Grass Development at Agriseeds

July 2014

The history of the development of a new ryegrass

The commercial launch of a new ryegrass cultivar is the culmination of over 12 years of plant breeding, evaluation and quantifying. Agriseeds Research Centre in Canterbury has been specialising in ryegrass breeding for 35 years on 240ha near Darfield. It views itself as a ‘pasture company’, not a seed company, providing farmers with the best possible pastures in terms of a range of features including persistence, dry matter yield, palatability and pest and disease resistance.

Agriseeds is a specialist researcher of pasture varieties and a seed wholesaler. It sells through a nationwide network of retailers and employs area managers and agronomists around the country for field trials, retailer training, technical support and advice to farmers.

The research station was founded in 1978 by the Arthur Yates group and following the turbulent times of the 1980’s (when Yates was taken over by EquityCorp), a small group of Yates staff got together and purchased the research station and the ryegrass breeding programme, setting up Agriseeds in 1987. The company is now part of the Royal Barenbrug Group of the Netherlands, one of the world’s largest specialist grass seed companies. Around 60 staff members are employed at the Canterbury research centre and around the country.

Agriseeds describes plant breeding as a “conveyor belt” process. New first crosses must be placed on the belt at the beginning in order that new, proven cultivars emerge at the end. The company also must breed cultivars which cater for the needs of farmers up to 12 years or more in the future. Selections are made from ryegrass resources such as stored seeds (the company’s intellectual property), the national germplasm centre in Palmerston North, from overseas and collections of old pastures.

Breeding begins with the selection of what are hopefully the best genetics to give the right characteristics in pastures of the future. New Zealand requires winter-active ryegrass, which is only grown in a limited number of temperate zones around the world. Around 60 individual F1 crosses of ryegrasses are made each year, at the start of the conveyor belt. They are then plot-grown for F2 seed production, which introduces more variation. In years three and four, some 120,000 F2 plants are selected under grazing and intense competition. Then in year five, the best 2000 plants are intensively measured to select the best 200 or so parents of new varieties. In year six, seed is produced from 50-60 new ryegrass breeding lines, which in years seven to nine are trialled at multiple locations around NZ to identify the best six. Over years nine to 12, the best six are intensively tested throughout NZ.

For obviously desirable cultivars with commercial possibilities, 500gram of seed is multiplied on the research station over two years to produce one tonne of “breeder’s seed” which is then multiplied by some of the 180 contracted farmers that work with Agriseed to produce approximately 20 tonnes of “basic” seed to grow to produce the commercial “first generation” seed for market launch if selected.

Historically only one line out of the best 18 makes it to commercial launch, and seed from the others is destroyed. But seed growing and assessment doesn’t stop there. Agriseeds needs to estimate the demand from farmers and export sales for a new variety, in order to multiply the basic seed into commercial quantities. The costs of growing seed coupled with the fact that seed is a living thing that deteriorates over time, means the company doesn’t store large quantities of seed not required by the market.

Contracted growers of seed send their tonnages to commercial seed cleaning and storage facilities. The Agriseeds research station handles only research quantities because of hygiene requirements (such as cleaning down machinery after every variety to prevent contamination). At every stage of multiplication, new seed is rigorously tested for quality and purity. Growers follow strict quality standards, as do the seed cleaners that process their crops.

Plant breeding is a process of continual improvement with some unexpected jumps when gains are made in crucial characteristics. Most cultivars have to have a balance of characteristics, so a variety that may be very strong in one area might have to be put through the breeding process again to include acceptable standards of other characteristics.

Agriseeds can also make a commercial choice to market a variety with a known weakness in one area and emphasise that drawback to farmers. An example is the Shogun tetraploid hybrid ryegrass which has exceptional growth and palatability, but only two to five years persistence. Knowing that, farmers may opt to get the superior performance quickly because that paddock is due to be cropped or re-sown in the near future. Shogun has very quickly become the number one hybrid ryegrass in NZ and after very strong showing in the National Forage Variety Trial system is now the industry standard cultivar. Shogun has winter growth equivalent to many Italian ryegrasses and out-yields many perennials in summer and autumn. Its persistence is very good for a hybrid (cross between Italian and perennial).