A Champion of Agriculture

The Canadian
Style of Farming

Openness to digital farming, breeding methods and canola contribute to Canada's farming success.
Openness to digital farming, breeding methods and canola contribute to Canada's farming success.
Canada’s agriculture is thriving: Openness to digital farming and breeding methods, the talent of managing challenges – and canola as the key crop – contribute to the country’s farming success.

Thinking of Canada, some diverse images may come to mind: remote woods, crystalline lakes as well as vibrant, multi-lingual cities. The country also stands out for its agri-economic situation: Canada’s agriculture contributes 76 billion US dollars to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is the fifth largest agricultural exporter in the world. How is this success possible?

Yellow flowerage: Canola is one of the most important economic drivers in Canada.

One key driver of the country’s prosperous agriculture is canola. A study released by the Canola Council of Canada in 2017 shows Canadian-grown canola contributes 19.4 billion US dollars to the Canadian economy each year, including more than 250,000 Canadian jobs and 8.2 billion US dollars in wages. “Canola is the most profitable crop produced in Canada. International markets are extremely important as we export 90 percent of what we produce in western Canada,” explains Curtis Rempel, Vice President at the Canola Council of Canada.

To maintain this great performance, however, farmers have to fight diseases, pests and weeds that pose a great threat to canola crops grown in Canada. For example, the flea beetle, a small but destructive insect that eats the surface of the leaves, stems and petals, historically has been responsible for an average of about 170 million US dollars in lost farm income. “Consequently, integrated crop management strategies, such as the seed treatment with neonicotinoid insecticides, are crucial to preserve canola yield and profitability,” explains Rempel. Growers try to manage the challenges caused by diseases, pests and weeds by carefully using high-tech growing methods, crop rotation and resistance strategies including alternation of crop protection products and deployment of modern breeding technologies. “Stewarding disease resistant genes so they remain durable is important for sustainable canola production,” continues Rempel.

Bayer is aware of these growers’ need for genetically stronger crops. To serve them, Bayer operates a global canola breeding facility in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to drive research of hybrid canola in Canada.

Canadian regions with the highest canola production levels
Canadian regions with the highest canola production levels
The provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, located in south-west Canada, are the regions with the highest canola ­production levels in the country.
Source: Canola Council of Canada
91%

Canola farmers would need the equivalent of 14 million football fields to grow the same amount of canola they do now without biotech crops – this would equal the need for 91% more land.

Source: CropLife Canada

Strong Hybrid Crops

Due to the heterosis effect, hybrid canola varieties can outperform either of the two parental lines. In Saskatoon, the breeders are focusing on a variety of enhancement traits such as: resistance to diseases, pod shatter technologies, improvement to quality profiles, agronomics and yield improvements.

At the research facility in Saskatoon, hybrid canola breeding takes place inside thousands of controlled pollination tents. Breeding Research Agronomy Manager Owen Black stands outside of one of these transparent, two-meter-tall tents with the yellow blossoms inside. When Black opens the tent, a vibrating hum fills the air: “Flies and bees in the tent transfer the pollen from the male to the female canola plants. Through this process, the male plant is crossed with a female plant. This cross will create a new hybrid that we later test for resilience in our yield testing network.” If new hybrid seed passes this step in breeding development, it moves forward in the yield testing network and that much closer to potentially becoming a commercial product.

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Farmer Kolton Brown, from Nanton, Alberta in southwestern Canada, has had good experiences with canola hybrid seed varieties, such as with Bayer’s InVigor. “Hybrid canola enables me to harvest at a later point in time with less risk of pod shattering,” Brown says. These crops then have more time to mature. The result is fuller pods and larger seeds – and thus a higher yield.

250,000

Canadian-grown canola has created up to 250,000 Canadian jobs.

Source: Canola Council of Canada

Besides seed breeding methods, Brown also regards new technology as a tremendous support for Canadian farmers: “Agriculture is a very innovative industry. There are new developments coming out every day. You are constantly reading about someone using new tools. We all have GPS guidance. And many farmers use tools like agricultural drones, satellite imagery and benchmark soil sampling.” But integrating some digital farming tools is not always smooth, Brown adds. “Some new developments are not necessarily feasible on a real farm. The task for inventors is to try to get these things more efficient, so that we can really use these products.”

Digital Farming is Key

Bayer Canada supports farmers with the implementation of digital farming technology. As one example, Bayer tests high-tech tools, working with farmers to prove if the devices operate smoothly before they are introduced to the market. Chris Paterson, Canada’s Digital Farming Lead at Bayer, is highly optimistic. “We are developing a whole range of tools that can assist farmers in their decisions,” Paterson says. “In effect, these digital farming tools can optimize a farmer’s logistics, the performance of the products he or she uses, and his or her overall crop yield.”

For example, Bayer is developing a digital zone spray solution for fungicide on canola. “We are using a network of weather stations, weather modeling technologies and satellite imagery of the areas. Then, the digital zone sprayer determines which parts of the field have a high or low risk for a fungal disease and concludes where and when the fungicide should be applied,” explains Paterson. With this information, farmers can program the sprayer wirelessly to spray only certain areas of the field. This means the farmer uses the right amount of crop protection products only where it is needed. And this information saves time: the decision whether or not to spray is much easier.

Canola expert Curtis Rempel finds Canadian growers are open-minded toward new tools: “Growers are more and more adopting big data, analytics and variable precision technology to increase yields more rapidly, and with greater ease, than many of their contemporaries around the globe.” The advantages are obvious, explains Rempel. “These tools protect the environment because farmers reduce fertilizer and the application of crop protection products. And digital farming may relieve the growers’ anxieties as they provide for better time and resource management. Overall, digital farming helps canola growers to increase yields, profitability and sustainability.”

Rempel sees digital farming as key for the future of Canadian farmers: “Agriculture will be more automated in the future. Our farmers are looking forward to this progressive development. They will use unmanned vehicles that assist them in seeding, spraying and harvesting crops.”

With open-mindedness towards new developments, such as digital farming and new breeding methods, it seems like there is a bright future for Canadian farmers. Still, farmers like Kolton Brown also see some challenges. “Our biggest concern is being able to expand our farm. We’re in a very competitive area, and land prices have doubled in the last decade. It’s getting to the point where it’s almost not feasible to buy land.”

Dr. Curtis Rempel, Vice President of the Canola Council of Canada

Growers are more and more adopting big data, analytics and variable precision technology.

Dr. Curtis Rempel, Vice President of the Canola Council of Canada

Creating Transparency

Brown also sees room for improvement in the public perception of farming among Canadians: “There’s a big disconnect between the farming community and the consumers in the cities who have never been to a farm,” states Brown. “Like most Canadian farms, we’re still a family business. People think we’re only out to make money, that we’re spraying chemicals unnecessarily. In fact, we only spray if diseases are hurting our crops.” To improve public perception, Brown looks to social media: “Almost every farmer I know is using Twitter and Instagram to get our message across. We tell our stories to counteract misunderstandings and to reach the end users. We want to gain their trust by demonstrating our commitment to sustainable farming.”

Curtis Rempel is confident that Canadian farmers are on the right road to get that message across: “When it comes to canola producers and the value chain, I’m proudest of their dedication to their professions and to the production of food for their communities, Canada, and the world. They all have a passion to sustainably produce high quality, healthy and nutritionally beneficial crops that add value globally.”

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A Champion of Agriculture - The Canadian Style of Farming