Barley Breeding Goes Social

December 17, 2018

Whether your malting barley fields are near or far from the Brandon Research and Development Centre (BRDC) in Manitoba, your input on the breeding program is never more than a tweet away. That’s because barley breeder Dr. Ana Badea keeps connected to ensure the varieties she’s working on will meet your needs.

“It is very important to stay in contact and to have continuous discussion with everybody involved in the value chain to make sure that we breed for what is needed,” says Badea, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) at BRDC where AAC Synergy was developed.

Badea’s breeding program is informed the traditional way, through funders like the Western Grains Research Foundation, Brewing and Malting Barley Research Institute, and provincial wheat and barley organizations, but social media and farmer field days have brought her even closer to growers who plant the varieties developed by the program. “Participating in field days is a great opportunity to connect, to discuss what farmers like and dislike, and what they would like to see in a new variety.” That connection, Badea says, allows her to help malting barley growers compete and give them an advantage in the marketplace.

The journey from the lab to the market

This ongoing conversation is essential when you consider the time and energy it takes to bring a new malting barley variety to market. Badea explains that the journey from the breeding lab to market is a long one.

Let’s look at AAC Synergy, for example: the initial cross was done in 2002 and the variety was registered in 2012 – but the process didn’t end there. “While a line is registered, it is not immediately endorsed by the malt industry and available to the farmers; the license holder has to then go through a market development process,” Badea says. For AAC Synergy, this final stage was completed in 2017, when the new variety appeared on the Canadian Malting Barley Technical Centre’s (CMBTC) Recommended Malting Barley Varieties list – 15 years after the initial cross. CMBTC noted that variety has growing demand based on malting properties desired by malt houses and brewing companies.

Breeding priorities

How does Badea ensure the varieties she is developing include desirable characteristics? Agronomics such as high yields are a must and disease resistance is a top priority. “Our program here in Brandon has a strong tradition in developing varieties with a very good disease profile. We look very closely at the list provided by the Prairie Recommending Committee for Oat and Barley,” she says.

‘Priority one diseases’ include: scald, spot blotch, net blotch, stem rust, smuts and Fusarium head blight. “All the lines that we are trying to develop must have these disease resistance traits,” she says.

Badea and her team recently moved into a new facility at the AAFC-BRDC, which is dedicated to barley breeding and brings everything under one roof.  The building is also close to the field plots and disease nurseries. “As a breeder, I feel very fortunate to be able to do the screening of the varieties directly in our disease nurseries.”

While the program is based in Brandon, Badea says the goal is to breed varieties adapted to Western Canada. Consistency across Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan is achieved by having several testing locations, as well as ongoing collaboration with colleagues across the Prairies.

Craft beer trend impacts variety development

Apart from agronomics, beer and brewing trends also impact Badea’s breeding program.

“We have all seen the growth of craft brewing in the past few years. That definitely has an impact in the way we are breeding,” she says. “In the breeding program that I'm currently leading, we are allocating 10% to 15% of the breeding toward the development of varieties that will have a craft profile.” She adds that lower protein and enzyme levels are two characteristics that distinguish it from mainstream beers.

Badea cannot currently test for taste within her breeding program, but she is excited about the potential to do so in the future. In 2017, she started working on a project led by CMBTC related to barley flavours and aromas. “Starting with 2018, all the Western barley breeders are involved, and the final goal will be to find some trait or marker that we could ultimately use in breeding programs to quickly screen the lines for flavour profiles.”

In the meantime, Badea’s work doesn’t stop. And now that Twitter is virtually bringing malting barley farmers right into her lab, there are sure to be more exciting developments.

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