Kiwi clover cultivars taking on the world

A Grasslands Innovation-funded white and red clover breeding programme undertaken by AgResearch continues to expand and provide growers in New Zealand and around the world with options to cost-effectively increase yield and boost returns.

Grasslands Innovation Ltd. is a 30:70 joint venture between Grasslanz Technology Ltd and PGG Wrightson Seeds Ltd.

Red clover (Trifolium pratense) has a red flower, lush palatable foliage, a strong tap root and is slower to flower than white clover.

“Typically, red clover doesn’t tolerate close grazing with most cultivars usually lasting two years which quite simply, is inadequate” says John Ford, a scientist with AgResearch’s Forage Improvement Group.

However, the development of Grasslands Relish red clover is expected to turn the red clover market ‘on its head’ he says. Relish is now marketed as a product that can be in the ground for three to four years, with the data to back it up.  It is used primarily for conditioning breeding stock and fattening lambs.

The improved persistence and animal performance with Relish red clover have resulted in projected sales volumes this year that will be three to four times higher than the previous red clover cultivar that it replaced.

John says one farmer he spoke with in the King Country was able to reduce the time for fattening his lambs and was able to sell them off six weeks earlier.

“The bottom line is the farmer made a profit for the first time in a while, and he put a lot of that success down to Grasslands Relish red clover.”

This is an example of long-term breeding and development that AgResearch scientists have always been renowned for.

Another scientist within the Forage Improvement Group, Greig Cousins, says the development and subsequent commercial success of cultivars like Grasslands Relish also highlights the value of AgResearch’s Margot Forde Forage Germplasm Centre – New Zealand’s national seed bank of grassland plants.

The Centre consists of seeds of genetically diverse plant populations collected from around the world that are conserved for use in plant breeding and to ensure the survival of some special groups of plants. The role of the Centre is to obtain, conserve, replenish and distribute germplasm for research and development of new varieties.

“So, effectively we have the ability to import overseas material and incorporate it into our locally adapted material,” Greig Cousins says

“Any germplasm that has potential agronomic benefits is crossed with adapted elite breeding lines and cultivars. The best of these new breeding lines move through the breeding pipeline and are trialled at multiple sites under a range of grazing managements. Only the very best are selected and bred to become cultivars. The process can take up to 15 years but all that work has benefits to farmers here in New Zealand and around the world.

“So in the case of Grasslands Relish, ecotype germplasm was incorporated into New Zealand-bred cultivars and with an improved trialling method helped to advance a novel cultivar that’s redefining  the market and expanding the value of red clover into different types of farming management systems.”

Meanwhile, AgResearch‘s white clover programme continues to bloom. White clover (Trifolium repens) is New Zealand’s most important pasture legume, due to its nitrogen-fixing abilities, ability to increase animal production, high forage quality, and persistence under grazing.

But, while white clover is a valuable forage and soil fertility resource, its persistence and contribution to production and profitability can be constrained by genetics, farm management, and environmental factors. This again highlights the value of AgResearch’s long-term breeding programmes that bring together new germplasm sources which have improved white clover persistence and herbage yield on farm.

Experimental lines, including some incorporating genetics from related Trifolium species, continue to show promising advances in forage productivity and persistence in different farming systems.

“We’re probably considered the world’s best in developing white clover cultivars and this is well illustrated by the fact our cultivars are marketed successfully around the world,” John Ford says.

“This is the result of ongoing throughput of top quality product which in turn is based on a long history of top-quality breeders and solid staff succession planning.”

New germplasm sources and the use of new tools for characterising and selecting superior plant material will enable increased genetic gain for traits including persistence and forage production in white clover and related forage legumes.

Through PGG Wrightson Seeds, AgResearch will launch a new white clover cultivar ‘Grasslands Legacy’ in the 2015/2016 financial year which will replace the earlier cultivar ‘Grasslands Kopu II”.

Benefit to New Zealand

The recent commercial introduction of new clover cultivars to the New Zealand primary sector is providing opportunities for additional on farm revenue across the pastoral livestock sectors.  As example snapshot impact cases:

  • White clover cultivar ‘Grasslands Legacy’ has trial data showing it will out-perform current white clover options with regard to rotational cattle production systems. Adoption of the cultivar by NZ dairy farmers within mixed sward pastures is expected to result in a robust and resilient clover species that could provide an additional $34 million annually in farm gate revenue to the dairy sector. This is based on current seed sales and projected pasture renewal use reflected in additional milk solids production.
  • Red clover cultivar ‘Grasslands Relish’ provides projected productivity benefits for ewe condition and prime lamb finishing resulting in improved lamb weaning percentages to complement higher lamb growth rates. Using a red clover forage cropping system, additional annual farm gate revenues for the sheep production sector through improved carcass weights are estimated to be $11 million based on projected seed sales.

The economic benefits elucidated may be conservative given no accounting for pasture renewal cost savings with increased cultivar persistence. Additional fertiliser nitrogen savings will result from nitrogen fixed for longer periods due to improved persistence and growth characteristics relative to existing, and now outdated cultivars options.