The 2016 season delivered the coldest September since records began in Western Australia, resulting in a series of frost events that devastated what had promised to be a record-breaking year for crop yields – an anticipated 18 million tonnes. The unusual temperatures were the flip side of a weather event that created floods in eastern states.
Estimates of damage range from losses of 1.5 million tonnes in the Grain Industry Association of WA (GIWA) report, to anecdotal reports of three to four million tonnes, mainly of wheat and barley.
GRDC managing director Dr Steve Jefferies says R&D resources were put into overdrive to identify whether anything more could be done to help growers manage the impact. Already, the GRDC has an extensive investment portfolio in frost research, in particular the $24 million National Frost Initiative (NFI). This funds research into genetic-based frost tolerance, frost-mitigating management practices, and environmental and landscape influences.
Nonetheless, the severity of the WA frost has triggered a review of activities: “We want to identify any gaps or anything that looks promising that could be fast-tracked,” Dr Jefferies says. Included in the review is input from growers gathered during tours of the affected regions by Dr Jefferies and Peter Roberts, the GRDC Western Panel chair and chair of the NFI steering committee.
“I was keen to get feedback about what growers have experienced as well as the impact of various risk-management strategies adopted – what works, what doesn’t and what could make a difference in years when frosts are less extreme,” Dr Jefferies says. “Grower input will be an important consideration going forward.”
Observations and preliminary research suggest that sowing rates, nitrogen application, potassium application, different stubble management techniques and some soil-amelioration practices all influence the impact of frost on crops. Dr Jefferies says it seems unlikely that current technology can achieve spring radiation frost tolerance in crops to temperatures much lower than –2ºC: “However, frost-tolerance improvements of –1ºC or –2ºC would still be very valuable.”
The latest information can be obtained through the GRDC’s e-newsletter Paddock Practices, Twitter (#GRDCFrost), Storify and Facebook accounts, complemented by the recently released booklet Managing frost risk.
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