The wet summer and autumn of 2012 which is still in the memories of all farmers, has proved ideal growing conditions for one species of grass - Timothy.

According to David Johnston of AFBI Loughgall, the grass breeding programme develops new forage grasses which are high yielding and persistent under local conditions. An extensive portfolio of varieties to suit all conditions is available through Barenbrug UK Ltd, and these are widely used on local farms.

He explains; "While the main grass breeding effort at AFBI is on perennial ryegrass, a small programme is also carried out on Timothy which is a very important constituent in grass seed mixtures, especially valuable on heavy or peaty land. It is very winter hardy surviving even the coldest conditions and at upland sites can make a useful contribution to spring growth for grazing. When used in mixtures with perennial ryegrass and white clover, Timothy is known to improve sward palatability and its growth rhythm, which is different to perennial, helps to maximise sward production.

"Maximum yield from Timothy swards is achieved under high rainfall and during the very wet conditions which we experienced in 2012 the yield recorded from a replicated trial of 10 varieties at Loughgall was 20.0 tonnes dry matter per hectare. This compared with 15.0 tonnes per hectare from the same trial in 2011 when there was less rainfall." David said Timothy is an ideal grass variety for Fermanagh growing conditions.

"In Figure 1 the yield of Timothy plots, cut 5 times per season at Loughgall, is compared in 2011 and 2012 and shows the higher performance in a year when there was more rainfall.

"While Timothy is considered as a very useful grass for hay making, unfortunately it has been a much maligned species when used in silage swards. This is because it is often associated with producing stemmy, unpalatable forage especially in mid summer. This poor reputation for low quality can usually be associated with early heading varieties which were used for many years in seeds mixtures because of their low price.

"The AFBI Timothy breeding programme was established with novel material obtained from Scandinavia. While this new material proved to be very interesting in terms of high yield and excellent winter hardiness, it lacked spring growth. Subsequently, in order to improve this and include other characteristics which are important for the Northern Ireland market, crosses had to be made with other Timothy varieties which were better suited to local conditions. "The breeding objectives for Timothy are quite similar to those of perennial ryegrass with attention paid to total yield, spring and autumn growth, disease resistance and herbage quality. Particular effort is made to ensure that selected plants which are used for crossing have few re-growth heads in mid-summer, resulting in varieties which have better palatability and digestibility. Close attention has also to be given to selecting for improved seed production ability as this is an essential requirement to ensure that seed can be multiplied at a competitive price. The crossing and selection programme used at Loughgall for Timothy is very similar to that used for ryegrass with initial selection as spaced plants followed by evaluation in small plots.

The first new Timothy varieties to be produced by AFBI are at an advanced stage of testing at Loughgall and also in Recommended List trials. One very promising variety, Barrett, has already been added to the Recommended List for England and Wales and is being multiplied for commercial release by Barenbrug UK Ltd. Barrett is particularly late heading (19th June) with high yields and is very compatible with perennial ryegrasses. It is anticipated that Barrett will be a very useful component in forage mixtures in Northern Ireland in the future.