NIAB technical director Bill Clark, plant breeder Dr Phil Howell, and cereal variety specialist Clare Leaman considered 100 years of cereal varieties grown in the UK and assessed them in terms of agronomic value, market influence and lasting impact, most notably in their use in plant breeding programmes.
Mr Clark says, “It takes a truly exceptional variety to win the NIAB Cereals Cup in a normal year and we can go several years without making an award. However, this year is a little special for NIAB as we celebrate our Centenary and we wanted the Cereals Cup to have a role in our celebrations with this once-in-a-lifetime award. There were many worthwhile candidates including Capelle Desprez, Hereward, Riband and Consort wheat and Maris Otter, Golden Promise and Pearl barley. But the variety that stood out was Robigus.”
Robigus was a nabim Group 3 variety which featured on the HGCA Recommended List between 2003 and 2011. Originally bred in The Netherlands by Wiersum Zelder, it was selected at an early stage by CPB Twyford Ltd, now KWS UK Ltd. A cross between two breeding lines, it brought in novel yield and agronomic traits from wild emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccoides).
“There have been many good and some excellent varieties over the past 100 years, but none can match the contribution Robigus has made to variety progression and it is fitting that NIAB has chosen to recognise this legacy with the award of the Cereals Cup,” says Andrew Newby, KWS UK managing director.
“Although a popular variety during its seven years on the Recommended List during which time about 200,000 tonnes of seed was produced, roughly equivalent to 1.1 million hectares, it was never the most popular variety of its time with Riband and Consort both enjoying greater commercial success. It is its legacy as a parent however, that marks it out as worthy of recognition,” says Mr Newby.
KWS wheat breeder Mark Dodds recalls that it was Robigus’s combination of attributes that marked it out as a variety with a bright future. “At the time Robigus represented a significant yield progression being about 4% higher yielding than both Claire and Consort and it was also the first high-yielding variety to feature resistance to orange wheat blossom midge.”
Plant breeding is a complex activity and part of this is recognising which varieties will produce good crosses. “Many good varieties simply don’t combine well, but Robigus did and had many desirable characteristics. It produced high yields, plenty of tillers, high numbers of grains per ear and large grains. We describe this as good plasticity of yield attributes because they underline consistent performances.”
“Successor varieties from Oakley to KWS Santiago to KWS Kerrin and, this year’s RL candidate, KWS Kinetic, all demonstrate this plasticity of yield attributes so it seems the Robigus legacy will continue for many years to come,” says Mr Dodds.
NIAB’s Dr Howell agrees that Robigus was a successful commercial variety in its own right, combining high yield, bright grain and generally good disease resistance. Its resistance to orange wheat blossom midge, in addition to these other characters, meant that it was widely used by breeders in crosses, which is why it stood out as the winner.
“It was such a popular parent that 40 of the 80 Recommended wheat varieties since 2014, including RGT Gravity, LG Skyscraper, Gleam and LG Spotlight, trace back to Robigus. Of course, no variety is perfect and its yellow rust susceptibility was a challenge from the start. However, this was compensated for by the other advantages, and it is primarily for its contribution to the UK and European wheat pedigree that NIAB has awarded Robigus the title of ‘the most influential variety of the past 100 years’ and the 2019 NIAB Cereals Cup,” says Dr Howell.