InVigor turns 20

When Jim Janzen first harvested a canola crop yielding 50 bushels per acre and sold it for $7 dollars a bushel, he knew that canola would be the big money maker on his farm.

Like many Canadian farmers, this Winnipeg-area grower has been part of canola’s success story and in particular, InVigor’s 20 year history. For two decades, through good years and bad, InVigor hybrid canola has consistently performed on his farm.

“Where we are, we have a little too much heat at the wrong time, and our flowering period is usually too short,” says Janzen, who runs Windy Creek Farms with his wife and son. »

“From the beginning, InVigor canola has just been a more resilient plant. We continue to grow InVigor canola because it’s a top performer that keeps moving the yield bar higher.”

InVigor canola’s success story mirrors the growth in the canola industry as a whole. When InVigor was first launched in the fall of 1996, there were only 8.5 million acres of canola harvested across Canada. Today that number hovers consistently around 20 million acres harvested annually. Yields have increased from an average of 26 bushels per acre two decades ago, to more than 38 bushels per acre in 2015. InVigor is now the number one seeded canola brand in Canada.

InVigor canola was one of the first canola hybrids brought to market that performed over a wide geography. There were a few predecessors leading up to the launch of InVigor, but they never broke more than a couple of percentage points in market share. Open pollinated (OP) seed accounted for more than 90 per cent of all canola grown in Canada; today, it’s less than 1 per cent.

“In the early days, when InVigor was looking like it had potential, we decided to expand our business based on one day reaching two to three million acres a year,” says Al Driver, president and CEO of Bayer CropScience Inc. “At that point we didn’t know that InVigor hybrids would be grown on over 10 million acres in a year. We couldn’t have predicted how fast we’d grow and how strong the industry would become.”

The breeding team was able to bring InVigor to market in large part because of its patented hybridization system. While corn was hybridized a century prior with mechanical de-tasseling to produce sterile female lines, canola is unique to corn in that each plant has hundreds of flowers that open over a number of weeks, which are capable of self-pollination.

Under this new hybridization system, the Bayer team was able to create a sterile female line that prevented the selfpollination process throughout flowering. This allowed breeders to produce sterile female lines, which, in turn, allowed the opportunity for hybridization to occur when crossed to their restorer male lines.

“When we launched the very first InVigor hybrids, the system of creating hybrids was completely new to growers and to most people in the canola industry,” says Lionel Lamont, director of InterAg, Bayer’s retail distribution arm. “They quickly learned that our hybrids had superior yield potential and stability, allowing InVigor growers to achieve higher yields even when experiencing various environmental conditions.

“The combination of our hybridization system, germplasm, innovation and expertise has allowed us to continue to improve canola yields and bring in other agronomic traits of value for commercial planting,” says Lamont.

“We were able to develop high-yielding hybrids and breed in the tolerance to disease and Liberty herbicide to provide blackleg tolerant varieties with weed control options for canola growers,” says Stewart Brandt, North American breeding manager with Bayer. “That’s not to say we had rapid adoption. It took a while for growers to learn how to use the product and for the canola industry to grow in a way that made investing in a more expensive production system worthwhile.”

There’s no doubt that farmers want to is important to this country’s economy. A 2013 study by the Canola Council of Canada found that canola contributed $19.3 billion to the Canadian economy and 249,000 jobs. Canola also accounts for a quarter of all farm cash receipts. Canada exports 90 per cent of its canola, and export markets have more than doubled over the past 10 years.

Growing pains

Neals Johnson is one of a handful of people who have been working on the InVigor program since day one. “When I started, hybrids were just coming on the scene and were gaining lots of interest,” says Johnson, regional sales manager with Bayer. “I remember at one of our earliest plot tours, having a discussion that one day all canola will be hybrid, and it has been a good feeling to be right.”

In the early years, growers were fascinated with how quickly the InVigor hybrids popped out of the ground and how aggressively they established. “When InVigor (plants) first appeared they were really nice to look at,” says Johnson. “They were strong from the beginning, had big cotyledons, their colour was attractive and they had these robust elephant ear-shaped leaves.”

There were also issues with weed control with conventional canola. InVigor was bred with the LibertyLink gene so that it was tolerant to Liberty herbicide. In the years before Liberty came on the market, weed control was very difficult. “It was common for growers to have to use a pre-emergent herbicide, and then follow up with a tank mix of up to three products to control the weeds,” says Johnson. “And even then, that did not guarantee a clean field.”

Even when Liberty was introduced, it wasn’t a slam-dunk success. Its initial rate didn’t produce the control growers needed. Bayer eventually adjusted the rate, changed recommended water volumes and added a graminicide (Centurion) to finetune the herbicide. At the end of the day, Liberty gave growers the kind of weed control they needed to help make their InVigor crop a success.

The LibertyLink system has also been an important tool in the battle against glyphosate resistance. “Glyphosate works great for a pre-season burn down and in order to keep it working we need to focus on that purpose,” says Blaine Woycheshin, crop manager, canola with Bayer. “Liberty is the only Group 10 herbicide in canola and has no known resistance, so it has helped prevent canola growers in Canada from experiencing the loss of glyphosate from their toolbox, as has happened in some areas in the United States.”

After a few years of fine-tuning InVigor and the LibertyLink system, Bayer launched its 5000 series, which was the beginning of the golden years for both InVigor and the canola industry. These were the “sold out” years for Bayer, when it couldn’t keep up with demand. InVigor 5440 became synonymous with a successful canola crop and thrived across all growing regions. That single hybrid held 65 per cent of canola market share.

When Garth Hodges was brought in to run the Canadian canola business in 2002, his first impression was that all the people involved had a passion for the product and its potential. He says the entire organization was clearly behind InVigor and the LibertyLink system. By working with those who had been part of the InVigor story from the beginning, they were able to bring the franchise to the next level.

“We listened to the breeders and took some calculated risks when introducing our 5000 series,” says Hodges, currently the strategic business lead for cereals and canola with Bayer. “We realized that while things were going well, including the fast growth in seeded canola acres, we needed something to take us to the next level. The breeding efforts paid off. InVigor hybrids worked everywhere they were seeded and gave Bayer corporate the confidence to further invest in InVigor in Canada.”

In 2009, Bayer’s Canadian researchers were the first to map the entire canola genome, which helped breeders understand how and why canola plants function. “This completely changed the way we breed new products,” says Hodges. “What used to take three months, now takes a matter of days. By speeding up the breeding process we could more quickly respond to growers’ needs.”

“One of the things I have noticed, having worked with the Canadian team, is the enthusiasm they have for the product,” says Marcus Weidler, VP, seeds operations with Bayer. “These people helped develop the system of hybridization and have persevered through the ups and down. They have had the courage to take germplasm from exotic places and try it in Canada to try and solve growers’ dilemmas. These people have taken InVigor to the next level time and time again.”

Building the InVigor business

By this time, InVigor’s path to success gave Bayer the confidence to invest in the infrastructure it needed to be the market leader in Canada. A big part of that was the ability to produce enough seed to meet demand. In 2006 Bayer opened its processing and packaging facility in Lethbridge. In 2009 the company invested $15 million to create the Canola Breeding Centre of Excellence in Saskatoon to support the most advanced molecular breeding technology available in the world.

Bayer also upgraded its Regina formulation plant, built in the early 1980s, to accommodate the increase in demand for Liberty herbicide. Since then, more than $20 million has been invested into expansions at all three facilities to significantly increase the company’s ability to process 30,000 tonnes of canola seed each year. Through its production, cleaning, bagging and shipping processes, Bayer is able to reliably produce 1.2 million bags of seed annually.

“InVigor hybrids specifically changed how seed was produced — the way it was grown and brought to market became much more specialized,” says Lamont. “The building blocks of InVigor hybrids are grown all over the world, so we needed to involve people from around the world to mitigate risk and guarantee supply.”

At this time, Bayer also launched the InVigor Health hybrids as part of a production agreement with Cargill. “We didn’t want to be excluded from any market segment, so this was an important deal for us,” says Hodges. “In order for big customers like MacDonald’s to publicize that they were going to use Canadian canola oil in their fryers, we had to make sure we could ensure a reliable source of a specific type of canola.”

Canadian industry has continued to invest in canola production in this country. Canada has 14 crushing and refining plants that process 10 million tonnes of canola seed annually, producing two million tonnes of oil and four million tonnes of canola meal every year.

“Canola is known as a healthy oil in markets around the world,” says Driver. “While our production base can go up or down a percentage in the future, we don’t have many more acres to expand into, so we will have to improve our technology and agronomy to meet production targets,” he explains. “The success of the crop has created a compelling business case to continue to invest in canola. Meeting market demand will be a big challenge for our industry going forward.”

InVigor innovation

Bayer recently introduced InVigor L252, which set a new standard for yield potential and has replaced InVigor 5440 as the most widely grown canola variety. And the patented pod shatter technology in InVigor L140P has the potential to change the way farmers harvest canola.

“Probably the biggest change we’ve seen in our InVigor breeding program has been the introduction of pod shatter reduction technology,” says Woycheshin. “Our first hybrid with this technology accounted for 20 per cent of our InVigor business this year and we predict that 40 per cent of canola acres in Canada will be straight cut by 2020. It’s been a game changer — allowing growers not only to straight cut, but timing flexibility at harvest.”

As a grower, Janzen agrees. “We tried straight cutting some canola that didn’t have pod shatter reduction technology a few years ago and it wasn’t a great experience,” he says. “It was wet so we really had no choice, but we lost 10 bushels per acre over the swathed canola. Last year our InVigor L140P field was next to a swathed field and both were hit with hail. You couldn’t even tell the InVigor L140P was hit and the canola in the swath had 20 to 30 per cent hail damage.”

While it seems like an overnight success, the pod shatter technology has been in development for more than 10 years. “I remember visiting a harvest trial in 2005 and everyone was excited about they put the crop through the combine — all that came out the other end were sticks — the pods were too protected and not harvestable. Despite their disappointment the breeding team dug deeper … as we knew this technology would add a lot of value for the grower.”

“Eventually I’d like to see pod shatter technology in all of our hybrids,” says Brandt. “If we can offer growers that kind of harvest flexibility plus have an agronomic package that gives them the yield, maturity and disease tolerance they need for their area, they will be able to see a solid increase across all of their acres and all of their InVigor canola crops. I think as we begin to stack traits, we’ll be able to solve multiple grower issues with individual hybrids.”

One of the greatest threats to canola growers, especially in Alberta, is the fast rise of clubroot. There is no known way to control this disease, and it is spreading quicker than anyone initially predicted. Bayer has introduced a clubroot resistant* InVigor, and while it is helping to manage the disease, keeping this threat at bay will take more than a successful hybrid.

“We are working to get a handle on this disease by focusing much of our breeding efforts on resistant hybrids,” says Woycheshin. “There are no fungicide solutions in the near future, so we need to be using resistant hybrids in combination with good agronomics to stop this disease from spreading.”

The canola industry as a whole also faces some challenges going forward. Tighter rotations will mean a shift in breeding due to more complex and rapidly spreading disease. Insect pressures and weed profiles are also changing. But today’s InVigor breeding technology has so far been able to keep up with the quickly changing canola industry.

“Who knows what kind of yields we can achieve, but I know it’s only going to go up,” says Driver. “We have seen some spectacular canola on the prairies and in some seasons we have even seen a few 100 bushel per acre fields. I think that is possible in a more consistent way in the near future. Canola is a Cinderella story for agriculture, and for two decades InVigor has been Bayer’s success story as well.”

*Two predominant clubroot pathotypes in Canada at the time of variety registration.