There can be no better measure of the quality control processes and procedures than the time it takes to breed and thoroughly research a new grass cultivar - fifteen years, to be precise. To put this in perspective, this means that the cultivars currently being developed will only become available in 2024, though there are already some exciting developments in the pipeline for 2009 and beyond!
So, with that timescale in mind, where do the seed producers start? By listening to their customers. Twenty years ago, turfcare professionals were asking for better performing, low maintenance mixtures that could also better withstand environmental pressures, such as shade and drought. As a result, Barenbrug responded with species like the low-input crested hairgrass Barkoel, shade-tolerant tufted hairgrass Barcampsia and drought-tolerant Rhizomatous Tall Fescue (aka RTF).
Today's turfcare professionals say that changing weather patterns, disease and fiscal pressures are their key concerns. So, armed with an intimate knowledge of current market requirements and projections for the future, the breeding process can commence.
And so begins a fifteen year journey, from research, development, breeding and trials, to production and distribution, in order to meet their needs.
The company are part of the Royal Barenbrug Group based in Holland, and has breeding and research stations across five continents and works closely with a network of experienced plant breeders in order to develop new and innovative species and cultivars. Annually, it produces 90,000 tonnes of seed worldwide.
Breeders benefit from resources and freedoms unique to Barenbrug. In particular, cross-continent research stations operate on an independent basis, meaning each site can develop innovative and well-adapted species and cultivars to suit their climatic zones. This information is also shared across the group so that different countries and climates can benefit from the latest breakthroughs.
Breeders are also free to search for new species and make new plant collections, with exchanges taking place between nine programmes. This means that they are able to work with a top-performing gene pool and introduce new materials and characteristics to the amenity turf market as well as continually improve and refine existing ones.
During the breeding process, thousands of progenies are produced from each crossing as a breeder attempts to isolate or enhance a desirable characteristic. It is a process of trial and error and, roughly speaking, perhaps only one or two out of every thousand are selected for preliminary trials.
To begin with, these progenies are put to the test in private 'pot' trials - a breeder literally pops them in a plant-pot to see how they fare. If a progeny shows promise, trials escalate through various levels to the official testing stages, such as the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) trials partnership here in the UK.
The company is now able to conduct its own trials due to the recent establishment of its own research station at Cropvale in Worcestershire. These trials will also include mixture trials, furthering their understanding of how cultivars react in mixtures and the importance of mixture synergy.
Seed production commences with just a handful of seeds of the new cultivar. Small blocks of 2,000 to 4,000 individual plants are then grown to produce the breeders' seed (approximately 60 to 80kgs) in isolation from other cultivars to avoid cross-pollination.
The first harvest is then sown in rows to produce pre-basic seed and, in turn, the pre-basic seed harvest is used to produce basic seed. Basic seed is then supplied to selected growers to produce certified seed for use in mixtures. Each step of the seed production process is carefully monitored through seed legislation to ensure certification of the final crop.
It goes without saying that growing a grass crop in the climatic zone where it is intended to be used brings clear and accepted advantages which have, in fact, been proven for the forage market.
The ability to breed, trial and then produce in harmony with UK conditions helps to quickly and effectively meet the needs of the changing UK climate.
Importantly, all the company's seed production is produced to the Higher Voluntary Standards (HVS), which is unique to the UK in guaranteeing a higher level of purity and freedom from weed seeds than European Union standards. The company aims to surpass those standards in most cases.
The production of seed crops must adhere to current legislation and each step is closely monitored by the National Institute of Agricultural Biology (NIAB) to ensure that regulations are being followed.
Experienced farmers are used to growing seed crops and the seeds these farmers plant to grow the crop must be registered with NIAB and included in its control plots at Cambridge. The crops must then be inspected and the seed certified before it can be sold.
Licensed crop inspections ensure that the variety being grown is true to type and conforms to the description of that variety in terms of greenness, heading date and leaf width, further guaranteeing that the variety is distinct, uniform and stable.
Before and during these licensed crop inspections, seed crops are checked for the presence of weeds. Herbicides may be applied to control such weeds as meadow grasses, blackgrass, docks and other broad-leaved weeds.
Following harvesting, a critical operation is ensuring seed is dried to a maximum of fourteen percent moisture content. If seed is too moist, it will heat up in storage, germination will be rapidly reduced and viability of the remaining seed compromised.
Immediately following harvest, the seed is put on to a drying floor and air blown through it to reduce the moisture content and keep the seed cool until its moisture content falls below fourteen percent. The seed is then safe for storage and will remain viable for several years.
After drying, seed is cleaned and tested in a licensed laboratory to ensure that it meets HVS analysis criteria in terms of germination, purity and weed seed content. It is then certified by NIAB.
It's in the bag
After the new seed has been legally certified, it can be collected and stored in one of the company's warehouses - and this is where the story ends for many seed companies as, legally, seed can be sold at this stage with no requirement for further testing.
However, Barenbrug continue with independent laboratory testing of the seed for germination at regular intervals throughout the year. The seed is also re-tested upon arrival in the warehouse to ensure it meets standards laid down for varieties being suitable for turf production and other high-end use.
After harvest, all cleaning procedures are closely monitored to prevent any contamination.
Seed is also mixed in the UK, providing a fresh, high vigour seed to prescription. High vigour seed means faster establishment - one of the critical requirements for greenkeepers and groundsmen looking for solutions to meet today's demanding market.
Mixing is conducted by trained, supervised staff in specialist mixers and samples are taken from each mixture to ensure quality. There's a great deal of skill in mixing grass seed successfully - with different seed sizes, weights and characteristics, it calls for a skillful operator with knowledge and dexterity - it's a bit like the care you take when preparing your favourite recipe!
The company also employs a carefully controlled lot rotation/selection system, where lots are individually recorded on a computer so that no seed is left to decline. This is vital to the germination and establishment vigour of the seed - if a customer is investing in an overseeding programme, then they are investing in performance results.
Equally, customers should always question the age and vigour of the seed they are buying. Remember that the date on the bag is the date it was packed, not an indication of the age of the seed inside.
With the coming of the credit crunch you may be 'encouraged' to buy 2009 seed now at 2008 prices, but how will such seed perform six months on - especially if stored in poor conditions and already declining in vigour? If it's cheap, it's cheap for a reason.
It is worth noting that correct seed storage also encompasses the quality of the bags they are packed in. Barenbrug has invested a great deal in optimum bag design to ensure they are strong and adequately perforated to keep the contents well ventilated.
Even something as seemingly insignificant as the mist kicked up from the wheels of a lorry can make bags damp during transit, weakening them and compromising the health of the seeds.