Chickpea (Cicer arietinum L.) is an ancient crop, mentioned in the Bible and in the Jerusalem Talmud. In the last 60 years, chickpea cultivation and breeding have undergone great advances. Those in cultivation have involved mainly changing the sowing dates and developing disease management for Ascochyta blight. In the last 10 years, to increase sowing areas, effort has been invested in developing agrotechniques for immature green chickpea harvesting. Today, breeding efforts are focused mainly on producing erect and high-yielding cultivars that are resistant to Ascochyta blight and Fusarium wilt. Moreover, in the last decade, breeding programs for early flowering have been initiated in the south of Israel, in areas with terminal drought, as well as for resistance to herbicides and the broomrape Phelipanche aegyptiaca. Thanks to all of these efforts, today chickpea is the major pulse crop in Israel.
The recently domesticated species, Cephalaria joppensis (CJ), emerges as a new alternative forage crop in Israel. It has high biomass potential and nutritional values that are comparable to forage wheat. Still, much of the agronomic information regarding CJ is based mainly on a single variety, cv. Rishon, and the genetic variability of this species has not been evaluated. In the last 3 years, CJ seeds have been collected from more than 200 natural populations in Israel. In this work, we characterized 42 of these populations in a replicated field trial, using cv. Rishon as a control. In addition, near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) was calibrated to predict nutritional attributes. NIRS was found to be instrumental in producing excellent predictions of ash, crude protein, neutral detergent fiber, in-vitro digestibility and rumen degradability, but it did not predict lignin or nitrate. Large variation was found among the accessions with respect to growth rate, flowering time and yield, with several accessions scoring significantly higher than cv. Rishon. Almost no variation was found in nutritional quality-related traits. Early flowering populations were somewhat less fibers and higher digestibility than late flowering populations. The natural variation in agronomic traits will facilitate the development of new breeding germplasm for CJ in the near future.