PGG Wrightsons Seeds has extensive research facilities, logistics and distribution networks that service companies in the temperate growing regions of New Zealand, Australia, South America, USA and Europe.

Its operations span creating new cultivars through to seed production, storage, treatment, mixing and distribution. Over 100,000 tonnes of seed are treated and stored each year.

PGG Wrightsons Seeds leads the market in temperate regions for forage ryegrass, tall fescue, white clover, forage brassicas and herbs.

In conjunction with AgResearch, they have developed new fungi for ryegrass and tall fescue grass that enhance animal performance as well as improved pest resistance, grass yields and persistence.

Treasure hunt

“Our researchers screen millions of plants, looking for that one plant, that gives us a material advantage, whether its higher yield, pest or disease tolerance, or just a new method of cultivation,” said Andy Dumbleton, PGG Wrightsons Seeds’s Product Development Manager.

“Screening is both a manual and automated inspection process. Our researchers have decades of experience which gives them the skill to be able to spot what we’re looking for.”

Over lots of different sites

“We have a spread of sites, from Northland to Southland to simulate everything from a dry East Coast New Zealand to a moist Southland environment as well as all sorts of different soil types. As part of that environmental diversity, PGG Wrightsons Seeds not only carries out plant breeding in-house it also participates in joint venture programmes with Crown Research Institutes, Crop and Food Research and AgResearch.

“But visual inspection just isn’t accurate enough and so we have to combine it with data analysis, which also gives us the evidence to support why our varieties have a competitive advantage.”

We needed a better way

“We have over 25 researchers based throughout New Zealand. Our problem was that all our researchers used spreadsheets as their principal data collection and analysis tool. The trouble is that each one used the spreadsheet differently. How they recorded, scored their results and stored their data, was all different. It made it difficult to compare results and slowed our ability to find what we were looking for.

“When PGG Wrightsons Seeds was formed through the merging of three individual seed companies, having three systems for data collection and analysis just wasn’t practical anymore.”

No off the shelf solutions

“We looked at Agrobase, a Canadian produced scientific database application for Row Crops such as maize, wheat, barley and other annual crops. We do perennials that span 3-8 years. We needed analysis tool that could handle a perennial crop. PGG Wrightsons Seeds still uses Agrobase for annual crops.”

Agrobase also doesn’t do multi-site, multi-year unbalanced comparisons. This is the Holy Grail and there was nothing out there. It’s a specialised, complex mathematical problem.

Finding a supplier

“We approached 5-6 potential suppliers to develop the solution for us but we chose Stratos because they understood the problem we were trying to solve. This was highly technical, complex interactions and at that time, there were no other vendors who could provide the correct solution.

“We had previously used a statistical package called GenStat. The team Stratos put together had had prior experience with GenStat programming, as well as the ability to do the front end and reporting requirements. All of the team was located in Christchurch, so it was easy when something got complicated to get everyone in the same room.”

“Once we chose Stratos there were weekly and biweekly meetings, lots of white-boarding the business process. Stratos picked it up quite quickly. The key is that they captured the vision of what we were trying to achieve.

“All software development involves bugs, but what stood out were their really good response times. Even though quick fixes weren’t critical, it’s not a finance or accounting package, if it stopped, everything else wouldn’t stop but it was still frustrating if it did, but they made it go away quickly.”

We got the Holy Grail

“What we wanted was data integrity and consistency between sites and researchers, the ability to summarise an entire breeding programme on one page, so that we can select the best potential line for commercial sales. And that’s what we got.

“To be sure, some parts of the final programme we didn’t end up using much, but you can’t know that ahead of time.

“Stratos’s team wrote a program that hid all the GenStat statistical analysis away giving our researchers a user friendly data collection, analysis and reporting tool.

“Our key indicator of success is whether our world class researchers will use it. We did quite a bit of staff training, for about a year we had both the old and new systems working in parallel, now no one uses spreadsheets anymore.

“If I was giving advice to anyone, I’d say Stratos is really good at what they do, but developing your own software shouldn’t be done lightly. Off the shelf stuff is supported, you don’t have to take responsibility for fixing it. With software there is always a maintenance requirement. In our case, what we wanted couldn’t be bought off the shelf.”