Global demand for protein to feed livestock in intensive agricultural systems has never been so enormous and concern that climate change of two degrees Celsius will cruel production of certain protein producing legumes is something scientists in Italy take seriously.
This past summer delivered prolonged dry weather and record high temperatures to northern Italy, causing legumes like soybean to abort flowers in parts of the country.
Another concern is the spread of the Asian bug Halyomorpha halis, first reported in 2012, and which thrives in areas of soybean production – with the potential to reduce yield.
World demand for feedstock now outstrips that for oil and while soybean production in places like Brazil and Argentina helps supply Italy with protein, Asia continues to consume much of the surplus.
To increase the economic feasibility of legumes for protein in Italian ‘uni-feed’ – the key to milk production in intensive dairy systems – researchers from the country’s Council for Agricultural Research and Analysis of Agricultural Economics (CREA) estimate the need for a sharp increase in production through genetic gain of both summer sown irrigated soybean and rain fed Faba beans – unless there is a better option in the form of alternative legumes.
Field pea to the rescue?
Scientists from CREA say Western Australia's work with narrow-leafed lupins leads the world in alternative legume production. Meanwhile, co-operative work involving Australia, and a consortium of countries that include Italy, France, Spain, Canada and the US, is proving that field peas hold great promise and certainly will find a place in northern Italian feedstock.
There is a lot to be said for field peas, providing higher levels of protein and fewer greenhouse emissions compared to cows fed on a diet of corn and potatoes. However, historic varieties with long tendrils tend to lay upon the ground making them difficult to harvest without a ‘pea plucker’ attached to a combine.
Producers of field peas have already benefited from current research, says Dr Garry Rosewarne at Victoria’s Department of Economic Development, Horsham, with new varieties exhibiting semi-dwarf and semi-leafless traits with shatter-resistant pods and improved standing ability enabling a more efficient harvest.
Seednet’s commercial manager Simon Crane says these new varieties – which began with Kaspa followed by PBA Twilight, PBA Gunyah, PBA Wharton and now PBA Butler – have improved resistance to frost-borne bacterial blight.
Frost tolerance is a desired attribute for Italian growers who plant field peas in autumn rather than in the spring, as they do in France, says Dr Paolo Annicchiarico, coordinator of CREA’s plant breeding program.
"In the past 15 years we have seen incredible change in this plant," he said during the recent dairy expo at Cremona in Lombardy. "When I first studied field peas they lay like a carpet on the ground. Today we have varieties that stand without lodging and which can be harvested for grain like soybeans."
The best parent varieties, selecting for shorter and stockier plants with fewer leaves, were gathered from all over the globe with the first crosses taking place in Italy and Spain. From there some of these precious plants were delivered to the Agriculture Victoria Research Division, Horsham.
To accelerate genetic change the most promising varieties were sent to Janine Croser’s laboratory at The University of West Australia where they are treated with hormones and grown in climatic chambers to deliver five generations in just one year. The seeds from those plants reproduce well in the commercial reality of a farmer’s paddock
The Kaspa variety of field pea, released in 2002, was the first semi-dwarf, semi-leafless field pea in Australia and showed a significant leap in yield potential through the combination of shatter resistant pods, improved standing ability, early vigour and a higher quality seed according to Dr Rosewarne.
Pulse Breeding Australia released PBA Butler, the last variety in the current research ‘pipeline’, this year, with seed bulk up crops in southern NSW, Victoria, SA and WA. PBA Butler also has the more rounded Kaspa-type grain with less dimples for easier splitting, for the human consumption market and certainly survives a dry season, which is what Italian producers of feedstock are looking for.
PBA Butler will be available to growers through Seednet from next year. future research will involve the private sector.