RAGT’s spring barley breeding programme delivered the world’s most successful cereal in RGT Planet, but the team is not resting on its laurels.
RGT Planet has been described as a once in a lifetime variety, the sort of cross that every plant breeder wants to achieve before they retire.
A global success story, the variety has a presence in almost 60 countries, making it the most widely grown cereal variety in the world.
Granted, spring barleys tend to ‘travel’ better than other cereals such as wheat. But RGT Planet truly is exceptional.
The variety, which was promoted to the Recommended List in 2015 has been the biggest success for RAGT’s UK-led spring barley breeding operation.
Its consistent performance across widely differing soil types and climates has made it a hit with growers, maltsters and brewers across Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia.
These characteristics coupled with strong agronomics mean RGT Planet remains one of the most widely grown spring barleys in the UK. It is also one of only three on the RL with full brewing approval, thanks to its good grain quality.
It has the highest specific weight and best screenings figures of the approved brewing varieties on the list, helped by its good resistance to lodging and brackling, and the fact it is earlier to ripen than its main competitors. End users also know the variety well and how it will perform.
RGT Planet was bred by Steve Klose, RAGT Seeds spring barley breeder, and appeared on the RL three years before he retired.
Pauline Lesniarek, who took over Steve’s role at the start of 2019 says: “RGT Planet has been an amazing variety – Steve certainly went out on a high.
“We would love to reproduce another RGT Planet, but it is exceptional. It is probably more realistic to develop several varieties to give growers the best opportunity to meet a range of markets wherever they farm.”
Pauline and the spring barley breeding team are tasked with breeding varieties for the UK and other important markets such as France, Germany, Denmark and the Czech Republic, as well as numerous smaller markets worldwide.
Brewing and distilling are the key markets – the latter is a particularly large market in the UK. Dual purpose varieties that suit both roles are a key target for the UK, but there is also a big market for brewing-only types in the rest of Europe.
RGT Asteroid is the nearest the team has got to breeding a variety that suits all three UK markets – brewing, malt distilling and grain distilling.
It was promoted to the RL in 2018 but due to inconsistent results in official tests never realised its potential and was removed after 2020.
However, the variety remains mains of interest for grain distilling, to its high diastatic power, and the fact it outyields the only fully approved variety on the RL for this market. It was seven points ahead on the 2020/21 list.
“It is good to see RGT Asteroid being used in the UK,” says Pauline. “It is a competitive variety in other markets such as Spain. It has good quality, with high specific weight and low screenings and good yield, even today.”
Several promising new varieties are in the pipeline, including RGT Starlight, a Recommended List candidate. This brewing-type barley has similar quality to RGT Planet and Laureate. Hot water extract in official testing is 316, compared with 314 for RGT Planet and 315 for Laureate, and the variety is higher yielding, at 104% of controls.
“RGT Starlight looks very well suited for the UK,” says Pauline. “It has performed well in official trials, both in terms of yield and disease resistance.”
Four more varieties, three for brewing and one dual purpose, stood out in internal trials across the UK and are now their second year of National List trials (NL2).
One in particular has produced very high yields (107% of controls) of good quality grain in its first year of official trials and looks very well suited to the UK brewing market. “It is near to the top of the group in yield and is very promising, with some very interesting characteristics,” says Pauline.
Another produces almost as much yield but has a particularly good hot water extract figure, one of the main quality traits that breeders look for, suggesting a very good brewing yield.
Whether these or many of the other lines further back in the pipeline will be the next RGT Planet remains to be seen. But all have the potential to deliver new and improved traits to meet the ever-more demanding needs of growers, merchants and end users.
Breeding tomorrow’s top spring barleys
Spring barley breeder Pauline Lesniarek provides a brief overview of RAGT’s spring barley breeding programme that has produced the world’s favourite variety, RGT Planet.
RAGT’s UK-based spring barley breeding programme supplies varieties mainly for this country, France, Germany, Denmark and the Czech Republic, and conducts trials in and supplies other countries worldwide.
Brewing and distilling are the key markets. Dual-purpose (distilling and brewing) varieties are bred primarily for the UK, and brewing types for Europe.
RAGT’s breeding programme works closely with seed companies and end users to introduce improved or new traits efficiently and effectively to meet market needs.
Screening for traits
Molecular markers that give access to the DNA level have become a key tool for screening early plant material for specific traits, such as disease resistance or GN trait (see below), speeding selection.
Double haploid techniques can also be used in spring barley, meaning breeders can fix a plant genome in one generation, rather than several generations of self-pollination.
Spring barley’s relatively short lifespan also helps. Germination to harvest takes about six months, so two generations can be grown in the field in a single year – one in the northern hemisphere and another south of the equator, chiefly New Zealand.
This so call counter-season nursery technique enables conventional pedigree breeding to match the speed of the more expensive double-haploid system.
While the spring barley programme is UK based, all new lines are trialled at the same time in the key countries mentioned above. They are then selected for further development in specific regions and countries depending on their performances and market specifications.
It goes without saying that RAGT’s spring barley pipeline will continue to develop important traits to benefit growers, maltsters and brewers, including yield and key agronomics, such as disease resistance and straw strength, and of course grain quality.
For the UK, the focus is on non-GN (glycosidic nitrile) varieties, which are now key for end-users, particularly distillers, to avoid the production of ethyl carbamate, a potentially harmful breakdown product of GN that is catalysed by copper in the stills.
At the early generation stage it is important to identify lines that are exhibiting undesirable characteristics early and remove them from the breeding process. The genotyping lab enables access to molecular marker data and, in conjunction with statistical modelling, helps the breeder to estimate the genetic value of the material.
The analytic labs at Ickleton supports all of RAGT’s cereal breeding teams across Europe. For assessing barley malting quality RAGT uses a Skalar analyser. This measures various traits such as soluble protein, FAN (free amino nitrogen), beta-glucan and diastatic power in the malted grain and the wort from malted barley.
All of these traits are important in selecting a barley variety that will have the right qualities needed by the brewing and distilling industries.