MEF research breaking ground in drought tolerance

Author: Ellen McNamara | Date: 17 Sep 2015

Dr Angela Pattison is understandably a strong proponent of the groundbreaking research being undertaken at the Narrabri node of the Managed Environment Facility (MEF).

As manager of the Narrabri MEF, she is part of the team leading a charge to improve drought and heat tolerance in cereals and recognises the pivotal role of the research in improving the long-term crop productivity and profitability of growers across New South Wales and Queensland.

The Narrabri MEF operates as part of a national Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC)-funded MEF initiative that also involves facilities at Merredin and Yanco in Western Australia.

Located at the I.A Watson Grains Research Centre, the Narrabri MEF represents a significant investment for GRDC’s northern region and provides researchers with the ability to make accurate, repeatable and relevant measurements of drought and heat response in wheat.

“The MEF is a nationally funded GRDC project which aims to look at drought tolerant wheat varieties or breeding lines to identify what traits make a wheat cultivar more resistant or tolerant to drought,” Dr Pattison said.

“Being a national project it has three sites around Australia, but here in Narrabri, on the deep black soils we are trying to find what cultivars and what breeding lines do well in these conditions, under drought and low rainfall, particularly at the end of the season.

“It’s all winter cereals, wheat and durum, but we have a rotation of field peas and canola to try and even out the paddock before we bring the trial crops back in. The research itself is only on wheat.

 “The approach of the MEF is unique in that rather than an individual institution looking at its own cultivars or its own methods the MEF takes a national approach with a standard set of methods for testing drought tolerance, which are applied to cultivars and research varieties for the whole Australia -wide institution.”

This means groups such as CSIRO, private breeding companies like Australian Grain Technologies or the agricultural departments of various states including NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) will send seed to the MEF’s for testing.

“Then they are tested under the standard set of phenotype tests, which range right from seeding to the end quality of the seed and then the results are sent back to the organisations to analyse which of their cultivars do well. In fact, not only which but why they do well and where they do well,” Dr Pattison said.

“The amount of data which comes out of the MEF every year is immense.

“For example, we use the same technology used for variable weed spraying in a paddock during a fallow, whereby the sensors will detect the green.

“This “Green Seeker” is used to test the amount of greenness in a plot of wheat so at the end of a scan we’ll be able to see how much biomass the plant has, and that will help us determine the rate of growth for the plants under different conditions and under different varieties.

“Of our 1900 plots we’ll take 5 scans a year, but we also do it at the MEF’s in Yanco and Merredin as well so just for that test, there’s thousands and thousands of data points for the researchers to analyse.”

The ultimate drive for the MEF, and for Dr Pattison, is to boost yields, not simply through the plants’ capacity to maintain yield in a variety of environmental conditions but also to have low screenings in drought. It’s these types of characteristics which help deliver greater profitability for growers.

“It’s very important to understand what sort of environment a breeder is looking to send the varieties into. In the north we have a lot of deep soils and a lot of clay soils and so we are trying to breed a cultivar that has a root system suitable to these conditions,” she said.

“This means more reliance on stored soil moisture and less rainfall in the growing season as opposed to down south where they have winter dominant rainfall, but the soils have less capacity to store that moisture.

“So we have a very hot finish to the season particularly in the north compared to the south but potentially more stored moisture to get the plants through those conditions.

“The research of the MEF’s ensures we can map these needs, and really drill down into the traits that have the greatest impact on grower profitability.”

To learn more about the research work being conducted at the Narrabri MEF, visit the GRDC website to watch an interview with Dr Pattison or download the GRDC Ground Cover Managed Environment Facilities Supplement.

Contact Details 

For Interviews

Dr Angela Pattison, MEF Narrabri manager
02 6799 2253


Ellen McNamara, Cox Inall Communications
0429 897 129

GRDC Project Code CSP00156

Region North