Celebrating 70 years of AFBI-bred forage grass varieties

Date published: 07 July 2022

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The AFBI forage grass breeding programme based at Loughgall, and supported by funding from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), has reached an important milestone in 2022, marking 70 years of forage grass variety production bred specifically for local use.

Gillian Young (AFBI Forage Grass Breeder) and David Linton (Commercial Manager UK Agriculture, Barenbrug) at the forage grass breeding plots at AFBI, Loughgall.

The huge success of the programme is clear. Since 1998, 35 improved forage grass varieties have entered forage grass variety recommended lists around the UK and Ireland, at a rate of 1.5 per year. Each of these varieties have been tested against its peers by national testing authorities across the UK and Ireland.  They only gain a place on a recommended list once proven to be equal or better to other varieties on the list.

Twenty-eight AFBI-bred varieties are currently included on the Recommended Grass and Clover Lists for England and Wales (RGCL) and eight are recommended for use in ROI, highlighting the longevity and robustness of AFBI varieties to perform year on year consistently across different regions.

AFBI’s portfolio is full of varieties bred specifically for different silage and grazing situations, all of which are marketed in Northern Ireland through AFBI’s commercial partner, Barenbrug UK (Table 1 outlines 14 of AFBI’s leading varieties). However, of particular note is Galgorm, one of the best intermediate heading diploid varieties currently available in the UK. Galgorm first entered recommended lists in the UK in 2018, and has maintained its position as of 2021/22 at the top of the intermediate diploid category for total yield under both grazing and silage management, with no other intermediate diploid variety on the RGCL producing more metabolizable yield per hectare under grazing management. Another outstanding variety on recommended lists across the UK and ROI is Gracehill, a late-heading variety of the tetraploid type, which attained the coveted spot of the best-performing late-heading perennial ryegrass variety in ROI in 2021, cementing its position as one of the very best available forage grass varieties.

BANNFOOT Tetraploid Hybrid 20-May Perennial-type; excellent persistence with yield advantage of hybrid
GLASKER Diploid Early 18-May Excellent first cut yield and spring yields
GALGORM Diploid Intermediate 22-May Highest yielding intermediate diploid
MOIRA Diploid Intermediate 24-May Early spring grazing yield; Excellent disease resistance
GOSFORD Diploid Intermediate 29-May Multi-purpose high quality variety; high crown rust resistance
FINTONA Tetraploid Intermediate 20-May Unrivalled spring grazing yields; Excellent ground cover
SEAGOE Tetraploid Intermediate 22-May High silage yield; Excellent crown rust resistance
DUNLUCE Tetraploid Intermediate 30-May Excellent grazing variety; high digestibility
CALLAN Diploid Late 02-Jun High spring growth, comparable with earlier heading varieties; excellent silage variety
BALLYVOY Diploid Late 02-Jun Excellent quality; superior sward density
DRUMBO Diploid Late 04-Jun Excellent mid and late season growth; superior sward density
CLANRYE Diploid Late 05-Jun Excellent early grazing yield; consistent growth pattern throughout growing season
BALLINTOY Tetraploid Late 31-May Excellent early grazing yield; consistent growth pattern throughoug growing season
GRACEHILL Tetraploid Late 01-Jun Excellent all-round performer right across the growing season

One of the strengths of the AFBI site at Loughgall is its environment, which is perfect for the production of high yields of grass, allowing AFBI to push its grass varieties to their maximum.  This also detects differences between varieties more easily. The site itself lies at a low altitude and is sheltered from the elements with few extremes in temperature and a low risk of frost, but has a rich, fertile soil that is high in calcium and essential nutrients. This, coupled with the high rainfall experienced throughout the year that Northern Ireland is so well known for, leads to typically mild, damp conditions that are perfect for grass production in most growing seasons. Yields at AFBI Loughgall under very high fertilization rates regularly exceed 20 T DM/ha under silage production, highlighting the high yielding potential of the varieties on the site. The AFBI grass breeding programme also maintains one of the best forage grass germplasm collections in the UK, as proven by the high-performing pipeline of varieties originating from the programme.

New varieties currently in development show consistent improvements in traits such as yield, digestibility and disease resistance to improve productivity and raise outputs. But, as both environmental and consumer needs change, the availability of new varieties with improvements for traits such as nutrient efficiency, to offset fertilizer reduction, and carbon sequestration, to help industry meet its net carbon emission goals, are currently being explored.  AFBI-bred perennial ryegrass varieties are also key components of a range of multispecies mixtures.  Ongoing research is focusing on the role of perennial ryegrasses in multispecies mixtures and the benefits these mixtures can bring. Only through breeding, can sustained improvements in grassland be made. The AFBI forage grass breeding programme aims to be a key part of ‘greener’ livestock production in the future.

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