Hardy rye-wheat cross steps into the future

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Related tags: Wheat, Cereal

A hardy winter cereal crop could soon be a common sight in European fields as scientists in France present the fruits of 30 years of labour in the labs.

Triticale, created in a laboratory environment by crossing wheat with rye, is today producing yields equivalent to, or better than, those for wheat, say researchers at INRA, France's National Institute for Agronomic Research.

"Triticale currently represents a good compromise between the hardiness of rye and the yield potential and nutritional qualities of wheat,"​ said Annaig Bouguennec, INRA's researcher in charge of the triticale programme.

Triticale, an artificial species produced by interspecies crossing, is derived from crossing two other cereals widely cultivated in Europe: wheat and rye. Its name is a combination of the Latin names Triticum for wheat and Secale for rye.

"INRA became interested in triticale in 1970 under an initiative by Yvonne Cauderon, director of research and a great specialist in interspecies hybridisation,"​ explained Michel Bernard, responsible for cereal molecular genetics at INRA's​ plant breeding station in Clermont Ferrand in central France. He recalled that the scientists 'quickly realised that triticale, in spite of its shortcomings, had great potential.'

Clercal, the first variety registered in France, started life in INRA's laboratories in Clermont Ferrand in 1983. "As soon as we elaborated this variety, we achieved considerable progress,"​ explained Bernard. "With only one variety, we moved from yields in our tests of between 20 and 40 quintals per hectare [q/ha], for varieties that had been developed in other countries, to yields of 70 q/ha."

Since then, progress has continued and gradually the shortcomings of triticale have been overcome.

"We succeeded, more particularly, in reducing the height of the plants, giving them better resistance to lodging and obtaining varieties [that were] easier to thresh, with better yields,"​ said Annaig Bouguennec. "Triticale currently represents a good compromise between the hardiness of rye and the yield potential and nutritional qualities of wheat. Rye gave triticale strong resistance to cold and disease. Other characteristics of triticale are that it establishes itself well and it is simpler to use by growers, especially in livestock regions where cereal growing is not a priority."

Triticale was first developed in the Massif Central region in France, where production is for local consumption by animals, but where it has quickly expanded to larger areas.

The cultivation of triticale then spread to Brittany, again as animal feed, which has led, in the space of a few years, to western France becoming France's main producer region for the new cereal. In the last two or three years, large-scale farming areas have in turn been discovering the benefits of triticale.

Today, the crop covers 270,000 ha in France and grain harvesting represents more than one-third of total production. French varieties have also been developed for export, with Lemaire Deffontaines, for instance, selling its Bienvenu variety in Algeria, Italy, Ireland, and Spain.

The bulk of the production of triticale is currently used for animal feed. As stated by Arvalis, a technical institute financed by cereal producers, triticale is characterised by a concentration of total nitrogenous matter close to that of wheat, a concentration of lysine distinctly greater than that found in all other cereals and a concentration of proteins at least equal to that of wheat, which gives it a good overall nutritive value - more particularly for feeding pigs, cattle and sheep.

Suitable for human consumption, INRA reports that a handful of companies are starting to produce specialist bread using the triticale flour.

As global wheat prices hit the high zone with demand outstripping supplies could triticale be the future? A report this week from investment bank Goldman Sachs says that shortfalls in Asian and Eastern European wheatproduction relative to previous expectations, along with expectations of stronger US wheat exports to China, boosted wheat prices from mid-month lows. However, by month's end, an improved weather outlook for the US winter wheat crop and stronger than-expected wheat deliveries into storage marginally moderated the tight wheat outlook, 'dampening wheat prices' and resulting in negative wheat returns for the month.

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