Hybrid breeding has benefited oilseed rape growing but cost and practicality have meant hybrid wheat commercialisation has been slower to take off. New technology means that may be about to change.
While breeders continue to develop conventional varieties which nudge up Recommended List yield figures, on-farm wheat performances have plateaued. The answer may lie not in demanding yet more from the best-performing land and crop situations, but in using hybrids to bring a boost to more challenging situations.
Proven and well-received in oilseed rape, maize and increasingly in barley, hybrids have taken rather longer to become viable in wheat. But recent advances in breeding technology have meant the new noise about hybrid wheats is not simply a re-run of where the industry was 15 years ago, says wheat breeding consultant Bill Angus.
New technology, such as molecular markers is allowing breeding to advance rapidly, he says.
“This is helping address a key hybrid issue – seed production cost."
But hybrid technology is not in itself the complete answer to boosting yields, he suggests. “Hybrids aren’t for everywhere, but their role is in challenging situations, alongside other performance improvement tools."
Hybrids do not offer a ‘get out of jail’ card for all difficult situations, though, he adds.
“They will still need sound management and a change of mindset.
“Today conventional varieties which vary in agronomic and disease traits are often treated the same. That has to change with hybrids – these are bags of genes, not seeds, and adherence to agronomy guidelines will be essential."
According to Julian Little, public and government affairs manager at Bayer, the first commercially-available hybrids offering greater vigour to suit challenging conditions are likely to be available by 2020.
When a UK farmer is looking for a product to solve a problem in their field, they are more likely to buy a Bayer product than one of any other company. In the future, we aim to extend this to oilseed rape and wheat varieties.
This process starts at research centres around the world, pursuing the latest breeding innovations in order to protect harvests from disease, increase yields, and improve plant health.
We have expertise in developing breeding programmes from early stage research and development and a global track record of highly successful oilseed rape, rice, cotton and vegetable varieties.
The benefits of hybrid vigour have proven themselves in the challenging conditions post-neonicotinoids faced by the East Anglian oilseed rape grower customers of Prime Agriculture agronomist Steve Baldock, with hybrid types accounting for 80-90% of his farmers’ OSR area around Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. In this he sees lessons for how hybrid wheats may come to be managed.
“Some have tried to tackle the flea beetle issue by reverting to conventionals and raising seed rates,” he says.
“But that’s led to over-thick, poorly-rooted crops which are poor growers into spring. Hybrids can boost average yields through better establishment into winter, enabling them to tolerate greater stress and damage and be more vigorous spring growers.”
With speed of development from cotyledon to four true leaves being critical to OSR’s ability to compete with weeds and pests, hybrid vigour helps manage challenging situations such as poor conditions and late drilling, agrees Darren Adkins, Bayer commercial technical manager for north Cambridgeshire/south Lincolnshire.
“Seed cost is obviously higher, but compare it against the cost of a failed crop,” he says.
“A conventional variety may suffice if August establishment in good conditions is guaranteed, but when sowing into September a hybrid is almost a must, regardless of region.”
Hutchinson’s technical manager Dick Neale concurs with the view hybrid benefits are clearest where conditions are most challenging.
“Unfortunately a seasonal crystal ball isn’t available to tell you when a hybrid might be useful. Take this year, when it was actually the early-drilled crops which hit problems, lack of moisture meaning they chitted and then stalled.
“But many farms will have difficult fields/circumstances where they know they’ll face challenges. The key to getting the best from hybrid crops is to remember their advantages above and beyond yield, and to follow the agronomy guidelines to the letter.”
Flexibility is the key reason Derbyshire farmer James Chamberlain grows 150 hectares of hybrid OSR as part of a rotation which majors on combinable crops.
“With spring barley as its entry, we cannot guarantee early oilseed rape establishment, so the vigour of hybrids suits a later slot, especially as I don’t like to over-rely on herbicides for early weed control.
“This year I’ve split my acreage between InVigor Harper and another hybrid. On light land, the resilience hybrids possess is a distinctive advantage, and although, like others, we had a difficult 2016 harvest, we need both autumn and spring hybrid vigour to produce crops that, at 40 seeds/sq.m, will do four-five tonnes/ha from the thinner yet more robust and more light-receptive plant stand created by a well-established hybrid.”