Climate gives Canada protein advantage

Competitors in more moderate climates can see better yields, but can’t match Canadian growers’ quality

RIDGETOWN, Ont. — Canadian wheat growers can learn from their English and Irish counterparts, but it won’t undo fundamental drawbacks related to climate.

Jim Orson, special adviser to the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in England, said moderate winter and summer temperatures, plenty of sunshine, a lengthy growing season and adequate rainfall, especially during grain fill, are the necessary ingredients for record yields.

The island nations of Ireland, England and New Zealand lead the way in that department.

In Canada, winters are too long and cold and the summers too warm. Two consecutive days of 30 C temperature reduce yield potential because the time to grain fill is shortened.

However, it’s not all bad news. Orson said the United Kingdom imports high protein wheat from places like Western Canada to make its bread.

“Typically, U.K wheat constitutes 85 percent of the flour mix, whilst very high quality wheat with high protein levels, such as your prairie hard red wheats, make up the remainder,” he told the Southwest Agricultural Conference in Ridgetown in January.

“The fierce summers mean that grain fill after flowering is restricted, and this explains the high protein because the protein is not diluted by high levels of carbohydrate during grain fill.”

In contrast, Ireland, England and New Zealand — “little islands in a big warm sea” — have moderate summers and winters.

The wheat makes slow progress rather than merely surviving, even over the cold months.

“We’ve had farmers average more than (4.5 tons per acre) this past year in England, which is phenomenal,” he said.

“In Ontario, so I’ve heard, a good yield is about (three tons per acre).”

Ireland actually holds the world record for yield.

Orson said a good field of English or Irish wheat has 450 ears per sq. metre with 50 plump grains per ear for a 4.5 ton per acre harvest. In Ontario, the numbers work out to 650 ears but only 35 grains per ear for a three-ton per acre harvest.

Agronomic potential is another way to look at the situation.

Wheat growers in England and Ireland regularly achieve 70 percent of their agronomic potential compared to 44 per cent in Ontario and even less in Western Canada.

Orson suggested Ontario growers plant their winter wheat as early as possible and apply nitrogen early to get the crop green and growing.

Peter Johnson, outgoing wheat specialist with the Ontario agriculture ministry, said the best way to maximize Ontario wheat yields is to combine higher nitrogen rates with the use of fungicides. The fungicides allow the wheat to stay green longer, which improves yield and uses the added nitrogen.

Without fungicides, Johnson recommended applying 90 pounds of nitrogen at the end of April. If fungicides are to be used, he suggested increasing the application to 120 to 150 lb. in a split application:50 to 80 lb. in early spring on frosted ground and the remainder applied around May 10 at the one or two node stage.

Orson said a similar regimen is used in England and Ireland, but the nitrogen rate is even higher – around 180 lb. – divided among two or even three applications.

Orson said little is gained by varying the application rate in England, but there’s certainly merit for variable rate phosphorus and potassium applications.

He said English farmers are becoming increasingly interested in cover crops, such as a spring cereal following the wheat harvest, controlled traffic to reduce compaction, increased organic matter levels and no-till and strip-tillage.

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