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24 August, 2015 - 15:24 By Kate Sweeney

Genomics boost for livestock feed crop

Cattle in a field of hybrid Brachiaria cultivar Mulato II in the Colombian Llanos. Credit CIAT.

Genomics technology from the East of England is being used to boost livestock productivity by improving the feed crop in central Africa and Latin America.

The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) in Norwich is working with partners in the UK, Colombia and Kenya to leverage expertise in forage breeding for animal nutrition.

The partners’ cutting-edge genomics and phenomics technologies allied to the collective knowledge base will accelerate the improvement of Brachiaria – a vital livestock feed crop in the target territories.

More than 80 per cent of the world’s agricultural land is for grazing to support the ever increasing demand for meat and milk for an expanding and growing urban population, while boosting the income of rural families. The scarcity of grass feed is a worrying constraint standing in the way of this livestock productivity.

Some Brachiaria species have been cultivated as forage grasses, providing nutrition for ruminants across the globe. As well as nutrition, the grasses have desirable genetic characteristics linked to drought and pest-resistance and adaptation to poor and acidic soils.

Over the past 25 years, several African species of Brachiaria have been used commercially as forages in the tropics; the most widely sown forage plant in tropical America.

With its combined high nutritional value and stress resistant properties, the Brachiaria breeding programme at CIAT is crossing different species to produce new varieties with superior traits.

A particular Brachiaria species, B. decumbens, grants resistance to aluminium, which has a high concentration in acid soils. Most low-income livestock keepers live in tropical grasslands in countries in central Africa with great grazing potential, but are vulnerable due to the growing problem of increasing acid soils and longer extreme weather seasons.

TGAC is working to identify high aluminium-resistant genes and chromosome regions in the Brachiaria genome, contributing to the international breeding programmes developing the new generation of forage crops. This genomic approach to forage breeding, will help to produce varieties with high nutritional value under physical stresses, such as low soil fertility.

Strengthening and improving livestock forage-systems will contribute to the sustainability of food production, while helping to reduce carbon dioxide and mitigating the effects of climate change.

The international team of scientists will apply next generation sequencing (NGS) technologies and genomics to help improve forage breeding by reducing the length of the Brachiaria breeding cycle.

Ultimately, these approaches could be applied to other crop species. Future developments of the CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) Research Programmes will provide opportunities to leverage UK investment to support the internationalisation and expansion of UK agri-science.

Project lead, Sarah Ayling at TGAC, said: “Our scientists are working towards a common goal of increasing sustainable agriculture, and collaborations like this allow us to exploit our combined expertise to contribute to the important issue of food security.

“This project will deepen our interactions with international centres in Africa and Latin America, and improve forage breeding for livestock production.”

• PHOTOGRAPH: Cattle in a field of hybrid Brachiaria cultivar Mulato II in the Colombian Llanos. Credit CIAT.

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