Spreading the word

Regular readers of Farmers Guardian might have spotted an interesting double-page spread in a recent issue: an in-depth look at the longstanding breeding partnership between Barenbrug and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Northern Ireland.

Grass breeding at the Loughgall site in Co Armagh

For 33 years, the Loughgall site in Co Armagh has been the site of Barenbrug’s main UK grass-breeding programme. Since 1991, the AFBI-Barenbrug grass genetics partnership has delivered a cumulative increase in grass yields of 0.5% per annum and nearly 50 new varieties that made it to the Recommended List.


Hosted by David Linton, Agriculture Product Manager and Sales Manager for Northern Ireland, and Janet Montgomery, Agriculture Product Manager, Barenbrug and AFBI invited journalists from Farmers Guardian, Dairy Farmer and the Irish Examiner to Loughgall to see for themselves what’s involved in the lengthy, intricate process of developing a new variety.


As two of Europe’s most westerly countries the UK and Ireland have a distinct grass genetics, says Barenbrug’s global research director Piet Arts, who also joined the press briefing. “There’s very little genetic overlap between the continent and the British Isles, because conditions here demand a different set of characteristics.


“Metrics like spring growth, digestibility, heat stability and accumulated mean temperature all need to be focused on local requirements. So what works in France won’t work here.”


That, says Piet, is the thrust behind Barenbrug’s insistence that its grass varieties should be ‘UK bred, for UK farmers’. At Loughgall, that sentiment is put firmly into practice, as Dr Gillian Young – AFBI’s grass breeder – explains.


“Barenbrug and AFBI can integrate their joint knowledge at the very earliest stages of breeding new grass varieties,” she says. “Loughgall has the ideal microcosm for breeding for UK-wide applications, thanks to its ability – climate, soils, latitude – to withstand most of the stresses thrown at it, while possessing high-yielding capabilities that allow us to assess each variety candidate in the best of conditions.


“Given Barenbrug’s genetic resources and access to germplasms from around the world, a site like this is ideal for developing new varieties specific to the UK and bringing them to market as quickly as possible,” she explains.


That’s important: it can take between 15 and 20 years for a new variety to reach the grower. The new varietal crosses that we showed journalists at Loughgall (see below) are just the first stage in the breeding process. Any one of these crosses won’t be seen on UK farms until the late 2040s. If at all: in plant breeding, there’s no guarantee that any cross will produce the desired combination of traits to make it worth pursuing as a potential variety.



“Nutrient efficiency, yield, productivity, disease tolerance – those are the traits that breeders have always sought to improve and optimise,” says Janet, “but as Piet and Gillian explained to the press, we have to now look ahead to what the farmers of 2050 will expect of their grazing and silage.


“For example, drought resilience will demand an improved root structure, while improved nitrogen utilisation will reduce the need for fertiliser applications. Within 5-10 years, we’ll also start to see new varieties – from conventional breeding as well as gene editing – that offer better fibre digestibility, helping to decrease methane emissions from dairy cattle.”


Innovations like this, together with the add-on benefits of improved root traits – carbon capture, nutrient efficiency, drought resistance – are all pushing towards grass having an ever-more important role to play in helping agriculture realise its valuable contribution to climate-change mitigation.


At Barenbrug, we’re determined to ensure we can not only help farmers prepare for a changing climate, but also help them deliver farming’s low-carbon future. And it will be partnerships like that at AFBI that will help us achieve that objective.


Dr Gillian Young – AFBI’s grass breeder


Janet Montgomery, Agriculture Product Manager, Barenbrug UK