Yield increase a priority for flax breeding

The aim is to increase yields to more than 30 bushels per acre to remain competitive with other crops

The Canadian flax industry is hoping to increase average yields by nearly 30 percent over the next few years with the help of improved agronomic management and enhanced genetics.

A Feb. 22 Flax Research Day in Saskatoon was told that increasing average yields to more than 30 bushels per acre in Western Canada is achievable but will take time.

“Last year (in Saskatchewan), I think we made that average of around 21 or 22 bu. per acre,” said Erwin Hanley, chair of the Sask-atchewan Flax Development Commission.

“Of course, we keep hearing that that’s just not sufficient to remain competitive in this industry, so we know we have to work on that.”

Hanley said new flax varieties are delivering higher yield and agronomic improvements, but yield potential remains a top breeding priority, along with improved seedling vigour, earlier flowering, earlier maturity and improved stem dry down.

Crop maturity continues to be a major challenge for the industry.

The plant’s indeterminate growth habit can cause costly delays at harvest time and make combining a slow and frustrating process.

Delayed dry-down was a problem last fall, and some crops were left in the field over winter.

Ample moisture and mild fall temperatures slowed maturity and made harvest difficult.

Harvest problems and straw management concerns are factors that limit annual flax acreage in Western Canada, Hanley said.

The crop generates a price premium of $1.50 to $2 a bushel relative to canola.

Total western Canadian acreage was 1.7 million acres last year.

Hanley said the industry has identified dry-down as another top breeding priority.

Helen Booker, a flax breeder with the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, said genetic material associated with earlier flowering has been indentified and has been incorporated into CDC flax lines.

Farmer interest in the crop could increase significantly if new, earlier maturing varieties can be developed with improved dry-down characteristics.

Improved crop management on the farm will also play a key role in boosting yields and acreage, Hanley said.

More emphasis has been placed on educating farmers about flax production and agronomic management. Research has shown that applying fungicides such as Headline and Priaxor to control pasmo can consistently increase harvested yields.

A pre-harvest burn-off is also a critical step that will limit harvest problems, ensure a more consistent stand and simplify straw management.

“If I hadn’t done a pre-harvest burn-down on my flax … I would have struggled to get mine off,” Hanley said.

Many Saskatchewan growers were pleasantly surprised by yields and overall production, despite harvest challenges and a dry start to the growing season, he said.

Acreage has rebounded in the past few years, and total western Canadian plantings of close to two million acres are not out of the question for this year.

“When you go back three or four years, our acreage certainly has improved since then,” Hanley said.

“In all the years I’ve been growing flax, I can only recall a couple of times where we’ve been over two million acres, but we’re not far off that.”

Growers planted 1.2 million acres in Saskatchewan last year and 500,000 acres in Manitoba.

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