From the farm to the lab to take on frost

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Image of Brenton Leske

DAFWA research officer Brenton Leske with frost research trials.

PHOTO: Peter Maloney

Brenton Leske was delighted to secure a graduate research position with the Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia (DAFWA), as it involved trying to solve one of the grains industry’s biggest agronomic challenges: the susceptibility of cereal crops to frost.

The 24-year-old developed a passion for agriculture while growing up on his family’s 2347 hectare wheat and barley farm near Cascade, WA, about 100 kilometres north-west of Esperance.

Brenton took a ‘gap year’ after secondary school to learn more about the practical aspects of cropping on his parents’ farm before heading to university.

He enrolled in a degree in agricultural science at the University of Western Australia where he completed a GRDC supported honours project in soil acidity and crop nutrition. In plot trials, Brenton showed that superphosphate was a better seeding fertiliser than monoammonium phosphate in acidic Wodjil soil sourced from Bonnie Rock, WA, although he says these results still need to be confirmed in paddock-scale tests.

Brenton says his honours year not only helped develop core research skills, such as scientific writing, critical thinking and assimilating information through experimental design and analysis, but also helped to cultivate other skills including time management and self-motivation.

Brenton says it enabled him to start building a network of industry contacts through links with his co-funders the Grower Group Alliance and fertiliser manufacturer CSBP, whose staff analysed soil and plant tissue tests as part of their support for his research.

When it came time to find a job, Brenton was pleased to secure a two-year graduate research position within DAFWA on a GRDC-supported project to better understand frost. He is working in Dr Ben Biddulph’s team, which is focused on managing frost in wheat and barley, a key project in the multidisciplinary GRDC-supported National Frost Initiative.

“I saw the job as an opportunity to better understand frost and work on research investigating options for managing it,” Brenton says.

In particular, his work is centred on helping to screen available wheat and barley varieties for their tolerance to frost by looking at yield differences, while another component of his research is investigating the capacity of different varieties to compensate after frost.

During the trials in 2014 and 2015, Brenton would be alerted during the night by a text message from the trial site weather station telling him the temperature had dropped below 2°C (the trigger point for the development of frost-induced sterility in cereals).

“When that happened we would drive to the trial site the next day and tag wheat and barley plants that were flowering with the view of assessing the frost damage at a later date,” he says.

Screening varieties for frost-induced sterility has involved spending two days a week (from July to October) walking through the frost trials looking for healthy wheat heads and tagging them.

The tagged heads are then assessed for frost damage five weeks later.

While the results of the first year of research are being analysed, Brenton says working on a frost research project has opened his eyes to a wider range of career opportunities within the grains industry and allowed him to build more extensive industry networks.

Although he completes the DAFWA graduate research program in April 2016, Brenton would like to continue working in frost research.

Eventually, he hopes the screening work, which in 2015 included 108 commercial wheat lines and 36 barley lines, will lead to the development of a useful rating system. It would include a measure for frost susceptibility as frost-induced sterility per head and yield so growers can make better choices about the varieties they plant on certain parts of their farms given their frost risk.

More information:

Brenton Leske,
08 9690 2155,
brenton.leske@agric.wa.gov.au,
@BrentonLeske (Twitter)

GRDC National Frost Initiative videos

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GRDC Project Code UHS10403, DAW00234

Region West