Serving the Farming Industry across East Anglia for 35 Years
More cereal growers are focusing their attention on consistent and reliable varieties - rather than going all-out for yield. Changing growing conditions means different variety focus

More cereal growers are focusing their attention on consistent and reliable varieties – rather than going all-out for yield.

Traits which deliver reliable performance in variable growing conditions are increasingly important, says Kirsty Richards of breeders KWS. Simply chasing yields is no longer the answer, she adds.

“We’re having to recalibrate what we think are the most desirable features in wheats moving forward. The last 3-5 years in particular have been a real wake-up call for many in the industry – including both growers and seed breeders.

While ultimate production potential will always be in demand, we’ve learned you have to build in a lot more features to help growers achieve this more of the time in more variable growing conditions.”

Researchers and scientists generally agree that climate change will mean the UK experiences warmer, wetter winters and hotter summers with less rainfall, explains  John Redhead, of the UK
Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH).

“The UK is unlikely to see a smooth transition to a warmer climate in the years ahead with the increasing likelihood that it will be typified by periods of extreme weather,” says Dr Redhead. The 2020 growing season illustrated this all too well, he adds.

“This was evidenced by torrential rain at crucial times which hampered sowing most types of crops, an exceptionally dry spring affecting plant growth and finally heavy downpours in August which created very challenging harvesting conditions.

“Detailed data on 2020 yields from more than 500 fields across 100 farms showed an average drop in crop yields of around 15% compared to the five-year mean, with the tonnage per hectare in some places down by as much as two-thirds.”

Resilient and robust

In light of the changing conditions, the three key watchwords for varieties in the future are really resilience, robustness and resistance, says Dr Richards.

The KWS Sowing for Peak Performance initiative – or SPP for short – has already delivered a number of stand out varieties, she adds. In future there will be an even greater emphasis on functional traits as a priority.

“In a world where more volatile weather conditions are the norm, stem stiffness and standing power become increasingly relevant and in more challenging autumn weather, later drilling capability becomes increasingly important.

“Strong disease resistance and high untreated yield also increasingly relevant characteristics when agronomic inputs become less available or when spray windows are likely to be reduced because of the weather.”

KWS Extase, for example, was proving enormously popular with the highest untreated yield on the 2021/22 RL at over 10.0 tonnes. Its Septoria resistance also meant producers could be more flexible with their fungicide strategy.

Similarly, the new Group 4 KWS Cranium – listed for the first time in the 2021 RL – was also a good example of an SPP variety, says Dr Richards. It combined high yields and strong resilience, she adds.

“It has Orange Wheat Blossom Midge [resistance] along with the best yield and yellow rust combination of all RL wheat varieties and the highest yield of all the current late drilling varieties.”

Future traits

KWS global wheat lead Jacob Lage says the task is to predict what growers will want in future. Increasingly, this is being influenced by their experiences of climate change, he explains.

 “We’re bringing the traits in now that will make wheat suitable for the future. We’re also identifying any gaps there may be in the gene pool and looking at exotic material to see whether we can breed in characteristics that will ensure even greater resilience.”

It is also important to identify changing trends, such as the increased interest in no-till and min-till production systems, adds Mr Lage.

“We’re always looking to associate the genetics with what we see in the field, but with these traits that’s super complex as there’s a whole range of genes interacting to give the characteristics growers need.

It’s where having a pan-European breeding programme and using the latest technology is an advantage, he believes. The key is to spot the differences as soon as the plant emerges.

“With drones, for example, you can survey thousands of plots and compile very accurate datasets. That’s giving us the metrics to understand how individual crosses will perform across a whole range of scenarios.

“We’re also working closely with the academic community on public-funded pre-breeding programmes such as Designing Future Wheats, identifying traits and resistant genes in exotic and landrace varieties.”