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Less flowering, better farming the goal of Otago research

Wednesday 25 September 2019 12:06pm

Lynette Brownfield and Richard Macknight image
Dr Lynette Brownfield and Associate Professor Richard Macknight have received almost $1 million from MBIE for a research project aiming to improve ryegrass for livestock feed.

A quintessential Kiwi landscape usually includes green pastures dotted with livestock munching on healthy, vibrant grass.

Those green fields are generally full of ryegrass, and in late spring the ryegrass flowers. When it does, it is no longer as nutritious for the livestock feeding on it.

A research project from the University of Otago’s Department of Biochemistry is aiming to develop a ryegrass that doesn’t flower on-farm. That project, headed by Associate Professor Richard Macknight and Dr Lynette Brownfield, was this month awarded $999,999 by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) Endeavour Fund ‘Smart Ideas’ programme.

The research could ultimately lead to a far more productive and efficient New Zealand farming landscape, Associate Professor Macknight says.

“There have been recent advances in our genetic understanding of how flowering is controlled, and we are using this knowledge as a starting point to discover the key genes required to prevent ryegrass flowering on the farm.”

The successful development of ryegrass cultivars that don’t flower in field conditions will extend peak production, enabling farmers to utilise current farmland more efficiently, Associate Professor Macknight says. That will increase productivity, making the reduction of land use more financially viable, thereby reducing environmental impact.

“If a ryegrass variety that we help develop ends up being grown by New Zealand farmers and it helps farming become more sustainable then that would be tremendous - that’s the ultimate goal,” he says.

The problem with suppressing flowering is if the grass doesn’t flower at all, it won’t produce the seeds for farmers to plant, Dr Brownfield says.

“So to get around this problem we are aiming to develop a plant that can be induced to flower for seed production under artificial conditions, but will not flower when grown on New Zealand farms.”

While the potential benefits are significant to New Zealand, its environment and its farming sector, the reality is such research needs serious backing to succeed. The Endeavour Fund has provided that backing, Associate Professor Macknight says.

“Without this funding we couldn’t undertake this research, so we are certainly grateful MBIE has recognised the potential of this research. Now, the work begins.”

The Endeavour Fund

The Endeavour Fund is administered by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. It plays a unique role in the science system through an open, contestable process with a focus on both research excellence and a broad range of impacts.

The University of Otago was this year awarded more than $38 million from the fund – making the University the largest Endeavour Fund recipient in the country.

Read more information about the award

For more information, contact:

Associate Professor Richard Macknight
Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago
Tel +64 3 479 5149
Email richard.macknight@otago.ac.nz

Liane Topham-Kindley
Senior Communications Adviser
Mob +64 21 279 9065
Email liane.topham-kindley@otago.ac.nz