Triticale gets the best of both worlds — wheat and rye

Triticale is a hardy and new winter cereal crop created in a laboratory environment by crossing wheat with rye. After years of effort over a 30-year period, plant breeders, in particular those at INRA (France’s National Institute for Agronomic Research), have succeeded in making this species very attractive to farmers. Indeed, Triticale is today producing yields equivalent to, or better than, those for wheat.

Annaig Bouguennec, INRA’s researcher in charge of the triticale programme, explains: “Triticale currently represents a good compromise between the hardiness of rye and the yield potential and nutritional qualities of wheat.”

Triticale is derived from crossing two other cereals widely cultivated in Europe: wheat and rye. Its name is a combination of the Latin names Triticum for wheat and Secale for rye. It was developed by scientists and is one of the rare artificial species produced by interspecies crossing, which today are the subject large-scale development in agriculture. However, it took great perseverance by researchers to obtain such results (see box).

Hybridisation between two species

French plant breeders, more particularly at INRA, had confidence in this new species and succeeded in creating triticale varieties that are as attractive to growers as soft wheat or barley.

“INRA became interested in triticale in 1970 under an initiative by Yvonne Cauderon, director of research and a great specialist in interspecies hybridisation,” explains Michel Bernard, who is today responsible for cereal molecular genetics at INRA’s plant breeding station in Clermont Ferrand (in Central France). At the time, he himself was a young plant breeder and, in 1971, was asked by INRA to set up the French programme for the selective breeding of triticale. “We quickly realised that triticale, in spite of its shortcomings, had great potential,” recalls Bernard. “It is a plant that above all benefits from being very hardy.” This is how the story of triticale started in France.

From Clercal’s debut to Triticale’s double yields

The first variety registered in France, Clercal, started life in INRA’s laboratories in Clermont Ferrand in 1983. “As soon as we elaborated this variety, we achieved considerable progress,” explains Bernard. “With only one variety, we moved from yields in our tests of between 20 and 40 quintals per hectare [q/ha], for varieties that had been developed in other countries, to yields of 70 q/ha.”

Since then, progress has continued and gradually the shortcomings of triticale have been overcome. “The first varieties were too tall, prone to lodging, their grain tended to scald, they were not visually attractive, and they were also difficult to thresh,” notes Philippe Lonnet, plant breeder at Florimond Desprez. At an early stage, private-sector plant breeders showed a keen interest in triticale, as is the case with three companies in Northern France — Florimond Desprez, Lemaire Deffontaines and Serasem — and RAGT in Southern France.

A good compromise between yield potential and hardiness

“We succeeded, more particularly, in reducing the height of the plants, giving them better resistance to lodging and obtaining varieties [that were] easier to thresh, with better yields,” says Annaig Bouguennec, R&D engineer (at INRA) in charge of the triticale programme. “Triticale currently represents a good compromise between the hardiness of rye and the yield potential and nutritional qualities of wheat. Rye gave triticale strong resistance to cold and disease. Other characteristics of triticale are that it establishes itself well and it is simpler to use by growers, especially in livestock regions where cereal growing is not a priority.”

The selection has borne fruit since the French triticale catalogue now consists of over 40 varieties. The recent arrival of high-yield varieties — Tricolor, Trilogy, Trinidad, Tremplin, and the two very productive newcomers Bienvenu and Bellac — have strengthened further the interest in triticale.

Triticale suited to all production regions

Triticale was first developed in the Massif Central region (in Central France), where production is for local consumption by animals, but where it has quickly expanded to larger areas. The cultivation of triticale then spread to Brittany (in Western France), again as animal feed, which has led, in the space of a few years only, to Western France becoming France’s main producer region for the new cereal. In the last two or three years, large-scale farming areas have in turn been discovering the benefits of triticale.

Today, triticale covers 270,000 ha in France and grain harvesting represents more than one-third of total production. French varieties have also been developed for export, with Lemaire Deffontaines, for instance, selling its Bienvenu variety in Algeria, Italy, Ireland, and Spain. Florimond Desprez has recorded fast-growing sales of Trimaran and Tricolor in Germany.

Triticale’s edge in animal feed

The bulk of the production of triticale is currently used for animal feed. As stated by Arvalis, a technical institute financed by cereal producers, triticale is characterised by a concentration of total nitrogenous matter close to that of wheat, a concentration of lysine distinctly greater than that found in all other cereals and a concentration of proteins at least equal to that of wheat, which gives it a good overall nutritive value — more particularly for feeding pigs, cattle and sheep. Its good phosphorus absorption rate can reduce phosphorus waste in livestock slurry. The viscosity of certain varieties should be verified (because it can be too high) before incorporating them into poultry feed.

Triticale also has secondary advantages, such as its high production of straw, which is of direct interest to livestock farmers. For a yield equivalent to wheat or barley, it produces a 30% larger volume of straw, but triticale straw is a little harder than that from wheat. Triticale is also suitable for human consumption, and companies producing specialist bread are beginning to introduce triticale flour into their produce.

Still great potential for improvement

“To offer new breeding lines and to continue improving triticale, we decided to start again on the primary crosses of rye and wheat because the first crosses have already been exploited extensively,” says Bouguennec. “Over the last 20 or 30 years, wheat and rye have each progressed individually. By creating new triticale varieties from parent cereal plants, we hope to be able to widen the diversity of the triticale pool and benefit from the improvements in the two species.” Plant breeders are also trying hard to continue improving the resistance to lodging and to sprouting of the existing material. “In any case, triticale is a very young species in terms of selection,” points out Philippe Lonnet, “and I am sure that it still has great potential for improvement.”

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