Ag Canada hires new Brandon oat breeder

The Canadian oat industry has a new oat breeder.

Kirby Nilsen will take over as the Agriculture Canada oat breeder at the Brandon Research and Development Centre tomorrow.

Nilsen, a PhD graduate from the University of Saskatchewan, will take over the Agriculture Canada oat program headed by Jennifer Mitchell Fetch, who announced her intentions to retire several years ago.

Nilsen worked as an assistant plant breeder at the U of S Crop Development Centre prior to joining Agriculture Canada as a research scientist in wheat phenomics.

He is among the first researchers in the world to use genome sequencing in wheat to identify the genetic resources that confer stem-solidness in wheat.

Stem solidness in wheat serves as a physical barrier that prevents damage that can be caused by the wheat stem sawfly, a common wheat pest in some parts of the Canadian Prairies.

Nilsen’s expertise in genomics is expected to be a huge boost to Canadian oat industry efforts to develop new and more productive oat varieties.

In a new release issued today, the Prairie Oat Growers Association said it was “very excited to have such a capable breeder to step into the role and push oat breeding to the next level.”

“POGA has been aggressively working with AAFC to fill this position since Dr. Jenifer Mitchel Fetch announced her retirement plans,” said POGA executive director Shawna Mathieson in the news release.

In the past few years, oat yields have increased steadily thanks to the development of new oat varieties with better disease resistance and higher yield potential.

According to Statistics Canada, average Canadian oat yields rose 13 percent between 2014 and 2019.

End-use quality has also improved as breeders have targeted new varieties with higher beta-glucan levels, greater test weights and improved milling yields.

In its news release, POGA thanked Mitchell Fetch for a career in oat breeding that spanned more than 20 years.

“As one of only three oat breeders in the Prairies, (Mitchell Fetch) … has not only made improvements to conventionally grown oats but has also been actively leading the only organic oat breeding program in Canada,” POGA said.

“These advances have been critical to maintaining the viability of oats and continuing to keep oats as a profitable crop in the rotation of Western Canadian producers.”

Contact brian.cross@producer.com

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