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Nov 5

Cutting-edge research in southern Alberta

Posted on Nov 5 By: Caitlin Crawshaw

The Lethbridge Research Centre is a strategic hub for barley development. The scientists and researchers who work in the facility conduct experiments and manage test plots—all designed to further varietal development and research, as well as raise yields. Credit: Brian Freeze
Barley research in Alberta involves an extensive network of scientists, government facilities, universities, industry partners and funding agencies. The Lethbridge Research Centre (LRC), a federal facility in southern Alberta, is a key player in this network.

The LRC is one of 19 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) research centres established more than a century ago, explained Dr. Brian Freeze, LRC’s director of operations. Each of these facilities was designed to establish farming systems in communities across Canada.

Over the decades, LRC scientists have helped farmers in southern Alberta improve how efficiently they raise livestock, particularly cattle, and grow crops such as potatoes, beans and cereals.

“The centre has really generated a lot of wealth for people here,” said Freeze.

Since their inception, AAFC centres across Canada have developed their own research specialties. Early on, farmers in southern Alberta discovered that raising cattle and growing silage for cattle were the most profitable farming enterprises under irrigation conditions. As a result, the LRC now focuses on cattle feeding systems.

“There’s a component of the feeding system in almost everything we do,” he said.

For about 90 to 120 days each year, farmers feed cattle a combination of 80 per cent barley grain and 20 per cent barley silage. As a result, how the grain is grown and processed is a significant area of study at the LRC.

“Because grains are becoming more and more expensive, we’ve been looking at new approaches to improve the efficiency of feeding barley grain,” said Freeze.

Case in point, one LRC project studies how well the nutrients in barley are digested by cattle. Bacteria in rumen play a critical role in this absorption, since they break down the barley, but scientists don’t fully understand this process. One research project at LRC, co-funded by Alberta Barley (ABC) and the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund (ACIDF), explores what’s happening in the rumen on a molecular level.

Dr. Ross McKenzie, an agronomy research scientist, has been working out of the LRC for 37 years and frequently conducts barley research at the facility. At the moment, he’s involved with a five-year research project examining how well ESN Smart Nitrogen Fertilizer (an Agrium product) supports the growth of barley, wheat and canola.

Unlike mainstream urea fertilizer, ESN’s urea granules are coated with a permeable plastic.

“When you put it into the soil, it releases slowly,” said McKenzie of the six week process. In contrast, conventional fertilizer products are converted into plant-friendly nitrogen and absorbed within two to three weeks of application.

ABC Region One Director Greg Stamp has worked with the centre on many occasions and said that, without the LRC, farmers would be losing out on limitless future possibilities for the industry.

“Anytime there’s an event or a tour at the LRC or at Farming Smarter, I make a point of attending because I know the information is unbiased and relates to my everyday decisions,” said Stamp.

“The LRC is constantly discovering new and innovative practices and, as a producer, I feel they always have my best interests in mind.”

Ken Coles, general manager at Farming Smarter, works in the same facility as the LRC and holds the centre’s projects in high regard.

“The LRC provides the highest quality environment for some of the best researchers in the world,” said Coles.

“They share facilities with the federal and provincial government, which creates an environment that encourages project efficiency and collaboration.

“Now more than ever it’s important to invest in research through check-offs. It’s time for producers to step up to the plate and keep places like the LRC working for them.”

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