The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) is a world-class, award-winning research and teaching centre at Aberystwyth University. It is an internationally recognised centre of excellence and students' choice for the study of biological, environmental and rural sciences.
A recent invite from British Seed Houses (BSH) to a press day allowed me to catch up with the latest grass breeding research programmes taking place, and to see how all the modern grass varieties make their way through hundreds of trials and years of research before coming onto the market. It can take anything between twelve and fifteen years of work to produce a commercial seed product for the sportsturf and agricultural industries.
The day began with an introduction from BSH's William Gilbert, who explained how the company became involved in the grass breeding programmes at IBERS. British Seed Houses is the UK's largest privately-owned grass seed company, providing a comprehensive seed service to the amenity market through two strategically placed units at Lincoln and Bristol.
IBERS is the UK's major centre for independent research into improving the efficiency, potential and sustainability of grassland. Their remit includes research aimed at understanding the physiological mechanisms involved in grass plant nutrition, quality and stress resistances.
BSH has funded the amenity turfgrass development programme since 1987, working together with the institute to form the UK's largest grass breeding programme. It has already produced some outstanding performance cultivars that have been used in many top sporting facilities in recent years, and are supplied throughout the UK and other EU countries. Most notable are the AberImp and AberElf varieties.
IBERS was created in 2008 from the amalgamation of the Institutes of Rural Sciences and Biological Sciences at Aberystwyth university, and the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER).
The institute employs 350 staff, has an annual turnover of £25 million and represents the largest land-based science department in the UK.
William introduced us to two of the IBERS staff; Sheena Duller and Ian Thomas who, for many years, have been involved in developing and overseeing the successful grass breeding trials.
Sheena, a grass breeder, began by giving an interesting talk on her role at IBERS, the history of the research department and the work with which she has been involved in bringing several species to market.
Grass breeding trials were formerly documented in large bound books, with the first ever records completed back in 1919. Sheena was able to show us the first record book and the entries made back then.
She explained how grasses are selected for trial and grown to produce further material for ongoing trials, monitoring the swards performance in relation to plant health, vigour, colour, growth, habit and stability.
The main turf grass species that have been bred and evaluated are Perennial ryegrass, browntop bent and some fescues (slender, chewings and sheep's fescues).
The institute has spent years collecting plant material for trials, travelling all over the world to find suitable specimens that may have the traits they want to breed into new grass varieties; for example, salt, drought or shade tolerant. To find these grasses the plant collector needs to travel and find locations and environments that induce grasses to survive in these conditions.
Over the years, IBERS plant collector and breeder, Ian Thomas, has done just that and has spent years travelling the globe collecting material. His work, along with that of other colleagues, has resulted in a collection of over 25,000 original plant types that are stored in a seed bank on site.
Seed is produced from the parent plant material and is harvested, put into special sealed bags and stored in a refrigerator at minus 18°C. This ensures material can be stored indefinitely. Ian records his collection and shares the information with other plant breeding organisations.
It is amazing to think that someone has to make a substantial guess on what traits are required for a new grass variety that will meet the future needs of greenkeepers and groundsmen in, say, fifteen years' time.
Sheena was keen to point out some of the different target traits they look for when breeding new grasses: visual merit, shoot density, leaf colour, disease incidence, ineness of leaf.
Over the years, she has trialed many grasses and uses her experience, along with Ian's, to advise on which parent plants are most likely to have the potential to develop into the target crop they are after. Parent plants are sown into plots and left to mature. They are mown on a regular basis to enable Sheena to monitor their performance.
If the grass shows promise, and meets some of the traits they are looking for, they will then proceed to the next stage where thousands of plants are sown and planted outside, individually as spaced plants, to monitor uniformity, vigour, growth habit and other traits. Following on from this, plants are selected and isolated to produce seed. There are several stages to this seed multiplication phase, the aim being to generate enough seed for further trials, both 'in house' and official testing.
Eventually, enough plants are grown to produce 2kg of seed, which is enough seed material to produce plants for the next series of trials. Some will go to the STRI, where further rigorous testing and scoring of the material will take place. If successful, the plant will then be sown for full seed production. In essence, all this work takes time and often results in twelve years or more of development before a single gramme of seed is sold.
Our next speaker was Dr Danny Thorogood, also a plant breeder, who has spent years breeding grasses at IBERS. He led the team responsible for producing the now famous AberImp and AberElf varieties.
Embracing the new academic environment the merger with Aberystwyth University has created, Danny is now turning his attention to researching how molecular markers can be used to speed up the process of selecting new grass varieties. He explained how modern science techniques, using the basic principles of genetics (Mendels laws of segregation and independent assortment) and genetic linkage can be applied to develop genetic maps of the genes (the genotype), that translate to the characteristics of the grass plant that we see and experience (the phenotype).
Characteristics of the genes can be distinguished directly in the laboratory as differences in the properties of DNA (the chemical of life from which genes are made). By selecting for these differences in DNA properties, the characteristics of plants can be indirectly selected in the laboratory, without having to make laborious, time-consuming measurements in the field. The breeding programme can, therefore, be accelerated, bringing improved varieties to market quicker.
One example has been the successful screening of DNA variants that make plants stay green, a characteristic that has been bred into turf ryegrass varieties through the Germinal Holdings-funded IBERS programme.
Danny's PhD student, Chloe Manzanares, gave a talk on her recent work that is on the cusp of identifying the genes responsible for self-incompatibility (SI) in grasses. This is a physiological mechanism that prevents plants from producing seed from self-pollination, the consequence of which, in many grass species, is inbreeding depression which leads to poorly-growing plants.
Identifying the genes responsible for SI in all grass species, including those used for world-wide cereal production, will be a major scientific breakthrough, after over half a century of active research. Practically, knowing the variants of the genes involved in the SI response, plant breeders will be able to select certain individuals that, when crossed together, will maximise hybrid vigour (the opposite of inbreeding depression) that has the potential to produce superior performing grass varieties for the turfgrass industry.
Finally, we were given a tour of the research centre, visiting the seed storage, seed trial areas and greenhouses to see some of the current promising grasses being researched and bred. It was interesting to see how new grass varieties are sought and trialed to get to the stage where the crop can be commercially grown for seed harvesting.
The next stage of my seed education tour took me to a commercial seed production farm which specialises in growing and harvesting forage and amenity seed crops.
A call to John Fairey, BSH Seed Production Manager, soon got me an invitation to a farm in rural Herefordshire to see for myself the production of a specific well known Perennial ryegrass seed crop called Escapade.
I was introduced to the farmer, Philip Gorringe who, with his father, has been involved in growing specialist amenity grass crops for many years.
They farm about 700 acres, of which 110 are currently sown with the Perennial ryegrasses, Escapade and Cadix. To ensure there is no cross pollination between different varieties, each crop is separated by several fields.
To maximise the potential income from a crop of grass, Philip grows his Ryegrass as a two year crop. This spreads costs and ensures a better return.
New crop varieties are sown in September and follow a 7-9 year crop rotation. As an example, an amenity grass crop will be in the ground for two years, followed by two years of cereal crop, one year pea crop, another two years cereal crop, before another amenity grass crop can be planted in the same fields.
Before sowing, the ground will have some herbicide treatments to kill weeds and any remaining cereal plants and other unwanted grasses (such as rough stalked meadow grass). The ground is then cultivated and drilled with the new seed, in this case Escapade.
Once the seed has germinated, John will commence regular visits to identify any weed issues and leave recommendations for treatment. In amenity crops it is vital to remove all Poa species. This usually starts with a residual treatment as soil temperatures drop in the latter part of the year.
The crop is monitored through the winter and top up herbicides are applied in the spring if necessary.
If required, potash and phosphate are applied. Ryegrass needs regular applications of potash, because a lot is removed each time the hay is collected at harvest time. Nitrogen is applied in two doses in the spring. Total application is around 160kg per Ha.
As well as controlling weeds, it is vital to control disease. Ryegrasses can be prone to rusts, although varieties grown by BSH are particularly good at resisting rust infection. Nevertheless, John will advise that at least one fungicide is applied during the growing season. Research in New Zealand and Oregon is also indicating a yield benefit from a further late fungicide.
Philip relies on natural rainfall, which is usually around 1,000mm per year. This year's early dry spell in April and May has meant that crops were unable to take up nitrogen properly which reduced yield potential, particularly on the second year crops.
Because of the extra work that goes into producing a top quality, turf grade amenity crop, prices have generally been higher than for forage ryegrasses. The effects of the recession, and a shortage of forage types, has reversed that position recently. Although tempted to make the change, Philip has the specialist skills to grow amenity, so is going to stick to it. He is planting more Cadix and Escapade for BSH this autumn.
Harvesting is a busy time for Philip, and he is hoping for decent dry weather. A special grain store with a ventilated floor is required to dry the seed down to below 14% moisture The combine harvester cost in excess of £220,000 and is specially adapted to cope with the crops they grow.
Once harvesting starts, it tends to be a race against the clock to get the crop in and get it dried. The moisture content of the seed, at point of harvest, can vary, but tends to be around 35%. It has to be dried rapidly to prevent germination loss.
They can harvest about thirty acres per day (around fifteen tonnes of seed). The seed is laid on the storeroom floor to dry, and ventilation can be targeted to the crop to speed up the drying process.
Philip is also able to carry out the next stage of the seed cleaning process; he has invested in a large industrial cleaning machine which, via a number of sieves, cylinders and controlled air vents, can begin the cleaning of the seed.
Effectively, the seed runs through a number of sieves to separate dirt, larger seed species, weed seeds and other detritus. Philip has perfected the machine to work efficiently and produce a very clean end product.
Samples of the seed are taken during cleaning and are sent to BSH, who check for purity, moisture content and germination. Any waste material is collected and stored ready for composting. The cleaned seed is then bagged and sealed in one tonne bags, before being sent to either of BSH's depots at Lincoln or Avonmouth.
The residue grass stalks and leaves are left to dry in the field, turned and baled, in the form of hay or haylage which is either fed to Philip's own cattle, or can be sold. Well made ryegrass hay attracts keen interest from forage buyers and can supplement seed income by £200 per Ha.
Once the hay has been picked up, regrowth is grazed by sheep, which helps to consolidate the field, tiller the sward and control broad leaved weeds. The sheep remain until February, when the grass is encouraged to grow, by applying nitrogen and the cycle starts again.
From these two visits, I could certainly understand why amenity grass seed varieties can cost so much - taking over twelve years to get to a commercial marketing stage. However, we are all able to see the benefits of this important research and development in the form of stunning sports turf facilities which are the envy of the rest of the world. It should also be remembered that, to produce a high quality amenity seed, good growers and professional advice are essential.