As many of you will be aware we have been collaborating with the Organic Research Centre crops team, where I was previously a member, for the last three years on a DEFRA funded project called LiveWheat. We set up an informal variety testing platform for winter wheat, a less well adapted crop to organic farming systems but with a strong market, to learn more about varietal performance across environments and management to provide more informed recommendations for organic farmers on the most suitable varieties, in lieu of formal variety evaluation. The project has been very successful in better understanding organic approaches to wheat cultivation, and in learning about the traits that are useful in specific environments and which varieties may exhibit these traits. For example, Extase, a variety with strong early vigour that can be expected to offer good weed suppression, especially grass weeds. We also learned that genetic diversity in the form of a blend or the YQCCP exhibit greater dynamic stability, particularly in less productive, weedier environments.
The project has provided empirical evidence of variety performance for organic farming. It provides information to aid on-farm decision making and with this in mind, Organic Arable are continuing this work now the project is no longer funded, supporting an ongoing variety testing programme across organic farms. The work will focus on commercially available varieties organically, and some near market lines that have potential for organic farmers. We will be discussing opportunities with breeders and seed merchants to select the most appropriate varieties to assess. We currently have 10 farms taking part, many of whom have been involved from the very start way back in 2017 through the LiveSeed project. We are finalising the design to make sure varieties are being tested across environments to provide a relatively robust design. A huge shout out to these farmers for their continued help with this work.
One variety that sounds particularly interesting is Mayflower, a new group 2 to the Recommended list from Elsoms that is reported to be similar to Extase agronomically, with better milling credentials (it was nearly a Group 1) and early trials suggest may show nitrogen responsiveness, a useful trait in low N environments. We will also continue to look at complementary two-way blends such as the Extase/Siskin mix already tested and will look at Mayflower/Siskin as well. There are also commercially available two-way blends being marketed by Cope now, with Apex and Summit on the market. Testing these against the monoculture components would also be valuable to judge the level of complementarity and provide evidence of improved performance from added diversity.
Organic Arable will fund seed costs for the network and provide some in-house field assessment albeit at a reduced scale form the original LiveWheat project, although if funding can be found, the ORC crops team may continue to gather more extensive data on field performance. We see this work as vital to providing real evidence of those varieties that are suited to organic production and hope the work can also help inform the seed merchants of the best varieties to commit to as seed crops, and to help breeders assess the performance of their varieties under true "low-input" environments to assess for traits such as nutrient scavenging and weed suppression, and as importantly tolerance against climate extremes, particularly spring droughts that have become a common feature of the British climate in recent years.
If you would like to take part in the variety testing network please contact either myself or Andrew. The trials involve drilling and harvesting strips of two or three varieties, including the common control Siskin to provide reliable comparison across farms and years. This work showcases the continued commitment of Organic Arable to R&D for our members to help support the organic arable farming community.