Organic crop day

The B organic oat yield trial of Dr. Mitchell Fetch in the Wheatland Conservation Area.

Producers have an opportunity to visit the organic field trials that are part of the organic research program at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Swift Current Research and Development Centre.

The day-long organic field walks on July 26 are hosted by AAFC in association with collaborators from the University of Manitoba, Brandon Research and Development Centre, and Grain Millers.

Dr. Myriam Fernandez, a research scientist in organic agriculture and crop pathology at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre, said field walk participants will learn more about a number of new organic field trials during the walk.

“This is our annual field event where we show organic producers and low-input producers what field experiments we have in the area of organic production,” she mentioned. “A lot of the people that participate in our field days have participated in the past. So they're more or less familiar with the kind of research that we do, but this year we also have new trials. So it's quite important for us to show the kind of research that we're doing, because our organic research program has been growing significantly in the last few year.”

Organic production has increased significantly in recent years due to a growing demand for organic food, both in Canada and other countries.

“There are more organic farms, and there's more acreage and more production,” she said. “That is the reason why there is so much interest from funding agencies. We have several funding agencies that are interested in funding our organic projects and their interest have been growing. Without them we wouldn't be able to do so much research. It's because of all the funders that we're able to have so many new trials.”

Last year’s organic field day was attended by over 150 people, with producers even coming from Alberta and Manitoba.

“The number of people coming to our events has been increasing exponentially and we already have lots of registrations for this event,” she said. “So the response that we have been getting has been tremendous, which is great.”

The format of this year’s event will be different from previous years. In the past the field tours took place during the morning and there were indoor presentations in the afternoon. This year the entire day will be used for field walks.

“We want people to be able to spend more time,” she explained. “In the past we often had to rush through when we only have one morning to show all our trials. So this year we would like people to spend more time in the field and walk around and being able to ask all kinds of questions that they might have.”

In addition to this year’s day-long field walks, the organic research program at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre will host an organic research workshop on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 to present the data gathered from their field trials over the last few years.

Field walk participants will visit the existing field trials for intercropping and cover crop blends, and they will also see the new trials for intercropping and cover crops.

There are various new combinations of two cash crops each or a cash crop with a living legume mulch, subterranean clover, in the new intercropping trial. 

“Through another project that we have, the cover crop blends, we determined that one of the clover species that we tried, subterranean clover, did well under the drought conditions that we had in the last few years,” she said. “We decided to try it and see what happens. There is a lot of interest from the forage people in that one as well.”

The new trial for cover crop blends includes five new combinations with grasses, brassicas and legumes.

“We now have different combinations of cover crops than we had in the past, and this is based on what we learned what grows well in this area,” she said. “Some of the recommendations that we had got from people that were doing cover crop studies in other areas didn't really work well here, because our drought conditions in the last few years.”

There is a new trial on relay continuous cropping with diverse crop types that are grown for grain or manure.

 “We also have spring and winter annuals, biennials and annuals, so different combinations, but basically what we have is continuous cropping,” she said. “So the soil is never bare. There is quite a lot of interest in that for soil conservation and other issues as well.”

Another new field trial at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre is part of the participatory plant breeding program at the University of Manitoba. Project coordinator Michelle Carkner said the program has been taking place since 2011 on a smaller scale, and it expanded from Manitoba to the rest of Canada in 2013.

“It all started by wanting to start some sort of organic breeding program for wheat and oats,” she said. “We wanted to take it a step further and partnered the breeders with the farmers, and in this way the breeders are able to get their genetic material out to a wide range of environments, and to give all their lines a test drive. It also enables the farmers to select the wheat or the oats that do the best on their farms, according to their production system.”

The new trial at Swift Current is the only location in the brown soil zone and results on the performance of the different wheat lines will add new data to this program.

“We do yield trials in Manitoba and I have another in Alberta and another in Prince Edward Island, but Swift Current is a unique environment because it's so much drier than Manitoba,” she explained. “The soil is different, the precipitation patterns are different, all those things, and so it's a really great opportunity to test wheat lines in a completely different environment than Manitoba.”

A new oat variety trial was started this year at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre after Dr. Fernandez received questions from producers at events about the performance of different oat varieties. The trial was created after discussions with Grain Millers and Dr. Jennifer Mitchell Fetch, a research scientist at the AAFC Brandon Research Centre. 

There are six oat varieties in this trial, including the registered organic oat varieties AAC Oravena and AAC Kongsore. Both these registered varieties were developed for organic production by Dr. Mitchell Fetch.

Grain Millers is funding this trial and also provides in-kind contributions for a number of other organic field trials at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre.

Grain Millers crop specialist Laura Weinbender said organics is a huge industry for the company, and they want to stay involved.

“We really just want producers to have lots of options,” she mentioned. “So we try to help them out in any way we can and doing a trial like this is a good way to get producers thinking about maybe trying new varieties. It's also lots of information for us too.”

Producers prefer varieties that can cope with organic conditions. Weed control is a key concern for them, and these varieties therefore have to be fast growers.

“They just want something that will grow well and have good disease resistance and end up still having a good yield and quality,” she said. 

A good organic oat variety needs to be taller with lots of leaf biomass to be more competitive in the field compared to shorter varieties. From a milling point of view a variety needs to have a good test weight and kernel quality as well as nutritional value, while it is easy to work with and haul in the mill.

Field walk participants will have an opportunity to visit the B organic oat yield trial (BORG) of Dr. Mitchell Fetch in the Wheatland Conservation Area, which is across the road from the Swift Current Research and Development Centre’s organic area.

She started the BORG trial in 2009, and the Wheatland Conservation Area was one of nine organically managed sites that became part of this trial in 2012.

“We're evaluating oats breeding lines that have been developed under organic management systems,” Dr. Mitchell Fetch said. “This trial is one of a group of trials that's located around western Canada that are all organically managed or managed under no pesticide inputs or fertilizer inputs. This allows us to evaluate our breeding material for its performance under those management types of systems and environment. So it gives us a wider range of specific environments and it allows us to really see if the lines perform well over all of those environments compared to the check varieties.”

Swift Current was selected as one of the sites due to its location in a drier region, which makes it possible to evaluate the performance of the breeding lines under challenging conditions.

“We get fewer diseases and you get less crop growth because of the drier conditions,” she said. “It allows us to see if it performs well for producers in those areas of Saskatchewan.  I also have trials near Edmonton, and in the Peace River region and I have three trials in Manitoba, and there's one at the University of Saskatchewan.”

The intention is to develop varieties that meet the requirements of producers for growth and the properties that are important to the milling industry.

“We do our best to provide as optimum a variety as we can,” she said. “There aren't varieties that meet every or surpass every goal, but there are varieties that meet a lot of the specific requirements. So it is possible to produce a cultivar that everybody is pleased with, but there's always room for improvement.”

The July 26 organic field day at the Swift Current Research and Development Centre will take place from 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but registration is required to assist organizers with event preparations. Bring your own water bottle for the field, and lunch options are available at $15. The event will continue if poor weather conditions prevent visits to the field trials. In that case there will be indoor presentations with photos and videos of the field trials.

For more information or to register, call 306-770-4459 or send an e-mail to organics.swiftcurrent@gmail.com. Online registration can be done at https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/organic-field-walks-tickets-63301270805

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