Fast tracking oilseed rape varieties brings extra risk to growers

Just two new winter oilseed rape varieties, Fashion and DK Cabernet, joined the HGCA Recommended List this year. When the time comes, choosing the right one for your farm should be a straightforward affair.

After all, the two varieties in question have been tested at different sites across three years and compared with the best of those already on the market, before being given the thumbs up. It’s a tried and tested system, which works well for the farming industry, helping growers to identify the top performers in their region.

Jim McVittie of Crop Evaluation, the company who runs the RL, explains that three years of data are needed on any oilseed rape variety before a decision can be made about its recommendation.

“Statistically, the difference in performance between sites in the same year is lower than the difference between years,” he says. “That’s important because growers need to know more than which was the best variety last year – they’re trying to determine which one is likely to be the best next year on their farm.”

That’s why the data is only robust enough after three years, he explains. “Even then, oilseed rape trials are more variable than those of cereals and the failure rate is much higher. So our level of confidence in an oilseed rape recommendation is always lower than it is for wheat.”

The current trend for breeders to start marketing varieties before they have completed their three years of RL trials has not escaped his notice.

“Once a variety is accepted into RL trials, some see this as a green light to start marketing. But what it means in practice is that many growers are ending up with varieties which don’t get recommended – there is always a degree of failure in the third year.

“That’s why growers should stick with the varieties that they know about. We’re seeing genetic yields improving fast at the moment.”

So, is it right that they’re being sold to unsuspecting growers before their performance has been fully evaluated? And who stands to gain the most – the breeder or the retailer? Or perhaps the grower is benefiting from having access to the newest genetic material?

Simon Kightley, oilseeds expert with NIAB, stresses that fast tracking is not about the newest genetics. “There’s no shortage of new genetic material – there are nearly 100 varieties going into trials each year and the RL system takes 20 or 30 of these.

“If a farmer wants to choose one of these newcomers, all the data is published. But they should put safety first – only if a variety has been thoroughly tested in UK conditions can they really have any faith in it. The current three year scheme should be supported by the whole industry.”

Fast tracking was a system used as standard when there was a need to replace the old, single low types with the rapidly improving double low varieties, he says.

“At the time, it was the correct decision and it served its purpose well. Winner was the last variety of that category still grown today to benefit from it.”

Since then, other varieties have also benefited temporarily, only to come unstuck fairly quickly, he adds. “It’s done for different reasons now, all of which are to do with commercial gain and market share. An oilseed rape variety’s commercial life is quite short, so it’s a way of bringing sales forward by a year.”

Examples include varieties such as Envol and Idol, Krypton and Komando – as well as many others – all of which had a bad year in RL trials, after a “lucky” couple of seasons, he recalls.

Mr Kightley believes that there’s considerable risk attached to growing a variety which hasn’t been through the recognised three year trialling system, but adds that the risk is with seed companies as much as it is with growers.

“In many cases, seed merchants have to make a commitment to a variety before they’ve seen the results of its performance in official trials. That’s quite a serious financial gamble.

“For the grower, there’s always the chance to move on after a year if the variety doesn’t perform as they were led to believe it would.”

Barry Barker of Masstock points out that many of the oilseed rape varieties which don’t make the Recommended List still have a great deal to offer. “It doesn’t necessarily make them bad choices and they may even be better than some of the varieties currently being grown on the farm.”

Having said that, he recognises that there is an element of risk to the grower and advises them to consult their agronomist before making a commitment.

“Often, we will have had access to private data on a variety which gives us confidence in it. But there’s always the chance that it will have a terrible year in trials subsequently, so we have to balance the commercial advantage of offering a variety a year or so early, with the uncertainty associated with it.”

He also highlights the potential threat to a company’s reputation by backing a variety which doesn’t perform on farm. “Unfortunately, the first few years of marketing seem to make a big difference to a variety’s market share figures.”

The Breeder’s View

Predicting the results of oilseed rape trials is difficult, as is guessing what a different season will bring, says Julie Goult of plant breeding company KWS.

Varieties such as Komando, Eiffel and Krypton, which didn’t perform as expected in the third year of RL trials, can still be an improvement on varieties which are already recommended, she points out.

“There’s little risk to a grower in planting one of these,” she says. “You can’t sell a variety which hasn’t been National Listed, so there are safeguards in place.”

The reality is that selling candidates gets them into the market sooner, she adds. “In this situation, the risk is split between the breeder and the distributor. And that’s right, as that’s where any profit is made.”

Some oilseed rape varieties are now being marketed two years early, she notes. “Only time will tell if this is a responsible approach.”

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