New HGCA-funded research is seeking to integrate recent advances in oat breeding into commercial variety development programmes. Andrew Blake reports.
Despite strong demand for oats for use in human foods, the crop could become side-lined if increases in on-farm yields fail to match those of other crops.
It is that concern which has prompted HGCA to join several other partners and invest £158,000 of levy payers’ cash in a new £2.74 million five-year research project*.
InnovOat, which began last September, aims to build on the recently completed five-year £4.9m Quoats research project, to which the HGCA contributed £225,000 as cash and £22,000 in kind.
Quoats certainly delivered, maintains Prof Athole Marshall, of Aberystwyth University, who led the project.
“The project developed new breeding technologies which are being integrated into the Ibers oat-breeding programme to ensure new varieties meet end-user needs. It also introduced new methods of measuring plant characteristics, i.e. phenotyping.”
The crop’s potential to be used as a high quality animal feed has been demonstrated in feeding trials with sheep, dairy cows and poultry, and new varieties combining high oil and low lignin husk which can be fed directly to ruminants have been created, he notes.
“The research has led to varieties with up to 14% oil, whereas the norm is about 8%.
*HGCA research Project 220-0002
A key outcome has been new, high yielding oat varieties with shorter and stiffer straw.
Among them is Rhapsody, top yielder on the Recommended List of winter varieties and notable for its good disease resistance.
The dwarf variety Balado, 20cm shorter than Rhapsody, is also high yielding and does not need growth regulator.
“Conway is a husked spring oat with a high specific weight and kernel content, plus good mildew resistance.”
Quoats confirmed oats can do very well in organic rotations, says Prof Marshall. “It’s not a new finding, but the fact they yield well, producing good quality grain, is important.”
Close to two-thirds of the 700,000 tonnes of oats currently grown in the UK are eaten by humans, mainly for breakfast and in snacks, a market sector growing by about 5% a year. “That is in contrast to many other areas of Europe where the oat crop is in decline.
“A key factor in the expansion here is the growing awareness of the health benefits linked to eating oats which are mainly due to the soluble fibre beta-glucan and other unique characters of the grain” he says.
“However, despite this increased demand for home-grown oats, the crop is in danger of becoming marginalised if on-farm yield improvements do not keep pace with those of alternative crops with potentially higher returns.
“It’s important efforts to improve yield do not compromise grain quality, both in terms of grain composition and milling quality.
“These are increasingly important traits for the UK oat milling industry to fully exploit the nutritional characteristics of the grain and are key economic drivers for product development.
“Genetic improvement of these traits is crucial if the crop is to remain competitive and meet future requirements of end-users and value chains.”
Developments in breeding (genomic selection) and phenotyping arising from the Quoats research provide opportunities to increase the rate of that improvement.
“However, evidence is limited on how these approaches can be effectively integrated into a commercially-focused breeding programme.”
Projects such as InnovOat are extremely important, believes Oat Services managing director Cark Maunsell.
Although the use of oats for human food continues to expand rapidly, UK production has been static for 10 years, sucking in imports, he says.
“For a cereal which is extremely well suited to growing in our climate, either as a winter- or spring-sown crop, it’s a perverse picture.”
Oats are unique as a cereal in containing high levels of healthy oils, antioxidants and beta-glucan, well known for its proven cholesterol-lowering properties, Mr Maunsell adds.
“Along with excellent product innovation, these beneficial attributes have led to human consumption growing from about 200,000 tonnes in the late 1990s to more than 500,000t today. Consumers are buying more food products they perceive as safe, tasty, healthy, and nutritious.
“However, there’s an urgent need to improve the oat crop’s competitiveness to encourage growers to plant more, and the most effective driver for this is through genetic improvement in varieties.
“In Ibers we have world-leading knowledge and technology in plant genetics. This project will couple the major advances in identifying gene traits by adding tools such as bio-informatics to the current expertise in oat breeding, so accelerating production of new higher yielding varieties with better disease resistance.
“This research may also help in producing varieties better adapted for use as animal feed, particularly those with high oil or low lignin contents. Any success in this area would again increase demand for the oat crop significantly.”