17 May 2002

Import variety tests a boon

UK grass and forage

legume breeding progress

is gathering pace with the

link between the

Department of Agriculture

and Rural Development,

Northern Ireland and

international seed

company Barenbrug, giving

access to new material.

Jessica Buss reports

BEING able to test more grasses and clovers bred around the world on a range of UK farm locations is proving beneficial, says DARD grass breeder David Johnston.

On a recent Barenbrug-sponsored Press trip to Northern Ireland, a number of imported plant varieties revealed characteristics suited to the UK, said Mr Johnston. A link with Barenbrug to provide some funding and market varieties bred or tested by DARD was giving access to material from France, Holland, New Zealand, Australia and many other centres.

"I can liaise with others to bring in material and evaluate it here to try to breed better varieties. This may mean bringing in grass from Romania and crossing it with good UK varieties to produce ones better suited to the future needs of the industry."

But deciding what the industry will need in 14 years, the time it takes from crossing two plants to marketing a new variety, is difficult. Mr Johnstons solution at the Plant Testing Station, at Loughgall, is to work on a range of options to meet producer demands.

He also works closely with producers testing material on farm before official variety test listing to see how they perform under real farm conditions, at a range of locations across the UK, including Devon and Aberdeen.

Ken Gill, who milks 160 cows at Chapeltown, Ardglass, NI, is keen to try out grasses that will suit his extended grazing season with spring calving cows. "Our ideal grass is one that does not spurt for silage, so we do not have to close grazing paddocks."

One DARD-bred grass he is growing is the tetraploid perennial ryegrass Navan, a variety with good early spring growth and a late heading date. Mr Gill was now reseeding with pure swards of this variety, as are a number of producers who did not want to dilute its potential with other perennial ryegrasses, said Mr Johnston.

"There are many early growth varieties on the market, but most head early so quality falls rapidly."

He believed the trend for growing single variety swards would increase. Although, generally, mixtures gave a higher yield, there had been little testing of actual yields from mixing different varieties, he added.

Hybrids are another area of growing interest. But Mr Johnston is breeding varieties with 75% perennial genes, rather than the typical 50:50 split with Italian ryegrass at other plant breeding centres. This produces varieties with a better base and he also has one coming through with good crown rust resistance, suited to south-east England.

But there will also be interest in varieties with a peak of growth to suit a single silage cut to reduce costs. Mr Johnston is at the advanced stage of testing a variety which offers early spring growth and late heading to suit a single-cut system. "We are deciding whether to proceed with it in official trials. If we go forward, it is five years away from commercial marketing."

Another of the benefits of links with other plant breeding centres around the world was being able to test varieties bred elsewhere in a UK climate, even when they were not being marketed there.

"For grass, this may allow us to find a NZ-type grass with an erect growth habit that grows well here and presents itself to the cow so she can take more in each bite," he added. &#42

Deciding what producers need 14 years ahead makes it essential to keep options open on the type of varietiers bred, says David Johnston.

&#8226 Early season growth.

&#8226 Good base in sward.

&#8226 Specific to farm system.