A joint venture between three European plant breeders is increasing the choice of competitive varieties available to UK farmers. Paul Spackman takes a closer look at the wheat programme and explores future breeding priorities.
It is three years since Elsoms Seeds joined forces with German plant breeder Nordsaat and French company Saaten Union Recherche (SUR) to launch their collaborative wheat breeding programme.
The aim was to share genetics and skills across the three companies to develop a range of new varieties which would allow the newly-formed Elsoms Wheat to compete with other major breeders in a consolidating and increasingly competitive UK market.
Although it is still early days for the venture – it typically takes seven to 10 years to launch a new variety – the shared approach is already bringing more choices for growers as varieties developed from material in the development pipeline prior to 2013 come to market.
The focus is on Group 3 and 4 feed and biscuit wheats, although potential milling types from French and German material are also being screened for UK suitability. Field selection, yield and disease testing is primarily done at the Elsoms facility in Spalding, Lincolnshire.
Saaten Union’s early-maturing hard Group 4 variety Belgrade was first to join the Recommended List last year and four other feed types from Elsoms Wheat are RL candidates for inclusion in 2017/18 (see table).
Elsoms Wheat breeder Stephen Smith says having access to the range of modern biotech facilities at SUBio in Germany, allows techniques such as marker analysis and double haploid production to speed up the breeding process for future varieties by two to three years.
He says: “The focus is very much on breeding reliable, high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties with good grain characteristics which are easy to grow and could attract a potential price premium with no extra inputs.
“Specific weight, in particular, is a genetic factor you have very little influence over on-farm, so has to be built into new varieties.”
Of the candidate varieties, Dunston and Freiston offer the highest yield potential, Mr Smith continues. Freiston is more suited to western areas, while Dunston could be a mainstream UK variety, he says. Bennington offers one of the highest yields of the soft feed types and has export potential. Moulton also has export and distilling potential and while it is lower-yielding than the others, he says it offers strong disease ratings, particularly against septoria (rated 7).
Building robust disease resistance into all new varieties is increasingly important, especially as regulatory pressure further limits the chemical armoury available and disease strains (especially brown and yellow rust) continue to evolve.
Septoria resistance remains the number one priority for UK varieties and Mr Smith believes the benchmark standard will continue to rise as breeding techniques improve. “Good septoria resistance often comes with yield penalty, but modern varieties are getting better.
“In the past, many leading varieties came with a 5 or 6 septoria rating, but now it is regularly 6 or 7 and I predict a good 7 rating will become the future standard.”
Dr Richard Jennaway, from Saaten Union UK, says the UK Cereal Pathogen Virulence Survey is crucial in identifying potential new disease races and allows breeders to screen against pathogens most likely to be dominant in future years.
“The system works well at the moment and lets us stay one step ahead by ensuring we’re working with material that can deal with any changes likely in the next four to five years. It is crucial the UKCVPS continues to receive funding.”
Further development of hybrid wheats could allow disease resistance to be more easily bred into new varieties, he notes.
Elsoms wheat varieties at a glance
*Pch1 Rendezvous resistance gene to eyespot.
Dr Jennaway believes hybrid wheat offers significant benefits for UK growers, especially those on more marginal ground.
“The real benefit from hybrid wheat is on medium to lower yield potential soils typically producing 8-8.5t/ha, where we have seen yield benefits of 1-1.25t/ha.”
Just 0.6t/ha extra yield is needed to cover the additional cost of hybrid seed at current feed wheat prices, although he acknowledges crops on highyielding sites achieving 10.5- 11t/ha are unlikely to see the same yield uplift as those on poorer sites.
“While there is some benefit from heterosis above ground in the form of increased leaf area and crop height, the main benefit is below ground, where we’ve seen 30% bigger root systems in hybrid wheats. This makes hybrids much better at extracting water and nutrients and explains why they show such clear yield uplifts on marginal sites or under more stressful conditions.
“Equally, their true potential may be harder to see in official RL trials which tend to be on more fertile sites.”
Both Nordsaat and SUR have been involved with hybrid wheats for a number of years, so are leading the development of new hybrids. Elsoms Wheat is continuing to focus on traditional in-bred wheats, but will supply parental material for the hybrid breeding programme.
An ongoing challenge for hybrid wheat development is finding suitable male parent material capable of achieving good pollination, says Dr Jennaway.
“We’ve found a number of males which are very good in the past but have been susceptible to yellow rust. The disease is not so much of an issue in France or Germany, but has limited the development of UK material.
“There’s a limited amount of hybrid wheat grown in the UK already, with varieties such as Hybery and Hylux already on the market, and I’m confident we’ll see more hybrid wheats coming forward in the next few years.”
The desire to breed high-yielding varieties with strong disease ratings extends beyond wheat and Elsoms has seen a number of successful launches over recent years, including Trinity oilseed rape and newcomer Elgar, which tops the AHDB East/West RL with the highest gross output (111% of control). Candidate variety Skye has similarly impressive output, earliness and disease scores.
Other crop varieties to watch out for include Acorn spring barley (malting potential), the high-yielding null-lox barley Chanson and oat varieties Harmony and Yukon.