Theory and knowledge – and lots of surprises

Portrait of breeder Kathrin Buhmann

For Kathrin Buhmann, the attraction of her work in breeding lies in the interplay between two opposing poles, the theoretical and scientific pole on the one side and the surprises that nature always has in store on the other. “Based on the theory, you have certain expectations. Once in the field, you then have to see what happens. It’s exciting,” she says. Kathrin Buhmann was born in 1989 studied environmental sciences in Leeuwarden (NL) after graduating from high school. During her studies, she repeatedly encountered agriculture as an obstacle to nature conservation.

“That seemed wrong to me. Did it really have to be like that?” she asked herself. In order to find answers, she delved deeper and deeper into sustainable and ecological agriculture. At last, in the search for an internship for her Bachelor thesis, this brought her to the Dottenfelderhof in Bad Vilbel. It was there in the Research and Breeding Department that she first came into contact with organic grain breeding. A topic that has held her firmly in its grip ever since.

Portrait of Kathrin Buhmann

The Way to Breeding

Aided by Hartmut Spieß, the long-time head of department, she compared winter wheat varieties and strains from bio-dynamic breeding with those from conventional breeding in her 2014 Bachelor thesis. It was confirmed that the varieties from organic breeding had less yield but better characteristics and baking properties. This motivated her to keep going. The aim was for new varieties to become more interesting for cultivation.

This was followed in 2017 by a Master’s in Crop Sciences with a focus on plant breeding and seed science at the University of Hohenheim. She then started working as a breeder at Dottenfelderhof Research and Breeding (FZD). Since January 2020 she has also been working there as an executive together with Carl Vollenweider in the area of ​​research and breeding.

BRANDEX winter wheat

Barley – the Challenge of Loose Smut

One focus of her work is the breeding of winter barley with resistance to loose smut and stripe disease. Both are seed-borne fungal diseases that affect grain during reproduction. Since conventional seeds are protected by dressing, these fungal diseases are above all a challenge for organic farming, especially organic seed propagation. The infestation only becomes visible during cultivation in the following year and makes the harvest virtually unusable.

Buhmann initially began selection work together with Hartmut Spieß. The longstanding work of FZD resulted in two variety registrations for testing in 2019 and another in 2020. So far, these varieties have not shown any signs of loose smut. “It would be very nice if they were really resistant,” hopes Buhmann. “However, the hurdle for seed propagation is very high,” she adds. “Only five infected ears on 150m² of propagation area lead to the withdrawal as seeds”.

Lioba winter barley

Reproducible Maize in Short Supply

A second important project for Buhmann is grain maize. The need for new varieties from organic breeding is particularly great here, as there are currently almost only hybrid varieties from conventional breeding are available in Europe in this area. Open-pollinated populations are considered a future alternative.

Due to their diversity, they can better adapt to their location and climatic conditions. In view of the rapidly changing growing conditions due to climate change, this adaptability is becoming increasingly interesting.

Cob selection of a breeding population

Maize Populations as an Alternative to Hybrids

As early as 2013, Dottenfelderhof registered the Saint Michaelis maize population as a conservation variety. Based on this experience, breeding continued with the aim of developing earlier varieties without sacrificing yield potential. In 2016, two of the maize populations created here were finally approved by the Federal Plant Variety Office: the Almito population and the Bogdan population.

This was only made possible by the EU experiment for bringing heterogeneous populations to the market. Fortunately, an increased demand from farmers for maize populations is noticeable. The next challenge will be to find sufficient isolation areas and multipliers in order to be able to provide enough seeds for the next sowing season.

A Saint Michaelis conservation variety cobs

Promising Development

In order to further improve the breeding of maize populations, Kathrin Buhmann has been working with Carl Vollenweider since 2017 in the BÖLN project “ZuchtMetPopMais”. This project aims to develop breeding methods, performance and adaptability of maize populations and the creation of a diverse starting population for science, breeding and practice. In the meantime, as of autumn 2020, the results of the performance tests for three years are available.

Nine corn populations and three hybrid varieties were grown in parallel at five conventional and three organic locations. The results are promising. With regard to susceptibility to diseases and pests, the populations showed themselves to be equivalent. The yields of the populations averaged 70-80% compared to the hybrids. In some places they even exceeded them. It goes without saying that Buhmann wants to keep breeding here in order to make the populations even more attractive. The project was extended until 2022.

Schriftzug Dottenfelderhof in Stein gehauen
The Dottenfelderhof logo

Knowledge Transfer and Exchange

Research on populations for forage maize could soon be joined by a project for sweet corn. The aim is to work with manufacturers of corn products such as polenta or tortillas to determine the requirements for edible corn and to find alternatives to hybrids in this area as well. A nice challenge! Since Buhmann took over the management together with Carl Vollenweider at the beginning of the year, good time management has been key. In addition to their own breeding projects, a lot of higher-level tasks need to addressed. Writing research proposals in particular takes a lot of time but is, of course, the basis for future breeding work.

In addition, the multitude of collaborative projects with other institutions such as state companies, universities and research institutions need to be maintained. In addition to all of these tasks, Kathrin Buhmann is happy to pass on her knowledge. For example in courses at the agricultural school or, as in spring 2020, as part of the event “The new generation – who is breeding tomorrow’s varieties?” which was organized by the Agriculture Future Foundation (Zukunftsstiftung Landwirtschaft). The two poles continue to play their roles, theory on the one hand and the surprises that nature has in store for breeders on the other.

Kathrin Buhmann erläuter die Maiszüchtung
Kathrin Buhmann
explaining the maize breeding process

Text: Justine Lipke
Photos: 1, 3-6) F&Z Dottenfelderhof; 2, 7, 8) Justine Lipke