Creating better forages & more productive farms
Efforts to increase farm productivity often focus on improving pasture yields to ensure that farmers have ample feed for their livestock.
However, beyond some point, livestock simply cannot digest ever-increasing volumes of pasture forages quickly enough to enhance productivity. Moreover, unlike farmers overseas who use feedlots for animal production, New Zealand farmers depend primarily on grazing. Thus, to increase productivity to desired levels in a pasture-based system, farmers must rely on continuous improvement of forage quality. Animal production and health are also directly linked to aspects of forage quality and include considerations such as nutritional value, toxicity and disease and pest resistance. In addition, improving forage quality can reduce the environmental footprint of grazing animals by lowering the amount of waste as a result of improved nutrition.
Five years ago, AgResearch established an innovative, multidisciplinary Section to create a pipeline of new ideas that would address the challenge of improving forages by taking new biotechnological innovations from the laboratory back to the farm. Led by Dr Chris Jones, the Forage Biotechnology Section now consists of scientists with skills ranging from fundamental science through to highly applied biotechnology. This Section primarily focuses on the basic biology of forage genetics as well as functional genomics, which is a molecular approach that investigates gene functions and their interactions. Having such diverse capability in a single location, alongside a team of plant breeders, is unique and very valuable for New Zealand. Notably, the advances made in plant biotechnology and the associated methods are now materially assisting in the development of new cultivars through classical breeding approaches. The application of biotechnological techniques can assist with traditional plant breeding by understanding more of the interactions among genes and complex biosynthetic pathways.
Through developing such forage biotechnological capability, AgResearch scientists have kept up with international work on plant biotechnology in that they have now made significant and tangible progress under containment conditions. Promises and vision have, in many cases, become reality. A good part of this achievement has involved the identification and insertion of genes into forage species that express new and potentially very valuable traits. At the same time though, it is fully appreciated that for several different reasons, New Zealand currently does not wish to release such transgenic material into the environment. The point here however, is that should this position ever change, then the opportunity will exist to use the transgenic technologies to potentially accelerate further and very much broaden the opportunities and progress being made via classical breeding.
The examples of the work that follow are just a few of the fascinating challenges that these researchers have been and are, working on.
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