15 November 1996


By Charles Abel

HOW much modern agriculture depends upon the arts and skills of the plant breeder will be highlighted on the Zeneca Seeds stand (365) at Smithfield.

The man who bred Brigadier, and has seen it become a leading variety on the winter wheat list with 20% of the UK wheat area, will be discussing the complexities of his craft with visitors on each day of the event.

John Barrett, who leads Zenecas wheat breeding programme at Docking, Norfolk, will be describing how a variety is created, from the initial cross of the parent varieties to its debut in the NIAB Recommended List, and the many tests and trials to be made in the 10-year-long process.

For the varieties which do make the List, the opportunities for commercial use and the chance to make a contribution to productivity on the farm is the next step. Wheats such as Riband and Brigadier, the winter barleys Puffin and Pastoral and winter oilseed rape Apex, are all recent examples of the way recommendation can propel a variety into long-standing popularity among growers.

For those which fail to stay the course, oblivion is the usual fate, although no breeder ever completely discards material, knowing that even the most unpromising of lines may yet have a part to play in the production of some future winner.

When the first cross which eventually led to Brigadier was made in 1982, tens of thousands of other lines within the Zeneca programme were being evaluated. Most did not survive the rigorous testing imposed by the breeder, NIAB and other agencies, which ensures that only the best and most reliable material reaches the grower.

Such testing is, says Mr Barrett, essential to the satisfactory commercial development of any potential variety. Thorough knowledge of a varietys strengths and weaknesses can only be developed through a raft of tests, which include yield with and without fungicides, resistance to disease, standing power, grain quality, maturity, winter hardiness and sprouting resistance.

Analysis of other characters which affect lesser known, but still vital, production factors must also be completed before commercialisation can go ahead.

Among these is the complex task of purifying the original selection to ensure that while it possesses characteristics which make it distinct from other varieties, it also remains uniform and stable. Purification, Mr Barrett will tell his audience, requires endless patience and even then, some varieties will always retain the tendency to throw tall plants and off-types in some seasons; in modern varieties, some of these traits are never completely eliminated.

The successful result of the decade of intense activity which Mr Barrett spent with Brigadier was thus the exception rather than the rule in plant breeding. Finally recommended in 1993 it went into commercial use with 9% of the winter wheat market. Initial performance boosted its market share to 15% in 1994 and 22% in 1995. Current seed sales suggest it is maintaining its popularity among farmers as a heavy yielding, easily managed variety.

Breeding wheat varieties is rather like breeding racehorses. Some never make it to the starting stall, others fail just before the winning post. Few breeders ever expect to have two winners at the same time, making Mr Barrett something of a rarity. Coming up fast on the heels of Brigadier, and from the same parentage, was Hussar. It survived the testing process and now provides growers with an alternative that has a particular advantage as a late-drilled option.

Mr Barrett and Zeneca are still racing. A batch of promising newcomers is already in the Zeneca stable and has now completed breeders trials. Visitors to Smithfield will be learning something of what the company expects to have in the NIAB Recommended List for 1997.n

After an initial cross ten years ago (inset) current cereal varieties were subjected to intensive evaluation.