Australian science delivers higher yielding crops

Friday, 28 July, 2006

A string of scientific world-firsts has resulted in nine new "superfodders'. The disease-resistant animal feed crops of high yield have delivered more than $45m in benefits to Australia.

The new varieties of lucerne, stylo, cowpea and oats were developed in the Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Plant Protection (CRC TPP) by a team led by Chief Executive Officer Prof. John Irwin.

"To develop these crops we made a series of discoveries and advances which have added significantly to the world's ability to produce more disease-resistant and higher yielding crops in the future," said Irwin.

These included identifying molecular markers for yield and disease-resistance which will greatly facilitate the breeding of improved strains of lucerne, one of the world's most important fodder crops.

The more than 50 useful genetic markers identified by the team can be used in future breeding programs to bolster lucerne's productivity and hardiness.

The team also produced a detailed genetic map for winter-active lucerne, which will provide a roadmap for future genetic improvement of this forage plant.

Another important discovery was the identification of two new races of anthracnose, a devastating fungal disease of lucerne in Australia.

The team was able to breed new lucerne varieties that were resistant to these new races, and which will be commercially available in 2008.

"This means Australia has the only variety of lucerne in the world which is resistant to all three races of anthracnose disease," Irwin said.

The new fodder crop varieties are resistant to a wide range of root and leaf diseases, combined with an increase in yield potential of 10-30 per cent over existing varieties grown on farm.

The new varieties are also significant to wider agricultural productivity as lucerne, with its deep roots, is one of the Australian farmer's chief weapons in the fight against dryland salinity - as it reduces the amount of water infiltrating the soil to raise salty groundwater levels.

It is also widely used as a soil-improver and valuable rotational crop, which improves soil fertility for subsequent grain crops.

The new crop varieties have been hailed as a major advance for the nation's $1 billion farm fodder industry and its fast-growing seed and fodder export business which is targeting a $US10 billion export trade in Asia. The new varieties have also helped to open up export markets for Australian seed in Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

At home they are expected to boost Australian dryland lucerne production by 10 per cent and irrigated lucerne by up to 30 per cent over the next 5-10 years.

An independent cost-benefit analysis conducted by Agtrans Research in 2004 estimated the net present benefits derived from the two most recently developed of the nine super fodders, based purely on increased production, at almost $45 million - for an original research investment of around $1 million. This research was extensively supported by the Grains R&D Corp.

However it took 14 years to reach the breakthroughs for the four different crops and develop the nine new varieties, underlining the long and patient investment required to make significant scientific advances, said Irwin.

The nine varieties have since been commercialised by three leading seed companies - Pacific Seeds, Heritage Seeds and Keith Seeds.


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