By GRDC western panel vice chairman Mike Ewing
Significant grain crop losses caused by frost in 2012, confirmed at harvest time, add to the sense of urgency to seek solutions to this issue – a major concern for most Western Australian grain growers.
Serious crop damage occurred in WA’s central and southern cropping regions resulting from very cold nights during mid to late September.
It is estimated that these frosts last growing season caused losses totalling at least $100 million – a large impact on individuals and the State.
The scale of losses caused by frost is a prime reason for frost being a major priority for the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), which is funding different areas of frost research, development and extension (RD&E).
A search for answers to frost has a heightened significance as an area of RD&E because its impact on the farm business is difficult to manage, with yield losses occurring when input costs have already been committed.
Its impact is also highly variable and can be direct - from yield reductions like those experienced in 2012 – and indirect, with delayed sowing of crops to spread flowering dates and lessen the impact of frost events, increasing the risk of yield losses from late season drought.
Frost is a complex RD&E area for a number of reasons, including its unpredictability, making field experimentation very difficult. As a result any genetic tolerance of varieties to frost can easily be confounded by the timing of flowering in relation to the frost event.
Also, while there are genetic differences between varieties in their susceptibility to frost, these are in the tolerant but not resistant range – meaning there are no decisive tools yet available that can be used by plant breeders.
And while some varieties have cold tolerance during vegetative growth stages, the characteristics delivering this tolerance are of little value during the critical reproductive phase when most damage occurs.
But despite these difficulties, a number of promising RD&E avenues are available and will be being pursued in light of the significance of the problem.
To help direct funding into areas of RD&E where it will have greatest impact, the GRDC and its research partners are supporting studies and analysis to better quantify the extent of losses from frost, both directly and indirectly.
Work is also planned which will focus on identifying real genetic differences within current cultivars and wild germplasm – even small differences in tolerance to frost have the potential to provide protection from the less intense frost events.
Understanding the differences in existing cultivars is important in order to use the best available cultivars for high risk areas.
Researchers are also still interested in identifying new sources of genetic tolerance to frost, and there are now better – though still labour intensive – techniques for field identification of tolerance which would make this possible.
They are also searching for traits that cause flowering at targeted times that are less dependent on sowing date, as well as flowering attributes that limit the exposure of the temperature-sensitive tissues in the plant.
Another area of potential investment includes fine-tuning of strategies for managing the flowering date of crops – using tools such as crop grazing.
PHOTO CAPTION: GRDC western regional panel vice chairman Mike Ewing.
PHOTO CAPTION: The GRDC and its research partners are supporting studies and analysis to better quantify the extent of losses from frost.
Natalie Lee, Cox Inall Communications
08 9864 2034; 0427 189 827
West, National, North, South