Producing ryegrass that doesn’t flower in the field could lead to more productive pasture and reduce the burden of managing it, researchers say.
Two Otago University biochemistry scientists have been given $1m by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Endeavour Fund’s Smart Ideas programme to try to do that.
Associate Professor Richard Macknight and Dr Lynette Brownfield with input from AgResearch will search ryegrass genes to try to breed a variety that does not flower in farm pasture.
Macknight says the goal is to identify the relevant genes and breed non-flowing grass. The technology will be made available to plant breeders.
Removing flowering will extend the growing season, maintain the pasture’s nutritional value and provide significant benefits from not having to manage quality through grazing or mechanical topping, especially from spring to autumn when plants naturally want to flower.
“The successful development of ryegrass cultivars that don’t flower in field conditions will extend peak production, enabling farmers to use farmland more efficiently,” he says.
“That will increase productivity, making the reduction of land use more financially viable, thereby reducing environmental impact.”
He doubts removing the ability to flower will reduce ryegrass persistence.
DairyNZ says few new ryegrass plants emerge in established pasture through seed germination.
The perennial nature of ryegrass is dependent on developing new tillers because a tiller lives for only a year.
That mostly occurs in spring and autumn and every time a new leaf is produced so too is a new tiller bud which stays dormant till conditions are right for it to grow.
Macknight says gene technology has reached a point where researchers can search for genes in existing ryegrass species to find the genes responsible for provoking flowering.
“There have been recent advances in our genetic understanding of how flowering is controlled and we are using this knowledge as a starting point to discover the key genes required to prevent ryegrass flowering on the farm.”
The process they will follow is not genetic engineering.
Macknight says flowering is triggered by cold and scientists will specifically look at ryegrass species grown in exceptionally cold climates such as Japan and Russia to enhance their knowledge ahead of tackling species grown in NZ.
“If a ryegrass variety that we help develop ends up being grown by New Zealand farmers and it helps farming become more sustainable then that would be tremendous. That’s the ultimate goal,” he says.
Brownfield says suppressing flowering means seeds won’t be produced for farmers to plant.
“So, to get around this problem we are aiming to develop a plant that can be induced to flower for seed production under artificial conditions but will not flower when grown on NZ farms.”
“This is an exciting time to do this type of research,” Macknight says.
“There is so much we know about gene control traits but by putting it into breeding we can make a real difference.”