N49 Genetics, a Manitoba-based plant breeding company, is working with EMILI to develop precision planting equipment to improve the resilience and yield of Manitoba-grown crops.  This technology will ultimately allow them to develop a soybean variety that thrives in Manitoba’s unique climate and soil conditions.

While precision vacuum planter technology is already well-established for commercial growers in North America, these platforms are too large to efficiently manage small quantities of seed at early stages of the plant breeding process. The precision planter N49 Genetics is developing is designed to maintain the depth control, row spacing, and singulation capabilities of a commercial vacuum planter while handling as few as 50-100 seeds.

“Our hope is that this seeder will improve our accuracy when making phenotypic selections and identifying plants with a favorable complement of genes,” said N49 Research Scientist Kevin Baron.

Baron launched N49 Genetics along with Manitoba seed growers Rick Rutherford and Craig Riddell in 2020 to develop early maturing soybean cultivars and breeding lines able to tolerate stress, with the end of goal of stabilizing soybean yields on challenging or marginal soils in Manitoba and adjacent provinces.

“We saw an opportunity to do something local,” said Baron, who grew up on a potato farm near Carberry and studied agronomy at the University of Manitoba before launching his career as a researcher specializing in plant genetics and small plot research.

Receiving an EMILI Emergence Grant in spring 2023 helped them move this project forward.

“We are proud to work with companies like N49 Genetics to test and validate new technologies to ensure they work in a prairie context,” said EMILI Managing Director Jacqueline Keena. “This is foundational work that will increase the economic and environmental sustainability of digital agriculture in the prairies.”

Precision planter aims to increase crop resilience

Individual rows are analyzed with precision using image analysis software to evaluate breeding lines in the field

From drought conditions to flooding, to changes in soil pH, salinity, and nutrient levels, there are many stresses that affect a crops’ ability to thrive.

To develop a crop with the desired traits, breeders sometimes manipulate planting and growing conditions, using irrigation treatments for example, to evaluate the stress tolerance of plants. They will then select the highest performing lines with unique combinations of genes that enable them to germinate from cold, wet, and compacted soils, or other stress conditions.

This is a years-long process that requires patience and planning. An important aspect of N49 Genetics’ approach is their focus on the physical and chemical properties of Manitoba soils. Planting equipment, temperature, and soil properties are important parameters that interact with genetics to influence early season vigour or yield potential.

During the 2023 growing season, Baron focused on direct comparison of soybeans varieties and evaluating breeding populations in small nursery rows.

Looking ahead, the planter being developed will be modified to accommodate work in canola, wheat, and corn as well as enhancing the capabilities of the seeder for agronomic studies assessing fertility products and inoculants.

As this technology is developed, EMILI looks forward to testing and validating it at Innovation Farms.

Baron hopes that plant breeders and seed biologists across Western Canada will take an interest in the project as he believes it has many potential applications on other target crops.

“We are seeing digital agriculture move from satellite level down to drone level, down to the single plant and row level. We are going to get to a point where commercial equipment will have sensors that can identify single plants throughout the growing season,” he said.

“A combination of image analysis tools and modified commercial farming equipment allows us to identify and select individual soybean plants at very early stages of a breeding program. This will increase our ability to develop crops bred specifically for Manitoba and the Canadian Prairies.”