Researchers are close to finalising a genetic tool-kit that will speed the development of new lupin varieties ideally suited to UK conditions.
Farmers attending a demonstration at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, at Aberystwyth, one of the partners in the five-year Lupins in Sustainable Agriculture project, heard key beneficial traits were being identified.
Researcher Tony Mizen said molecular markers for highly heritable favourable traits would be identified for use by plant breeders to exploit hydroponics, to halve the time needed to produce new varieties.
“There is no doubt that Lupins can supply home-grown, non-GM protein, with the added benefit of improving soil fertility by fixing atmospheric nitrogen,” Mr Mizen said.
Lupins had the potential to cut protein import bills, while increasing the efficiency of nitrogen and potash in arable rotations. While farmers recognised the potential, they were wary, as none of the varieties available was ideal for growing in the UK.
The LISA project would lead to earlier-maturing varieties with enhanced yields and increased tolerance of alkaline soils. IGER scientists had been astonished to find lupins growing well on soils with a pH of 8.
They had also demonstrated that finishing lambs and dairy cows did as well on rations containing the 35-40% crude protein in lupin grains as on concentrates based on rapeseed or soya protein.
Mr Mizen admitted that current imported protein prices made it difficult to justify producing lupin grains until yields and reliability could be improved. Lupins also disliked competition and he would not advise farmers to attempt to make high protein silage by growing them with cereals.
In contrast, IGER grassland development consultant Huw Powell told visitors more farmers were successfully exploiting the protein content of red clover by sowing in mixtures with high sugar grasses to conserve as silage. As red clover could fix 250-300kg/ha of atmospheric nitrogen a year, the trend was also being driven by the increased cost of inorganic nitrogen.
An IGER trial showed that finishing Suffolk x Mule lambs put on 229g a day on red clover silage and 182g a day on ryegrass silage. They reached slaughter weight nine days earlier and their eye muscle depth was 1.1mm deeper. “Growers can now anticipate that a red clover sward will stay productive for at least three years, and it will fix nitrogen while providing high protein forage,” said Mr Powell.