The use of field NIRS for breeding novel high quality varieties of forage and grain

Lead Research Organisation: Rothamsted Research
Department Name: Plant Genetics and Breeding


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Technical Summary

In order to fully capitalise on high throughout genomic and transcriptomic approaches to crop improvement for sustainable agriculture there is a concomitant requirement for rapid automated phenotyping for important traits. IGER has successful plant breeding programmes in forage grasses, amenity grasses, forage legumes and oats with over 35 varieties on the UK national and recommended lists. These are funded in part by commercial companies (grasses and legumes by Germinal Holdings and oats by SW Seed Ltd formerly Semundo) and the programmes integrate basic and strategic research and operational plant breeding into the production of commercial varieties, incorporating new molecular technologies to enhance traditional breeding methods. At IGER, new varieties of these species are making a major contribution to these systems with major breeding being improved tolerance of abiotic stress, reducing the environmental footprint of land use to which they contribute and enhancing the quality of meat and milk produced. These aims are appropriate to the needs of post CAP reform agriculture where there is a requirement to deliver environmental goods as well as high quality outputs that meet consumer needs. Much of IGER¿s plant breeding success has been achieved by incorporating novel quality characteristics into varieties which also display improvements in more traditional plant breeding targets such as yield. Near Infra-Red Reflectance Spectroscopy (NIRS) is used for the determination of major quality parameters notably protein levels, water soluble carbohydrate concentration and digestibility. The proposed use of a Field NIRS system on fresh forage rather than the current method of drying samples followed by milling and chemical analysis would decrease the resources required for quality assessment, reduce costs and allow analysis of a wider range of novel traits important for enhanced sustainability of grassland systems. The purchase of a static NIRS system would allow the breeders to develop calibrations for many quality characteristics for use in the breeding program in addition to contributing data obtained from IGER experimentation to be used in co-operation with other European breeders and J Haldrup a/s, to provide a robust and wide-ranging calibration for this equipment. Details of the implications for the different breeding programmes are now discussed. Grasses. In the agricultural grasses recent varieties have demonstrated significant improvements in levels of water soluble carbohydrate (WSC) a characteristic which has been shown to lead to improvements in live weight gain and improvements in milk yield by enabling the animal to make more efficient use of the protein in forage. Part of the success of breeding for high WSC has been due to the use of laboratory based near infra-red reflectance spectroscopy (NIRS) equipment for quick and accurate quality determinations. While there is genetic variation present in the breeding population for further improvements in WSC, exploiting this could require increased population numbers in breeding trials thus requiring further efficiencies in the plant trial assessment process. Allied to this, investigations into other quality characteristics such as protein profiling could require further resources being devoted to quality assessment. Legumes. The forage legumes whist clover (Trifolium repens L.) and red clover (T. pratense L.) play an important role in UK beef, sheep and diary agriculture. IGER¿s forage legume breeding programme has pioneered the use of NIRS in germplasm improvement. In particular we are the only programme in the world that uses NIRS for the determination of white clover content in mixed swards with perennial ryegrass (the typical agricultural situation). This has meant that the laborious separation of clover and grass fractions prior to drying and weighing is no longer necessary. In a programme which requires clover content to be determined on hundreds of plots between 5-1


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