Ag Canada hires new oat breeder in Brandon

Kirby 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. | File photo

The oat sector had lobbied for the position to be filled ever since Jennifer Mitchell Fetch announced her retirement

The Canadian oat industry has a new oat breeder.

Kirby Nilsen has taken over as the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada oat breeder at the Brandon Research and Development Centre.

Nilsen, a PhD graduate from the University of Saskatchewan, assumes the Ag Canada oat program previously headed by Jennifer Mitchell Fetch.

Mitchell Fetch announced her intentions to retire last year and was originally scheduled to work her last day in January 2020. She later agreed to postpone her retirement to March 31, giving Agriculture Canada time to find a suitable replacement.

Nilsen worked as an assistant plant breeder at the U of S Crop Development Centre before 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, which prevents sawfly damage.

Nilsen’s expertise is expected to boost Canadian oat industry efforts to develop new and more productive oat varieties.

In a news release issued Feb. 5, Prairie Oat Growers Association executive director Shawna Mathieson said her organization has been working with Agriculture Canada for years to ensure that Mitchell Fetch’s position was filled.

In 2003, Agriculture Canada’s Alberta-based oat breeder, Solomon Kibite, passed away, leaving Mitchell Fetch as the only Agriculture Canada oat breeder in Western Canada.

Kibite’s position, based at Lacombe, was never filled.

“Oat growers really wanted to make sure that (the Brandon) position was filled, especially because it was the only AAFC oat breeder in Western Canada and because it was the only organic oat program in all of Canada,” said Mathieson.

POGA, which comprises provincial oat commissions in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is one of eight oat industry organizations that fund oat breeding programs at Agriculture Canada, the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre and a private sector oat breeding company called Oat Advantage, based in Saskatoon.

In the past few years, western Canadian 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 enhanced beta-glucan levels, greater test weights, improved end-use quality characteristics and higher 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,” it said.

Mitchell Fetch has worked at Agriculture Canada since 1998. Her program has produced a number of popular oat varieties, including Summit, which was grown on more than 200,000 acres in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 2018.

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