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How more resilient genetics will keep UK sweetcorn production fit for the future

Collaboration between the UK’s largest sweetcorn producer and leading vegetable plant breeder Elsoms is helping fast-track the development of traits to make the crop fit for the future.

Identifying sweetcorn varieties with greater resilience and the ability to deliver high yields of top quality cobs in an increasingly diverse range of challenging growing conditions is fast becoming one of the biggest priorities for Barfoot Farms Ltd.

With some 1600ha (4000 acres) of its total 3200ha (8000 acres) of production down to sweetcorn, the reliability of the crop moving forward is absolutely key to the company’s future success, says crop production manager James Vawser.

“I honestly think genetics is one of the few tools we have left in the box to meet the challenges of the future. We’ve lost so much chemistry in recent years, environmental demands are growing fast and we’ve got the effects of climate change to deal with too.

“Better early season vigour, resistance to threats such as corn borer and better drought tolerance are just some of the areas where closer working with plant breeders could deliver real benefits.

“For us that means looking at the best options out there, being prepared to put resource into field trials to find the ones that suit our locations and conditions the best and providing real feedback on what we are going to need in the future.”

Partnership identifies best varieties for the future

A joint partnership project with UK plant breeder Elsoms is already flagging up varieties that establish better in colder soils, hold their quality longer in the critical harvest period and have greater consistency of production across very different types of growing season.

“It works both ways,” James explains. “The more information we can provide Elsoms with on how varieties perform in the field, the more real world data they have and the quicker we can get varieties that have the traits we require to be successful in the future.

“We’ve already identified several varieties that we probably wouldn’t have automatically chosen before and early commercial results are looking promising.”

Sweetcorn is a serious business for Barfoots with a heritage of growing the crop stretching back 35 years, James explains.

“It’s currently around 50% of our production area with the remainder made up of courgettes, tender stem broccoli, pumpkins, asparagus and dwarf beans alongside an arable rotation of cereals including winter wheat and spring barley.

“We also produce forage maize and rye for our own AD plant which also provides digestate for use as an organic fertiliser on the sweetcorn.

“Most of the land used for the sweetcorn will have a cover crop over the winter with rye, legumes and phacelia in it. This is grazed by sheep until February before being sprayed off when it has a bit of leaf on it.

“We’ll spray it again to reduce any potential weed competition to the sweetcorn just before land preparation which is carried out by a Sumo Trio, power harrow or spring-tine cultivator, followed by our Vaderstad Tempo precision drill.

“Early crops are grown under bio-degradable polythene. Our Horizon strip-till machine is also becoming a stable part of our cultivation strategy for many our crops.

“Drilling takes place from the end of March to the start of June and this allows us to harvest from mid July to the second week of October, although harvest was generally two weeks earlier than normal this year.

“Around 60% of the nutrition for the crops is provided by the digestate from the AD plant and, as much of our land is rented, our aim is to return it in better condition than when we took it on.

“Rooks are probably our biggest pest after the withdrawal of the seed dressing Mesurol so we’re left with bird scarers to deal with them and European corn borer moth is also an increasing issue since we’ve lost so many insecticides in the past few years.

“Again we’re left with largely cultural controls for these such as trapping. When it comes to weed control the cover crops help but we’re also looking at inter-row cultivations and strip-tilling following the loss of Calaris.”

“We’re forever looking at different ways of doing things and the pressure to do this is only going to increase in the future which is precisely where the focus on genetics fits.”

Stronger plants without quality compromise

Elsoms’ sweetcorn crop manager Michelle Burton says the challenge for breeders is to maintain the quality the UK market demands, whilst making plants tougher and more resilient to adverse growing conditions.

“With a diminishing number of management options to deal with problems as they arise in the field, the healthier a plant can remain without agronomic intervention the better.

“Rapid establishment, good cob set and a strong root structure to cope with drought conditions and avoid lodging are all important features moving forward, but quality cannot can be sacrificed in the pursuit of these.

“In markets such as Japan and the US, super sweet bi-colour varieties are where the demand is but in the UK the most popular varieties are still the traditional yellow cobs. Eating quality is important, but it’s still a very visually-driven crop.

“All of our genetics come from the Southern hemisphere and we have access to a huge diversity of traits.

“Working with sweetcorn specialists Snowy River in Australia, for example, is allowing us to tap into a new seam of genetics that are working very well in the UK as growing conditions change.”

Stand-out varieties from the trials carried out with Barfoots in the South of England are the new first early varieties Samson and ZHY5022OD, she says.

“Both varieties are relatively new to the UK but we have seen very promising results over the last couple of years.

“The work we have done with Barfoots this year has confirmed our data for the varieties particularly with regard to yields, resilience and the all important pack-out.

“ZHY5022OD is a 72-day variety well suited to UK conditions with exceptional field emergence allied to strong early vigour and rapid maturity leading to very robust, strong plants.

“Good disease resistance is complimented by a wide harvest window with heavy yields and excellent pack-out from well-filled ears and large dark yellow kernels.

ZHY5022OD Sweetcorn Variety

“Samson is a 73-day variety with excellent vigour and strong plant characteristics, being roughly 4 to 5 days behind 5022. Again, it’s got high yields from well-filled cobs and performs well in UK conditions.

Samson Sweetcorn Variety

Varieties raising the bar

Harvest window is one of the features of the Snowy River varieties in the Barfoot trials that is most impressing James Vawser,

“With the difficult conditions we can experience at harvest now, that ability of a variety to hold on for 3 – 5 days without losing condition is important, particularly as we’re seeing this drop to 1-2 days in some of our other varieties.

“You need that flexibility when things can now change so quickly and pressure on equipment and resources can rapidly catch you out.

“The other important benefit we’re seeing is how these varieties cope with a wide range of difficult growing conditions. The trials have taken place across several years of widely varying growing conditions yet they’ve always held up well and delivered high yields.

“We’re aiming for an average 30,000 cobs/ha (12,000 cobs/acre) and the Snowy River varieties have been heading towards 40,000 cobs/ha (16,000 cobs/acre) in some instances which is very impressive.”

Elsoms’ willingness to invest in full long-row trials for Barfoots has also impressed James.

“You can only learn so much from short rows but a long row trial helps you learn precisely how a variety is going to perform in your location with your equipment and your production system. It’s invaluable information.

“Genetics are definitely going to play a greater role in our management decisions moving forward and this type of relationship with a breeder is exactly what we need to make the right choices in the future.

“The more we are able to identify the challenges we face, the better we can understand the traits we need to address these and the more the varieties with these will undoubtedly feature in our commercial operations.”

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