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Below-ground protection from new grass endophyte

Below-ground protection from new grass endophyte

A Canterbury pasture plant breeding company is set to release a major advance in the fight against a multi-million dollar farming problem, insect pests.

Cropmark Seeds Ltd has managed to endow its pasture varieties with an endophyte “GrubOUT® U2” that gives grass grasses greater persistence under insect attack, above and below ground.

“It’s perhaps the greatest advance in plant breeding in 20 years, and it will have a dramatic effect on our farming systems and production” said Cropmark Seeds Marketing Manager Garry Begley.

The key to this breakthrough is the phrase “below ground”.

Other endophytes on the market confer limited insect resistance, but not down in the root zone. Up until now, two of New Zealand’s big pasture pests — grass grub and black beetle larvae— and probably many more have been enjoying a free lunch down there. Their root chewing dramatically shortens the life of pasture plants, costing our farmers hundreds of millions of dollars every year in lost production and re-sowing costs.

Cropmark markets a range of pasture varieties from its programme of crossing ryegrasses with fescues and other species. Early in this inter-species breeding programme, started 16 years ago, it found that some European strains of meadow fescue host an endophyte, Neotyphodium uncinatum, which contains a family of alkaloids called lolines that move to all parts of the plant including, importantly, the roots.

Insects do not like lolines. Cropmark figured that a pasture hosting lolines would have a good level of insect deterrence in, as well as the upper parts of the plant, the root zone — something that had so far eluded plant breeders because ryegrass, is not a natural host for either Neotyphodium uncinatum or lolines.

The company successfully introduced the Neotyphodium uncinatum endophyte into its inter-species pasture varieties, and set about proving an increased level of insect tolerance in all zones of the plant, including the roots. For years, it rigorously tested every element of the endophyte-grass relationship to ensure that the combination indeed delivers improved protection from insect pests, improved pasture persistence and no ill-effects on sheep, cattle or deer — or their production performance.

The insect tolerance testing focused on the insect pests that cause the most damage to our pastures: grass grub, black beetle, Argentine stem weevil and porina caterpillar, as well as the red headed pasture cockchafer which is a serious pest in Australia but which is also found in localized parts of New Zealand.

“GrubOUT® U2 endophyte will help protect the host grass from attack by these four major insects and more, and result in significantly improved pasture persistence,” said Mr Begley.

“We have seen dramatic results in the Waikato with black beetle, where all the other endophyte-grass combinations were wiped out after 18 months, while the GrubOUT® U2 grasses were virtually unaffected. And we have seen similar results in Darfield with severe infestations of grass grub.

The company conducted animal safety and performance trials in the field for two years in summer and autumn comparing the performance of lambs grazing GrubOUT® U2 with Ultra AR1. No ill effects were noted, and the liveweight gains of the lambs grazing the GrubOUT® pasture were the same as those grazing the Ultra AR1. Ultra is the highest yielding grass in the National Forage Variety Trials, and AR1 is animal safe.

“It has been pioneering science that has required rigorous testing in the laboratory, and out in the field on farms throughout New Zealand and in Australia,” said Mr Begley.

Meanwhile, lolines have been the focus of global research because of their insecticidal properties and the consensus is that it appears safe to animals. Indeed, grazing animals even seem to like it, readily grazing it right down, in stark contrast to some of the other endophyte-grass combinations alongside it in Cropmark trials.

It should be noted that even though the lolines act as a feeding deterrent, GrubOUT® pastures will host insect pests as there are alternative food sources, above ground and in the soil for insects to live on, such as weed grasses, clovers and other organic matter.

At the Darfield trial, for example, populations of 500 grass grub larvae per metre were counted which is is significant — 300 larvae per metre is considered a very high infestation — but the GrubOUT® U2 endophyte continued to act as a feeding deterrent to the grubs, protecting its host grass plants.

But Mr Begley pointed out GrubOUT® is not a cure-all.

“We cannot expect total protection from insect damage. Insects can, and will adapt. But persistence under insect attack is markedly improved.”


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