Career bridges grains' history and future

Photo of David Bowran

David Bowran sees the industry’s future being driven by bold, flexible thinking.

PHOTO: Peter Maloney

Key points

  • Research on herbicide tolerance has helped growers understand the response of many grain varieties to herbicides
  • Climate variability is one of the biggest challenges facing the Australian grains industry
  • Novel ideas are required to deliver the next leap in grains productivity
  • Potential exists for the Australian grains industry in targeting the burgeoning livestock feed market

Dr David Bowran – scientist, communicator, strategic thinker – has officially retired from a grains research career but has no plans to stop working for the industry to which he has devoted his life

Dr David Bowran has had a passion for plant genetics since he was a young boy growing barley plants in the backyard of the family home in Bindoon, north of Perth.

His childhood passion for plants led him to become one of Australia’s foremost authorities on herbicide tolerance in grain crops and a prominent commentator on the influence of climate variability on grains production.

After gaining a bachelor of science in agriculture from the University of Western Australia in 1977, Dr Bowran headed to Sabah, Malaysia, to work as a pasture agronomist for two years.

On his return to Australia he undertook a PhD at the University of Western Australia on the tolerance of wheat to the herbicide Glean® (chlorsulfuron), at a time when new selective herbicides in the sulfonylurea (SU) group were transforming grains production.

In 1985 Dr Bowran started his career with the Department of Agriculture and Food, WA (DAFWA), on a research project examining the herbicide tolerance of local cereal varieties.

Originally funded through the State Wheat Research Committee, Dr Bowran’s subsequent work on cereals, pulses and canola was funded by the GRDC.

His research on the crop phenology of cereals laid the foundations of knowledge on plant responses to phenoxy herbicides in WA, much of which is still relevant today.

Herbicide-tolerance specialist

Another breakthrough was helping to identify a new imidazolinone-tolerant gene in wheat, after the first generation of imi-tolerant wheat varieties performed poorly when treated with imidazolinone herbicides under WA conditions.

The identification of a second gene providing imidazolinone tolerance was achieved with fellow researchers Dr Ian Barclay and Kevin Jose.

“It wasn’t a five-minute job; it took a few years,” Dr Bowran recalls. “We had to develop the new gene through mutation and cross lines to find a different gene, which took some time.”

The discovery contributed to the development of new Clearfield® wheat varieties, which are now grown around the world.

Dr Bowran is also credited with deciphering the benefits of using a combination of metribuzin and Brodal® (diflufenican)to control radish in lupins, although the discovery was not without a hiccup.

After advising a farmer to apply the mix to his lupins, Dr Bowran was later called by the farmer and told the entire crop had died. Three weeks later the farmer called again to report his crop had fully recovered and the weeds had died.

“It scared the life out of me, especially as he didn’t tell me the paddock was only 10 hectares,” Dr Bowran recalls.

As the farming community became more reliant on herbicides in the 1980s, the risk of resistance was also already increasing.

DAFWA responded by assembling a multi-disciplinary research team to investigate herbicide resistance and determine how best to minimise its impact with several GRDC-funded projects.

“We’d spend a lot of time answering questions from farmers so we knew what the problems were, and how to do the appropriate research to deal with the problem and test it using a reliable feedback system.”

In 1995 Dr Bowran became DAFWA’s integrated weed management program manager. In 2000 he became pulse and oilseeds manager, and subsequently grains program manager. Dr Bowran oversaw the strategic direction for research and development for the crops in WA, working closely with the GRDC Western Panel.

Dr Bowran was also involved in breeding the short-season triazine-tolerant canola variety Tranby, released by DAFWA in 2005. He made the initial crosses from very diverse canola germplasm, and subsequent crosses and selections, to achieve the double zero variety.

Climate scientist

At the turn of the millennium, Dr Bowran’s career took a turn towards climate and environmental science, when he was a part of a drought-response team. He believes climate change will be one of the most significant issues to confront WA grains production and profitability over the next 20 to 30 years.

He notes that exactly the same change is happening in WA that is occurring in Mediterranean-type climates in other parts
of the world.

“With less rain and longer dry periods, comes less organic matter and changes in our soil. We’re already seeing changes in species, such as the proliferation of brome grass in WA’s central agricultural region, and increasing termite populations.”

Dr Bowran says the challenge for the future of the grains industry is to be flexible, innovative and bold: “Interactions within the system are becoming more complex. We need to have more diversity in the system.

“This includes more enterprise diversity, such as including livestock, production diversity and integrated management strategies for weeds, pests, diseases and nutrition.”

While the grains industry has been quick to adopt new digital tools, Dr Bowran believes there needs to be a greater focus on developing novel technology, such as new chemicals, new genetics and new farming systems.

“We have maintained a relatively stable grain production system in WA for the past 30 years despite a more variable climate, but we should be able to grow much higher-yielding crops,” he says.

“The real challenge is to look at what technology did to boost productivity from the 1970s to the 1990s. We need a new generation of ideas and excellent science to test the ideas in our environment.”

Feed grains advocate

Through his membership of the Grains Licensing Authority, Dr Bowran has also come to believe there is great potential in targeting the feed-grains market.

With growing global demand for meat protein and alternative fuels, such as ethanol, Dr Bowran says growers’ profit per hectare could be increased by growing less costly feed grain that is better suited to variable seasons.

“Australia uses twice as much feed wheat in the pig, beef and dairy industries, as it does for human consumption, and in our region there is a market for more than 60 million tonnes,” he says.

“There is great potential to expand feed wheat production – especially for people with quality issues who could be in a better position to push yields and improve profit margins.”

Dr Bowran retired in September 2015, but has no plans to rest up. He has returned to his childhood passion for plant breeding, developing novel wheat genetics, while dividing his time between the two properties he shares with his wife near York, east of Perth, and in the south of Tasmania.

More information:

David Bowran, 08 9641 2464,
yarunaresearch@gmail.com

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Region Overseas, West