Monsanto Canada is investing $100 million over the next 10 years to develop earlier-maturing corn hybrids that could lead to an explosion in corn production in Western Canada.
The Winnipeg-based seed giant predicted Tuesday that if successful, its Canada Corn Expansion Project could boost Western Canada's annual corn acreage to eight to 10 million acres from the current 300,000 to 500,000 acres.
Mike Nailor, Monsanto's corn and soybean lead for Canada, said the company will begin testing some earlier-maturing hybrids this year on nine farms in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as at its new breeding and testing station in Carman.
But it will likely be another four or five years before it has new hybrids it can sell to Prairie farmers.
Nailor said the goal is to develop hybrids with a growing season of only 70 days. The corn being grown now on the Prairies, mainly in the Red River Valley, needs about 76 days to mature. And the ones being tested this summer require 72 to 74 days.
Nailor said while western Canadian farmers are some of the most sophisticated in the world, most haven't had the option to grow corn in the shorter-season climate that characterizes Western Canada.
"They produce great crops year after year in canola, wheat, barley and alfalfa, to name a few. But what if they could do better? That's the question we started to ask ourselves when we looked at the corn opportunity," he said.
"There will definitely be a learning curve, but farmers are innovators and strong adopters of technology," he added. "I don't doubt for a second that, given the tools, they will drive corn-acre expansion across the West if the yield and profitability potential in corn remains strong relative to other cropping options."
The president of the province's largest farm group -- Keystone Agricultural Producers -- also predicted Manitoba farmers will jump on the chance to grow corn because it's higher-yielding and higher-paying than some of the other crops now being grown. And that isn't likely to change in the foreseeable future.
"There's tremendous amount of interest in corn," Doug Chorney said. "I know farmers will be quite excited about this option."
Chorney said corn production on the Prairies could see the same kind of explosive growth soybeans have seen in the last six to eight years.
"Seven or eight years ago I was not growing any soybeans. Now, one-third of my farm is planted in soybeans."
He said coarse grains such as wheat, oats and barley are the crops most likely to be displaced if Prairie farmers switch to corn production in a big way.
"But it (growing corn) is not going to be for everyone. We will still see cereal grains grown in Canada."
Although Monsanto's project will focus on the western Canadian market, the company hopes to also develop new corn hybrids that could be grown in northern Ontario and Quebec, said project lead Dan Wright.
"There is a lot of work ahead of us to help Canadian farmers be successful with this opportunity," Wright said, "but we feel it holds significant potential to transform western Canadian agriculture, strengthen agricultural productivity and deliver incremental income to farmers annually."
Nailor said Monsanto has been conducting research into new corn hybrids for several years at its breeding and testing station in London, Ont. But it was being done on a piecemeal basis. Now the project has committed, long-term funding.
He said the field tests this summer will be used to figure out which hybrids work in which areas and which ones don't, and how they perform in different soil types.
He said the corn hybrids Monsanto develops for commercial use will likely be genetically modified to make the seeds resistant to its Roundup herbicide.
He said the company will use the same government-approved technology already being used to produce its Roundup Ready canola and soybeans.
Those products have gained widespread acceptance by Canadian farmers, he added, and he expects the same will happen with its genetically modified corn.