DLF digs deeper for drought resistance

Drought 2018 was very severe – will tomorrow’s varieties meet the challenges?

Farmers and organic farmers in particular will not easily forget 2018. Drought and heat had devastating impacts on forage crops – and finances. Will we see more of such extreme weather conditions, and how do we secure our production in the future?

Breeders and researchers at DLF are quite concerned about these questions. If any, they need to consider future scenarios when developing new varieties. Three years ago, DLF built a facility called Radimax together with three other breeding companies; Nordic Seed, Sejet Plant Breeding, Danespo, and three Danish universities; Copenhagen, Aarhus, and Aalborg, where plants can be selected for deep rooting.

Crops need deep roots to continue growth if spring is struck by drought as it was the case in 2017 and 2018. In this situation, seedlings with only shallow roots will be set back dramatically as the topsoil dries out. Plants with deep roots, on the contrary, will have access to soil layers saturated with water and will be able to maintain growth. In the facility, plants are subject to a very intense drought gradient and at the same time their root growth is monitored by multispectral imaging through plexiglass tubes installed under each plant row.

So far DLF has tested 50 forage and 50 turf varieties and more than 250 perennial ryegrass breeding lines in RadiMax. These tests have shown great genetic differences that enable us to start developing varieties with deeper roots. In order to expand the usage of RadiMax, the measurements are used in genomic selection, which allows breeders to predict the root potential of any new ryegrass line based on a simple DNA test. Of outmost importance, researchers discovered that turf grass root profiles are almost similar to that of forage grasses, despite the fact that turf grasses are much more compact and was cut at 6 cm height throughout the experiment. This means that below ground genetics have a major say when it comes to root traits and it stimulates the encouraging belief that it will be possible to create genetic improvements in root growth and drought tolerance.