The UK and Ireland's most prolific grass-breeding programme has set its sights on developing new varieties for the 2040s and beyond, following a renewed agreement between Barenbrug UK and Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI).
Responsible for the development and commercialisation of 46 varieties to the Recommended List, the AFBI-Barenbrug grass genetics partnership has delivered a cumulative increase in grass yields of 0.5% per annum over the 30 years since its inception in 1991. Under the new agreement, the partnership now continue with confidence well into the future.
“The Barenbrug partnership has formed a crucial part of our breeding programme through four decades now,” says Dr Gillian Young, AFBI's Grass Breeder.
Working with Barenbrug has meant that we have been able to integrate our work at the very earliest stages of breeding new grass varieties, with global advances in grass breeding through access to state of the art genetic resources and germplasms, especially from the southern hemisphere from Barenbrug sites. The partnership has also enabled us to bring new varieties to market very quickly and effectively and retain our leading position year after year on a number of recommended lists across the UK and Ireland.”
Dr Young says that with increasing evidence of a measurable change in UK climate, and further changes ahead, grass-breeders face a significant challenge to develop varieties that can thrive in what are expected to be very different conditions.
“We’ve seen dramatic changes over the last 20 years. There’s every chance the extreme temperatures and drought we saw in 2022 will become a more regular occurrence.
“It’s the job of the breeder to understand this, and react: the varieties we develop now will be those arriving on farms in the 2040s. What happens in the lab and the glasshouse today is the silage and grazing on the farms of tomorrow.
“What traits will be valued? What traits will be essential? What are the green growth traits that farmers are going to need?”
Dr Young is already working on varieties with traits such as improved nitrogen utilisation and root structures. Improved nitrogen utilisation will reduce the need for fertiliser while maintaining overall productivity. Reduced fertiliser use will not only decrease costs for the farmer, it will also reduce the emission of the very potent greenhouse gas – nitrous oxide. Over the years, the grass breeding programme has also increased the digestibility of grass. Improved digestibility is known to reduce methane emissions in ruminants. Improved root structure will increase the ability of soils to sequester carbon and create a more resilient sward in dry conditions. Overall improved grass varieties from the grass breeding programme offers yet another mitigation in the tool box for farmers to use when trying to reduce their carbon footprint.
“Indeed, grass varieties could become part of a carbon credit system,” she predicts, “which means we’re going to need to quantify how much carbon they can capture.”
But it’s resilience to stress – particularly drought – that she believes will be the most important traits to seek out.
Many of these ‘new’ traits will be root traits. “Whether it’s carbon capture, nutrient efficiency, or drought resistance, the answer’s going to be in the roots – length, diameter, mass, and so on. But we’ll have to introduce these without losing sight of the all-important above-ground traits – those to which we’re accustomed.”
Paul Johnson, Managing Director of Barenbrug UK, says he’s thrilled with the extension of the partnership.
“Since 1991, this partnership has seen advance after advance,” he enthuses, “setting new standards for yield, digestibility, resistance, and many more, while increasing productivity and profitability.
“But our responsibilities to our farmers have shifted: it’s time to help them prepare for a changing climate. We need new varieties that not only provide exemplary fodder and grazing, but which also improve farming resilience and help us in the drive towards a lower-carbon farming future.
“AFBI’s exceptional grass-breeding understanding, matched with Barenbrug’s commercial and scientific expertise, is a perfect partnership.
“We look forward to building on the success of the first thirty years.”