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Yield vs protein vs agronomy? Pea breeder aims for balance

With more pulse processing capacity open for business in Western Canada, and under development in Alberta, processors want to buy peas with higher protein content.  Meanwhile, growers want high yield and agronomic traits like standability and early maturity.

That puts Dr. D.J. Bing squarely in the middle. Over the past 20-plus years, his breeding program has developed and registered more than 30 pea varieties – with some newer varieties having protein content of 25% to 26%.

“We are still very active in pursuing breeding for high protein content,” said Bing, Lacombe-based Pulse Breeder with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “Some people are very keen on higher protein content, but in my view, we need to find a balance.”

In the past, Bing has identified pea germplasm with protein as high as 30%. That would certainly delight protein-hungry processors. In trying to introduce this sky-high protein into new cultivars, though, yield has typically declined because there is a strong negative association between yield and protein content.

Bing recommends the industry think in terms of grain yield and protein yield per hectare. These terms measure how much pea and protein can be produced per unit of land. He is trying to find a balance that gives both the highest grain yield and protein yield.

“If you overemphasize protein content, which is measured as the percentage of dry seed weight, you could end up with a variety having high protein content and low yield, and consequently less grain and protein yield per hectare,” Bing explained. “An ideal variety should give the most protein yield for processors and the greatest grain yield for growers.”

Bing is proud of what his team has accomplished over the past two decades. He’ll maintain a steady hand in breeding in a balanced way for yield, protein and agronomic traits. Still, he cautions, the big gains of the past could be difficult to repeat in the coming years.

“The question is: how much can we push the protein without sacrificing yield?” Bing said. “I think in a way, the more progress you make, the more you approach a wall that’s going to hold you back.”

Funded in part by the Government of Canada under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership’s AgriScience Program, a federal, provincial, territorial initiative.