One of the major limitations for sugarcane genetic improvement is the low heritability of yield in the early stages of breeding, mainly due to confounding inter-plot competition effects. In this study, we investigate an indirect selection index (Si
), developed based on traits correlated to yield (indirect traits) that were measured using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), to improve clonal assessment in early stages of sugarcane breeding. A single-row early-stage clonal assessment trial, involving 2134 progenies derived from 245 crosses, and a multi-row experiment representative of pure-stand conditions, with an unrelated population of 40 genotypes, were used in this study. Both experiments were screened at several stages using visual, multispectral, and thermal sensors mounted on a UAV for indirect traits, including canopy cover, canopy height, canopy temperature, and normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI). To construct the indirect selection index, phenotypic and genotypic variance-covariances were estimated in the single-row and multi-row experiment, respectively. Clonal selection from the indirect selection index was compared to single-row yield-based selection. Ground observations of stalk number and plant height at six months after planting made from a subset of 75 clones within the single-row experiment were highly correlated to canopy cover (rg
= 0.72) and canopy height (rg
= 0.69), respectively. The indirect traits had high heritability and strong genetic correlation with cane yield in both the single-row and multi-row experiments. Only 45% of the clones were common between the indirect selection index and single-row yield based selection, and the expected efficiency of correlated response to selection for pure-stand yield based on indirect traits (44%–73%) was higher than that based on single-row yield (45%). These results highlight the potential of high-throughput phenotyping of indirect traits combined in an indirect selection index for improving early-stage clonal selections in sugarcane breeding.
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