Forage trial program: integrity, transparency, rigorous – data farmers can trust

If you’ve driven past the neat rows of meticulously labelled trial sites surrounding Valley Seeds in Yarck, chances are you’ve wondered what goes into setting them up, and why they’re important.

Respected ag scientist and R&D consultant Stuart Kemp reckons trial programs are more relatable than people realise.

“Basically, it’s gardening on a grand scale! I cut grass! I spray out weeds and control insects. Like avid gardeners, research agronomists do this with great attention to detail, ensuring a robust, fair comparison of all the options available to farmers so that they can have confidence in the data we produce.”

A key player in the ag space since 1997, Stuart has seen a lot of change across the industry with fundamentals staying the same. “Plant breeding is creative and intuitive as well as being data driven” he says, “it’s a blend of hard work, science and artistry.”

With a focus on increasing quality and collaboration across the industry, Stuart set up the first Forage Trial Program (FTP) in 2009. There have been several iterations since then but fundamentals have stayed the same – transparency, integrity and rigorous data farmers can trust.  Today’s FTP sits outside the established organisations. So, why do it?

“This program is a collaboration of technical experts and is fully self-sufficient without needing outside support. We own it and there are no concerns about looking after other bodies’ funding priorities, so there’s no conflict of interest. This isn’t for the marketing and management people, this is for the science and R&D people!”

He says retailers and growers can only benefit “It means we can generate data that highlights the best options for growers to consider and help them run a more profitable pasture system.”

And these results have huge potential. “For the same investment, farmers can put a reliable pasture in that could produce 25%+ more yield. Why wouldn’t they do that?” Stuart says it makes sense to buy the best genetics on the market.  When purchasing rams and bulls, producers are always encouraged to get the best genetics they can afford for their system, it is no different with pastures. “FTP does the hard stuff and identifies what those genetics are and where to find them. The technical agronomy experts are keen to do this because not only does it help producers, but it also informs their own breeding programs.”

In 2023, Valley Seeds was one of eight seed companies participating in the FTP trials and one of six on the management committee.

Stuart is impressed with the level of Valley Seeds commitment to high quality trials under its new ownership. “Valley Seeds are committed to generating high quality data and using this to drive their R&D and breeding programs forward.  Without fear or favour they are entering trials so they get a clear and objective assessment of their germplasm against everyone else in the market. Valley Seeds are actively supporting and participating in the program. If they’ve got a good cultivar, it will be highlighted, if it’s a dud, they’ll get rid of it and keep looking for top genetics.”

And the future? Stuart’s hope is that FTP becomes the industry standard and remains entirely run by technical experts. “The next stage is to measure additional traits and even potentially run grazing trials. The sooner industry gets to grips with a focus on integrity and transparency as the cornerstone of a sustainable program that benefits all, the better.” He smiles “I’m looking forward to the day when other people can run the program and I can focus on my own breeding projects.”