Prairie oat production migrating northeast

The shift in acreage will affect beta glucan levels and the amount of time it takes to deliver to processors

Canadian farmers produced more than 3.7 million tonnes of oats in 2017, the third highest total in the past decade, according to Statistics Canada.

Provincially, Saskatchewan was the country’s biggest producer last year, harvesting almost two million tonnes, or roughly 53 percent of Canada’s total tonnage.

That’s good news for the Saskatchewan oat industry.

But it also suggests that farmers in other provinces are becoming less inclined to grow oats, a trend that hasn’t gone unnoticed by oat market analyst Randy Strychar.

“We’ve seen a pretty dynamic shift (in oat production) over the last 10 years, but particularly over the last five years,” Strychar said.

“Essentially in the oat market, all the activity — production, yields and everything — is basically moving north and west.

“It’s moving out of … Manitoba, out of southern Saskatchewan and … out of Alberta … into northern Saskatchewan.”

During a recent presentation to growers in Saskatoon, Strychar used maps to show how oat production has been migrating toward northeastern Saskatchewan.

Twenty-five delivery points in Western Canada account for 70 percent of all commercial oat deliveries on the Prairies, Strychar said.

Of those, 17 are located in eastern or northeastern Saskatchewan, within a 200 kilometre radius of Quill Lake, Sask.

The expansion of corn and soybean acres, particularly in Manitoba and southern Saskatchewan, has been a key factor.

“It’s corn and beans that are moving oat acres north and west,” he said.

“(There’s) better returns for corn and beans,” he continued.

“Farmers are putting more of those two crops in the ground. And, oats are … a better northern tier crop. (They like) warm days and cool nights.”

The concentration of oat acres in northeastern Saskatchewan means that milling oats grown in the West must often be shipped further to reach processors in Canada and the United States.

Another concern is beta glucan levels.

In general, beta glucan levels in Saskatchewan-grown oats are lower than those in Manitoba-grown oats.

Beta-glucan is a key consideration for processors and food manufacturers because edible oat products must meet a certain beta-glucan threshold to carry Heart Healthy labels.

In general, processors want oats that have beta glucan in the range of 4.5 to five percent, said Aaron Beattie, an oat and barley breeder at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre in Saskatoon.

Some of the more popular oat varieties grown in northeastern Saskatchewan have struggled to meet the 4.5 percent threshold.

“It’s a little bit about varietal choice but it’s also about the environmental conditions there,” Beattie said.

“They tend to have some pretty significant oat yields in northeastern Saskatchewan so that generally means that the oat grains are accumulating a lot more starch, which is basically diluting the concentrations of beta-glucan in the grain.”

When it comes to varietal selection, AC Morgan, a solid performer in terms of yield, continues to be one of the more popular varieties grown in northeastern Saskatchewan.

But according to Beattie, AC Morgan is also a variety that tends to have relatively low beta glucan levels, barely hitting the minimum of what end-users are looking for.

“Something like Morgan would probably be struggling to hit that 4.5 percent level on a consistent basis…,” Beattie said.

“If growers moved on to some of the newer varieties, they would be a bit safer in terms of hitting closer to that five percent mark….”

AC Morgan has been around for a long time and has consistently ranked among the highest yielding oat varieties in Saskatchewan trials.

Growers also like its straw strength, which reduces lodging under high moisture growing conditions.

In Saskatchewan, Morgan was the most widely grown oat variety in Saskatchewan last year, accounting for 13 percent of all insured oat acres in the province, according to the Canadian Grain Commission’s 2017 Insured Acreage Report.

In recent years, oat breeders have been aiming at developing new oat varieties that offer big yields, strong straw and high beta glucan.

Newer varieties such as Summit, Camden CS, Triactor and Norseman are starting to catch on with growers in northeastern Saskatchewan, but the transition is taking time.

Researchers are taking a closer look at oat agronomy to determine which practices might be linked to higher beta-glucan production.

Higher nitrogen rates, for example, can boost beta glucan content but can also contribute to yield losses through lodging.

Seeding rates are another factor.

Beattie said most commercial oat buyers don’t offer premiums for beta-glucan.

As a result, many growers continue to focus on yield, rather than beta-glucan content.

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