18 August 1995

High-tech way to a winner

By Charles Abel

MODERN technology is helping plant breeders find more useful new varieties for UK growers.

Laborious bagging and tagging of plot yields followed by tedious number crunching to identify the top performers is now out of the window. In its place is on-combine yield readings, electronic data handling and speedy computer analysis to give results the same day.

That makes for an efficient system, allowing more potential varieties to be evaluated each season, which raises the odds of finding the next winner. Typical of the new approach is the system operated by David Feuerhelm, head breeder at Elsoms Seeds in Spalding, Lincs. A total of 12,000 individual plots of wheat, barley and peas are harvested each year.

"It now takes just four people to harvest the yield trials, weigh them, take samples where needed and record the results," explains Mr Feuerhelm. "Ten years ago it took eight. So we can now do more plots and operate a more efficient varietal purification process at the same time."

A dedicated Sampo plot combine lies at the heart of the system. Complete with on-board weigher, it enters data directly into a Husky portable computer, which later downloads results onto the office computer in seconds.

"That removes all the timely handling and manual weighing and recording we used to do. Once the plot yield is weighed on the combine the grain is loaded into the combine tank and off-loaded into a bulk trailer at the headland for later sale."

Where samples are required for quality analysis 6-8kg can be collected and bagged on the combine. Quality tests are conducted in Elsoms lab and grain with milling potential sent for evaluation.

Mr Feuerhelm admits his system takes no account of moisture content. "But we find that with sufficient replicates any small variations cancel out. I dont know why NIAB insists on oven tests for moisture content. It delays yield results by two or three days."

Elsoms yield data is analysed in a matter of minutes using NIABs REAP computer program. By viewing the results alongside data collected earlier in the season – including lodging susceptibility, disease resistance and a visual assessment of grain quality from samples "rubbed-out" pre-harvest – promising varieties are selected.

Purifying varieties

That assists the crucial process of purifying potential varieties – the routine which ensures the seed is distinct, uniform and pure.

Elsoms grow 4-5000 single plant rows in order to select the 700 purest seed stocks. That meant hand harvesting up to 5000 single plants from the selected rows for further purification work, as well as the entire rows to initiate seed multiplication.

Early yield results mean those figures can now be slashed, so only the 200 rows representing the top 50-60 potential varieties are selected. That means just 1000 plants are hand cut and 200 rows harvested for multiplication, considerably easing the harvest workload, comments Mr Feuerhelm.

So how does that help growers? First there should be more useful varieties. The companys fast developing wheat programme now sees 350 potential varieties yield tested each year – twice as many lines as the company evaluated 10 years ago. The new technology should also mean purer seed. &#42