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Optimizing systems productivity, resilience and sustainability in the major Canadian ecozones

With the right agronomic systems, Alberta growers could one day boost yields, including those of pulses, by up to 50%. This research project will help develop the blueprint.

If Alberta crop producers wrote a mission statement for the next 30 years, it might go something like this: feed the world, protect the planet and make money doing it. This statement captures three interlocking priorities with which producers contend – production, environment and economics.

On the level of production, it’s a tall order. Farmers are challenged to increase output to keep pace with a global population that could reach 9.6 billion by 2050.

Here’s good news. Yantai Gan, Senior Research Scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Swift Current, SK, sees plenty of room for production to grow. He points to a yield gap between actual yields and yield potential of between 30% and 50% for key western Canadian crops.

“Yields have been increasing through genetic enhancements and agronomy management improvements,” Gan said. “Moving forward, genetic enhancement will still play a major role developing better varieties, but agronomy management will have lots to contribute as new technologies become available.”

If greater yield alone was all that was needed, Alberta farmers could certainly oblige. They could increase seeding rates, fertilize aggressively and treat the crop to all manner of yield-enhancing crop protection products. This increased yield, of course, might come at a potentially high cost to the environment and to the farmer’s livelihood.

To help get production, profitability and environment all pulling together, Gan is leading an ambitious, five-year, cross-disciplinary research project to provide detailed, data-based recommendations for future crop production in Western Canada. This project will be funded until 2023 by the Integrated Crop Agronomy Cluster (ICAC).

Comprehensive look at cropping systems and environmental conditions

As Gan explains, the project will study six carefully-designed cropping systems at seven sites within three large ecological zones: the Eastern Prairies Zone (southern Manitoba), the Parkland Region (Melfort, SK and Lacombe) and Dry/Drought areas (Swift Current and Lethbridge).

The cropping systems include a conventional farming system, a higher nutrient-use efficient farming system and a soil health-focused system. There’s also a so-called ‘freestyle’ system in which crop rotation decisions are heavily weighted to current market conditions. Pulse crops will play a key role in this research.

“Pulse crops have a higher yield gap than cereals and other crops,” Gan explained. “This is because pulse varieties come from a smaller genetic pool, and there is large potential to discover how enhanced genetics can be married with changing environments. Doing so will minimize damages to the system in case of severe stresses like a disease outbreak.”

With funding in place, Gan and his team have their marching orders for the next five years. He believes, however, that the project’s greatest value could occur well past that point. He’ll be looking to secure one or two more five-year funding cycles to keep the information current and steadily flowing to growers.

“Once we have three years of data we can start looking at making recommendations,” Gan said. “At the end of five years, we will have a lot of concrete information to give detailed information to growers for different regions with varying environmental conditions.”