Brian Beres

Dr. Brian Beres is a senior research scientist at AAFC - Lethbridge and Adjunct Professor at the University of Alberta. Beres leads several multi-disciplinary projects developing GxExM crop management systems. 

His impact on academia and industry has been recognized on several occasions, including the Alberta Seed Growers Honorary Life Award; Canadian Journal of Plant Science Best Paper; CJPS Outstanding Associate Editor; and Fellow – Canadian Society of Agronomy.

Beres publishes in the areas of agronomy and crop science and has been the author or co-author of 116 peer-reviewed research articles, two edited books and two book chapters. He serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Canadian Journal of Plant Science and Special Issues Editor for Frontiers in Plant Science.

Beres has several international collaborations and represents Canada on the Research Committee of the Wheat Initiative, where he also developed and chairs an Expert Working Group for global agronomy wheat research.

Harpinder Randhawa

Dr. Harpinder Randhawa is a senior research scientist and spring wheat breeder working at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. His passion for wheat breeding developed during his childhood as he worked alongside his parents on the family farm in Punjab. 

He obtained his B.Sc Agriculture (Hons) in 1990 and M.Sc with a specialization in Plant Breeding in 1993 from Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. He joined the Ph.D. program at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, in 1998, where he conducted genetic and molecular studies of loose smut resistance in durum wheat.

At the Lethbridge Research Centre, Randhawa’s primary research focus is developing spring wheat cultivars that are high yielding with excellent end use quality and resistance to various biotic and abiotic stresses in Western Canada. To date. He has developed nine high yielding spring wheat cultivars for general production in Western Canada.

Randhawa’s other research interests include the identification of new sources of disease resistance in wheat, genetic mapping, doubled haploid production, and new breeding tools. He has published over 65 research articles in international journals, supervised many undergraduate and graduate students, as well as post-doctoral fellows, and attended over 35 national and international conferences.

A Major Look at Minor Wheat Classes

Story written by Geoff Geddes | The Word Warrior

Minor wheat classes are one of Alberta Grains’ main concerns, as they offer unique opportunities and challenges for Alberta’s grain sector. These classes have high nutritional value, diverse end-use applications, and potential niche markets. However, they also face agronomic, environmental, and economic constraints that limit their production and adoption.

Consequently, research on minor wheat classes is essential to address these issues and enhance their competitiveness and sustainability. Alberta Grains has supported various research projects in this area, such as breeding, agronomy, disease management, quality evaluation and market analysis. The organization has a minor wheat class research committee that includes Dr. Brian Beres and Dr. Harpinder Randhawa. As part of a larger discussion, the two men shared their thoughts on the current state and future direction of minor wheat class research in Alberta.

What are the main challenges and opportunities for minor wheat classes in Alberta?

Dr. Brian Beres, senior research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) at the - Lethbridge Research Centre and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta:

Minor wheat classes represent a flexibility that can be enjoyed by the entire value chain. For end users, they offer an opportunity to tap into a niche market; for grain merchants, the unique quality characteristics of duality that can be sold off in isolation or blended into wheat lots from various other classes to achieve desired specifications. With farmers, these classes may provide an opportunity to leverage their wheat crop phase and increase net returns. For example, winter wheat offers operational efficiencies by expanding seeding and harvest windows; it can create access to multiple feed and milling markets, and by virtue of earlier harvests, on-farm cash flows begin earlier in the summer.

Certain situations, however, can limit the role of minor classes. If the market shifts, end use consumer specifications change or the dynamics of how we grow and market wheat take a different form, the landscape may be altered such that certain varieties don’t mesh with market needs. In this case, minor classes become a bit of a ‘nothing burger’(ie. Canada Northern Hard Red). Sometimes these classes are better suited to unique micro environments where they happen to adapt better than other wheat classes. This was the case with Canadian Prairie Spring (CPS) wheat, which represented a real win-win scenario.

Dr. Harpinder Randhawa, senior research scientist and spring wheat breeder with AAFC at the Lethbridge Research Centre:

This is really the million-dollar question. There are always challenges in being a small class – such as CPSR, Canada Western Hard Soft Spring (CWSWS) and winter wheat. At present, Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) and durum occupy 75 - 80 per cent of the acreage in Alberta, while the rest are at two, three or five per cent each. This represents a challenge for the smaller class of wheat to generate the interest, acreage and revenue needed to create more product, perform market development and establish a solid demand.

For example, when Cereals Canada conducts trade missions to countries in Latin America and Asia, those nations are looking for Canadian Prairie Spring Red (CPSR) wheat. Unfortunately, we can’t establish enough of a consistent supply to develop a sustainable market in those locations over the years.

Also, minor wheat classes are sometimes limited in where they can be grown. Winter wheat is mainly grown in southern Alberta and southern Saskatchewan.

At the end of the day, the crop they grow must make economic sense for farmers, and the price for minor classes is much lower than for their major counterparts. This creates a vicious cycle, as growers are happy to invest more in lines that offer a good net return while minor classes receive far less funding. Also, keep in mind that running any breeding program requires a minimum critical mass of infrastructure, disease nurseries, breeding population pipelines and end use quality testing, so the revenue must be there to support all of this.

Having said that, minor classes offer some distinct opportunities, especially in areas where CWRS and durum wheat can’t be grown to a grade 1 or 2 standard. Then there are locations in which the major classes are not profitable due to disease pressure, insects or abiotic stressors. Minor classes may also be useful in the context of crop rotation.

One instance of minor class appeal is Canada Western Soft White Spring (CWSWS), which offers roughly a 20% yield advantage over the Canadian Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat class. In this case, even if the price for CWSWS is 15 - 20 per cent lower than other options, the bottom line could be profitable for growers.

Minor classes also serve multiple purposes besides milling, including grain for feed stock, ethanol production, silage and forage. CWRS, on the other hand, is used exclusively for milling. It is important to have these minor wheat classes, for even though they are small, they often have niche uses and niche markets. CWSWS has stronger straw than barley that results in fewer lodging problems, making it highly suitable as a sileage for feed stock.

What are Alberta's most critical research gaps and needs for minor wheat classes?

Dr. Brian Beres:

I don’t know if this is just about Alberta, as it can at least extend to what the Prairies need. The whole value chain must be reassessed and figure out what to do with emerging opportunities and challenges with minor classes.

There is a major problem with research on minor wheat classes, as a lot of them are on that bubble of a million acres or less, so we just don’t have the research dollars via grain levies to support many projects other than breeding efforts. The other issue here is that if you have under a million acres and need to solve a larger problem like abiotic threats associated with climate change issues or disease, insect, or weed pests, putting those dollars into minor classes does not provide the same impact as a macro class like CWRS.

A good illustration of this is winter wheat, which has been around forever. Over the last 10-15 years, the appetite to fund projects for this class beyond breeding has remained fairly stable; however, that ended in 2022, leaving Canadian Western Red Winter (CWRW) with no agronomy research. This is a regrettable irony given the priority placed on climate resiliency and climate smart agriculture by federal funding programs. Winter wheat offers considerable ecosystem and environmental benefits, some of which are indicators of climate resiliency.

This sort of scenario presents a dilemma for funders as to who will fund what, who has the priority and what sort of immediate impact is required from the research. If there is a need for results that can be scaled up in a big way, a minor class may be the wrong place to target funds; that is just the reality. A minor class is a niche, but so too is the challenge to fund it. The project must be something with wide reaching value for the federal government, or another party with a vested interest, to support it. The cold truth is that, while minor classes often have a key role to play, funding them on the research side is getting increasingly difficult, and even the work on breeding may be hard to sustain in the long run.

Dr. Harpinder Randhawa:

Since no one in the private sector is breeding for minor wheat classes, we need to have long term commitments for such a breeding program. We must also keep developing market opportunities that will make these classes sustainable, benefiting industry while diversifying our wheat profile in Western Canada. Also, we should include newer technology and tools such as genomic selection, which are already being used with CWRS and durum, in breeding programs for minor wheat classes.

What are Alberta's most promising research areas and topics for minor wheat classes?

Dr. Harpinder Randhawa:

Disease resistance is a huge one, as we always face challenges with the evolution of new strains of pathogens. This is especially true for rust and Fusarium head blight (FHB). In Alberta, FHB and stripe rust abound, as some minor classes are grown under irrigation which promotes these diseases. There is also some minor class production on dryland that is facing an increased incidence of drought on the prairies in recent years, especially in Alberta. With more climate resilient varieties, we could reduce the stress on minor wheat classes in production.

Dr. Brian Beres:

When you look at the big picture, it is hard to argue against the fact that we are dealing with a changing climate. The federal government holds the purse strings to a wealth of research dollars, but is demanding that the funds be tied to projects on climate change or climate resiliency. For researchers, this means there must be a balance of where the pot of money sits and how you align your research to access those funds. Central to this is identifying the key issues being faced by primary producers. Is it disease, pest threats, abiotic stressors or something else?

I think it’s vital to seek out opportunities within these minor classes for the merging of funding dollars to address objectives that apply to multiple classes. We did some work recently on the agronomy side regarding ultra early wheat seeding systems, and through testing proved they work on minor classes. In order to make progress, you must align yourself with these minor classes in a way that you can steal from Peter to pay Paul.

The other option is to generate some spinoff from research on the major classes in an area like nitrogen use efficiency. That is always a big focus and has lots of different contexts. When we produce notable findings in a major wheat project, maybe we need to determine if we have all the information, we need to apply the results to minor classes. If not, we may need to conduct some additional research to maximize the gains and efficiencies across classes. Where there are not ample dollars to specifically target minor classes, perhaps we can leverage research on major classes in a cost-effective manner.

How can ARG and other stakeholders collaborate and support minor wheat class research in Alberta?

Dr. Brian Beres:

Winter wheat is a prime example of where you’re not going to get a single stakeholder to pay for it. When someone makes it a priority to conduct research in a specific area, that is one thing, but often with minor wheat classes, nobody does. Winter wheat and some others in the minor category are essentially orphan crops, in that no one is throwing large pots of money at them. Since growers will rightly only support their levy research dollars being used for projects on their respective class of wheat that generated the levy at the elevator, it is extremely important for Alberta to get on the phone with other stakeholders in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and elsewhere to ask a key question: How can we team up to address this issue?

As an example, wheat stem sawfly doesn’t care about borders or longitude. It is all about the latitude, so it will be a problem and an emerging threat throughout the southern prairies. Since a pest like this is indiscriminate about attacking wheat, minor classes are also vulnerable. In this instance, it need not be one funder supporting all the work and assuming the entire risk. As is often the case with wheat research, which tends to be high risk and low reward, spreading out the participation among several stakeholders can reduce the risk.

Some minor classes don’t even need specific funding. When you look at the Canada Northern Hard Red (CNHR) class, none of those varieties were developed or enhanced with dollars targeted specifically at that class. By contrast, winter wheat presents a specific challenge in that its unique winter growth habit means it needs its own research dollars; we can only learn about winter wheat by doing research on winter wheat, and that is constrictive. Since CNHR can benefit from funding for other classes, it has a distinct advantage.

Fortunately, some of the work we have done on major classes could benefit the minor ones as well. This includes studies regarding yield potential: How can we calculate the gap between potential yield and on farm yield? What is the current state of the gap? What factors are causing the gap and what factors could close it? As a result of these questions, we now have a potential suite of research priorities that can be targeted with research money. Although to date we have just mapped out CWRS wheat yield gaps, some of this work could be applied to minor classes as well.

Dr. Harpinder Randhawa:

Collaboration is critical. The Canada Wheat Research Council, Western Grain Research Foundation, SaskWheat and Alberta Grains are all farmer organizations that fund our breeding programs. Funding from multiple sources helps us stay at the forefront in developing and enhancing wheat cultivars in Alberta and western Canada. The continuing support of these groups means we can give minor classes the attention they need and offer growers a range of options for their farm.

Did you know?

  • Canadian wheat varieties are grouped into classes by their functional characteristics.
  • Canadian wheat classes are categorized as wester Canadian or eastern Canadian by the regions in which the varieties are grown.
  • For example, Canada Eastern Soft Red Winter includes soft red winter wheat varieties grown in Eastern Canada that are low in protein and used for cakes, pastry, cereal, crackers, biscuits and filling.