Wheat production in Canada dates back to the early 17th century. It spread westward from present-day Quebec, reaching Manitoba in the early 19th century with the Selkirk settlers. The first recorded attempt at growing wheat in present-day Saskatchewan took place in the Carrot River Valley some time between 1753 and 1756, and is ascribed to the Frenchman Chevalier de La Corne. Commercial production of spring wheat likely started in the 1880s with the introduction of the cultivar Red Fife. Wheat rapidly became the most important crop grown in Saskatchewan, reaching four million hectares by 1919.
Wheat is currently grown from the US-Canadian border north to the fringes of the cultivated land base, across all Saskatchewan soil types - which reflects the crop's wide adaptation. The majority (>99%) of the wheat produced in Saskatchewan is grown under dryland conditions. Wheat is grown twelve months of the year when one takes into account spring and fall-sown types. Saskatchewan currently accounts for roughly 60% of the wheat grown in western Canada; in the province, wheat accounts for 44% of the area sown to crops (excluding tame/seeded pasture).
Currently there are seven market types and two species of wheat grown in Saskatchewan. Common wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) is grown on 4,136,302 ha, based on the five-year (1998-2002) average (SAFRR, 2003), and accounts for five of the market types. Of the common wheat grown in Saskatchewan, 98.8% has a spring growth habit. The Canada Western Red Winter class is currently the sole market class with a winter growth habit. Of the spring wheats, the Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat class represents approximately 85.5% of the spring-sown common wheat production in Saskatchewan. The remaining area is divided between Canada Prairie Spring Red (CPSR), Canada Prairie Spring White (CPSW), Canada Western Extra Spring (CWES), and Canada Western Soft White (CSWS). The CPS class accounts for approximately 12% of the area - the split between red-grained and white-grained varieties fluctuating in recent years, with a shift to red-grained types. The CWES class accounted for 3% of the spring wheat area in 1997, but has since dropped to about 1% as a result of reduced market opportunities. The CSWS class is limited to production under irrigation, and is grown in trace amounts (0.05% of the seeded spring wheat acreage).
The CWRS wheat class is considered a high-protein premium bread wheat. However, this type of wheat has proven to be quite versatile in its end-uses, ranging from noodles to bread. Grain protein levels typically range between 13% and 15%. The Marquis variety, released in 1909, was the benchmark for what eventually became known as CWRS wheat. Current varieties of CWRS wheat tend to have higher protein levels and stronger gluten characteristics than Marquis and its early progeny. The CPS class was created in 1985 with the registration of the variety HY320. This class was designed to address markets that do not require a premium high-protein product. Typically, CPS wheats are 15%-20% higher yielding than CWRS wheats, with a protein level that is 1% to 1.5% units lower. CPSR wheat varieties are meant to be used in the production of flat and French-type breads. In recent years, however, high-yielding CPSR varieties have been used as livestock feed and a starch source for ethanol production. The CPSW class is meant to address market needs in the Pacific Rim. The primary end-use being targeted by CPSW wheat is the production of oriental noodles; to date, this has largely been a market-development effort. CWES wheat has very strong gluten properties, and was initially developed as a blending wheat to “carry” low-protein, weak-gluten European wheat flours. With the advent of gluten extraction factories and the imposition of crippling import tariffs into the EU, the CWES class lost its intended primary markets. A secondary market was developed in the USA, but this was in turn lost once the USA developed its own extra-strong gluten wheat varieties. The CWSW class has been grown on a limited scale in Saskatchewan since the early 1970s. CWSW wheat is a low-protein wheat used to make pastry and cookie flours. The low-protein (< 11.0%) requirement necessitates irrigation to maximize grain yield and to control the crop's nitrogen status. Winter wheat tends to be higher yielding (by 12% to 25%) than CWRS wheat if early season moisture is adequate. Red winter wheat traditionally has had excellent milling quality. The protein level of winter wheat tends to be similar to that of CPS wheat. As is the case with CPSR wheat, a significant portion of current winter wheat production is being used as livestock feed. In order for winter wheat to survive the winters in Saskatchewan, it is seeded into standing crop stubble which traps snow; the latter in turn provides insulation to the winter wheat seedling crown as it over-winters.
The second species of wheat (Triticum durum) grown in Saskatchewan is represented by one market type, the Canada Western Amber Durum (CWAD) class. Durum wheat production in Saskatchewan was initiated in the 1920s and has grown to be the second most widely produced wheat in Canada. The area seeded to CWAD wheat in Saskatchewan averaged 1,879,892 ha between 1998 and 2002. Saskatchewan accounts for roughly 83% of Canadian durum wheat production, which is concentrated in the traditionally lower-rainfall portions of the province, the brown and dark brown soil zones. Durum wheat typically has a protein level similar to that of CWRS wheat; it is used in the manufacture of pasta, bulgur, couscous, and bread. Within the last five years a subtype of CWAD durum has been introduced: the Extra Strong CWAD subclass addresses a preference for very strong gluten durum types in the Italian market. It is anticipated that up to 15% of CWAD production in Saskatchewan could shift to this ES type once more varieties are in place.
Over the last twenty years, common wheat production in Saskatchewan has declined by 37% while the durum wheat area has increased by 13%. This change in production reflects higher returns for durum and continuing low prices for bread wheat, as a result of hefty subsidies for wheat production and export enhancement in the EU and the USA, relative to Canada.