French ready to play hybrid
By Robert Harris
HYBRID wheats have received a favourable reaction from French growers after a limited introduction last season.
Specialist hybrid wheat breeder Hybritech Europe, co-owned by French co-op Pau-Euralis and agrochemicals maker Monsanto, selected 200 "innovative" farmers representative of 70% of the French wheat area to test one of six hybrid varieties in 1994-95.
Two registered hybrids, Sextant and Domino, and four experimental ones were chosen for the project, says Philippe Castaing, director at Hybritech.
Farmers compared hybrid performance with the best conventional varieties. Soissons and Sideral were the main check varieties, on 38% and 21% of farms, respectively. Others included Ritmo, Tremie and Scorpion.
Conventional varieties were sown according to normal farm practice. Most growers sowed 250-400 seeds a sq m between Oct 9 and Nov 12 into good seed-beds. Hybrids were sown at 200-300 seeds a sq m during the same period.
Subsequent management was similar for both crops. Two to three fungicide applications was the norm and 218-250kg/ha (175-200 units/acre) of nitrogen was applied in three splits. Three-quarters of plots received 1-2 growth regulator sprays.
"Ideally, less fungicide should have been used and nitrogen should have been applied later to fill bigger grains. But we were testing the concept, not pushing detailed management. Specific agronomy packages to suit different varieties on a regional basis will follow on from this," says Mr Castaing.
On average, hybrids out-yielded conventional varieties by 0.8t/ha (0.32t/acre). Of the two recommended varieties, Sextant produced 0.5t/ha (0.2t/acre) more, Domino twice that.
Domino matched most farmers expectations, says Mr Castaing. "From an economic point of view, farmers are ready to play the hybrid wheat card provided it can produce at least 300F (£38.50/ha or £15.50/acre) extra margin."
But they should not write off other varieties, he explains. "Sextant, through its very good disease tolerance and associated possible input reduction together with the added yield, can meet those economic expectations."
Some 60% of participants have sown hybrid wheat again – all 1200ha (3000 acres) of seed has been planted this season, Mr Castaing claims. After a sceptical start most growers felt very positive when they saw well tillered plants in early spring. Better disease tolerance, big ears and well filled grain boosted confidence further, he explains.
The high seed price of £128/ha (£52/acre) was one reason the rest decided to quit. That is over twice the price of conventional seed, needing 0.5t/ha (0.2t/acre) of extra yield to compensate. He hopes they will be swayed by new hybrids offering better yields and breadmaking quality due to be launched in 1997.
Dependence on distributors was the other main worry. "Many growers save their own seed and did not want to have to buy every year," says Mr Castaing.
"Eventually they will come round. They may have to buy seed but they will make more profit. And in trials, we have drilled 100 grains a sq m and got just as good yields. In 5-10 years the best growers will be able to do this."
• UK growers will have to wait some years before growing hybrid wheats, Mr Castaing believes. Current French varieties are too early. He reckons the UK needs to breed its own hybrids if they are to make significant inroads.
"The problem is that most UK wheats are closed flowering types, which means they make poor pollinators. Good male plants need to be open-flowering types to shed plenty of pollen. But it will take a specific breeding programme to produce these."
The French have also put more effort into the technology, he adds. "We have focused on developing the right chemical hybridising agent and breeding technique. So the outcome is that only France is producing hybrids for now." *
• 200-farmer trial in 1994/95.
• 0.8t/ha yield advantage.
• 60% of growers staying with hybrids.
• Enthusiasm for strong tillering, good disease tolerance and big grains.
• High seed price and loss of farm-saved seed off-putting for some.
Hybrid wheats are fast becoming a commercial reality in France, offering growers improved yields and greater crop vigour.