agronomic practices:

  • Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), Potassium (K) and Sulphur (S) fertilizer rates are based on soil test results for 1.25 times the area average yield goal of the past four years, as reported in the Agriculture Financial Services Corporation (AFSC) Yield Alberta publication. The objective of these high fertilizer rates is to ensure that fertility is not a yield limiting factor.
  • Wheat, barley, oat and triticale seed is treated with Cruiser Maxx Vibrance Quattro to protect the trials from fungal disease and wireworm damage.
  • Seeding rates are adjusted for thousand kernel weight (TKW) and germination to reach target plant populations of 31 wheat plants/sqft, 25 barley plants/sqft, 28 oat plants/sqft, 29 triticale plants/sqft, 75 or 84 flax plants/sqft for brown and yellow seed coat varieties, respectively.
  • If the trial is not seeded by May 25th, the trial is not planted.

Disease ratings which are presented in the Seed Guide are compiled from various sources in Alberta and other prairie provinces, with most of this data coming from the breeding registration trials and disease nurseries.

Data Tables in the Seed Guide

If a variety was just entered into the RVTs in the current growing season, it would not show up in the seed guide until the variety had acquired two years of trial data. This rule ensures that there is sufficient performance data and that the performance data will be more accurate. After two years of testing a variety is then published in the Alberta Seed Guide. After a variety has been tested for three years, it is considered fully tested in the Alberta system. Performance data on a variety may change between year’s two and three. This is because additional data from the third year of testing will give a better indication of the variety’s performance over a wide range of environmental conditions. When reviewing the seed guide, the “Overall Station Years of Testing” column will indicate how many site years of data have been included in the “Overall Yield” column. The more site years of data, the more stable the data will be.

It is necessary to remove old varieties to keep the table size manageable. Varieties that have been published for five years, but do not have pedigreed seed production in Alberta, over the past two years may be removed from the tables. Starting in 2023, when a variety drops below one per cent of the commercial acreage of the crop kind in the province, based on AFSC Crop Insurance data, it will also be flagged for removal from the tables.

Understanding Yield Data in the Seed Guide

The yield potential of a variety is one critical piece of information. In the Alberta Seed Guide, overall yield is presented along with yield performance in different yield categories (i.e., performance at low and high yielding environments). While there are many ways to present yield data, scientific studies conducted in Western Canada have shown that yield category analysis provides a more reliable indication of yield performance than results organized by geographic region.

Overall yield data is listed as a per cent of the check and reflects data from the overall number of station years of testing. For example, a long-term variety like Stettler had 101 station years of testing in the January 2021 publication and the overall yield of Stettler is 105 per cent of the check cultivar, Carberry (Table 1). This is a very solid data set and results are very reliable. In the January 2021 publication, the yield of Stettler is 103 per cent of the check in the low yield category (production environments where yields are typically less than 55 bu/ac); and 104 per cent of the check in the high yield category (production environments where yields are greater than 80 bu/ac). Stettler has been the dominant variety grown in Alberta between 2013 and 2017 due to its yield stability and consistent performance in a wide range of environments.

Table 1. Canadian Western Red Spring Wheat data table from the January 2021 Alberta Seed Guide.

In the January 2021 publication, AAC Broadacres VB had 24 station years of testing and an overall yield of 111 per cent of the check cultivar, Carberry (Table 1). However, there is no data in the low yield category, indicated by “XX” meaning that there are less than 6 station years of testing (out of 24 overall station years of testing) where this variety had yields below 55 bu/ac. AAC Broadacres VB yielded 109 per cent of the check in the medium yield category and 112 per cent of the check in the high yield category. However, unlike Stettler, these values may fluctuate in the January 2022 tables. This is because additional station years of data will be added, the yields will stabilize. One way to look at it is, the more station years of data, the more predictable the yield data will be.

In the January 2021 publication, Parata had 45 station years of testing and the overall yield of Parata was 94 per cent of the check cultivar, Carberry (Table 1). Although the yield of this variety may seem disappointing at first glance, it is important to look at the other variety traits. Parata has a relative maturity of -4 days and a protein content of +0.2 relative to Carberry. It is important to remember that there are always trade-offs. If a grower is looking to reduce risk because they are in a shorter growing season and struggle to meet protein minimums, then the yield penalty with Parata may pay off with a higher grade that could command a higher price.

Another important thing to realize is that yield data from one location can contribute to the low yield category in a particular year, but then that same location can contribute yield data to a high yield category in a subsequent year. For example, data from Vulcan may populate the low yield category in a dry year, but data from Vulcan in a wetter growing season could populate the high yield category. Based on this, growers should consider the yield potential of their farm and look at yield performance in that particular yield category. For example, most farms in the Oyen area where it is hot and dry would be best to look at the yield performance in the low yield category while a grower from Bow Island with irrigation should look at yield performance from the high yield category.

Understanding Agronomic and Disease Resistance Data in the Seed Guide

While many varieties have improved genetic resistance to common bunt, there are still many varieties rated as Susceptible (S) or Moderately Susceptible (MS). These varieties should be treated with a systemic fungicide as low levels of infection will restrict marketability.

Fusarium head blight (FHB) is an increasing problem in Alberta. The relative ranking of crops from most susceptible to least susceptible is durum, spring and winter wheat, triticale, barley and oat. FHB infection is highly influenced by the environment and heading date. It is important to realize that a resistant (R) tolerance rating for FHB does not equate to immunity. Under severe epidemics, all varieties will sustain damage. FHB should be managed using multiple management tools. These include: testing seed for the presence of Fusarium graminearum (Fg); selecting seed lots with low Fg infection levels; treating seed with a seed treatment registered to control seed and soil-borne Fusarium spp.; choosing varieties with the best FHB tolerance whenever possible and always use best management practices to slow the spread of this disease. More information on FHB management can be found here at managefhb.ca.

Accessing the Data

Hard copies of the seed guide are sent to producer mailboxes in January each year. Online versions of the tables have historically been available through Alberta Agriculture’s website, but new data is no longer available there. Now the data tables can be found on the Alberta Seed Guide's website seed.ab.ca.

Bringing it Back to the Farm

Growers who ‘upgrade’ varieties can improve different aspects of production. New varieties recommended for registration must demonstrate merit. In this context, merit means that the variety is equal to, or better, than appropriate reference varieties with regard to any single characteristic or combination of characteristics that render the variety beneficial for a particular use. For example, when a grower upgrades to a new feed barley variety with improved standability (such as Oreana, Sirish or new European varieties), this can result in a less stressful and faster harvest. Growers who ‘upgrade’ to a midge tolerant wheat varietal blend (such as AAC Wheatland VB, AAC LeRoy VB or AAC Hodge VB) and do not have to spray an insecticide to manage wheat midge have contributed to the environmental sustainability of agriculture. Growers who upgrade to a new wheat variety that yields well and tends to produce a higher protein (such as Jake) have reduced the risk of protein penalties at the elevator. The RVTs and Alberta Seed Guide are one tool to help farms make informed decisions about the benefits of adopting new varieties.

Acknowledgments

In 2021, the Alberta Wheat Commission took over the responsibility of RVT trial coordination from the Alberta Government. The Alberta RVTs are funded by a variety of sources. Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) is providing $182,000 of cash funding for the Alberta RVTs for the 2021 and 2022 growing seasons. The RVTs are also partially funded with cash contributions from seed companies who enter their varieties in the trials (seed companies pay $1,500 per variety, per year), Alberta Oat Growers, Alberta Seed Growers and Alberta Seed Processors. There is a significant in-kind contribution from Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley for the RVT Trial coordinator position and accounting services. Alberta Seed Growers, Alberta Seed Processors and the Crop Coordinators all provide in-kind support as well.