Frost research analysed after costly WA events

Image of Steve Jefferies

Steve Jefferies, managing director, the GRDC

In September, the Western Australian wheatbelt was hit by the most severe series of frosts in recorded history – a devastating blow to growers and their communities.

The full toll of frosts that dropped temperatures to as low as –7ºC in some districts is still being assessed but we know that some growers lost up to 90 per cent of their crops and some estimates put the total crop losses as high as three million tonnes. The devastating impact this year was due to the high number of severe frosts experienced over an extended period from before flowering right through grain fill.

I travelled to WA to speak to growers, agronomists, consultants and researchers to gauge the impact and also the implications for the GRDC’s frost-research investments. I needed to hear firsthand from people with frost management experience about the effectiveness of different approaches they are taking to manage frost risk and how GRDC-funded research could enhance these strategies and/or identify new strategies.

How we respond with any adjustments to frost research and extension also has national implications – bearing in mind that growers in parts of South Australia and Victoria were also hit by severe frosts this season. I was particularly keen to investigate whether – based on the experience of leading agronomists and consultants – there is any current research that might assist their efforts by being fast-tracked, or new ideas that could be pursued.

I travelled through the hardest-hit areas of WA with Western Panel chair Peter Roberts, WA regional services manager Roger States and agronomist Garren Knell, who has extensive frost-management experience. After this fact-finding mission, a group led by GRDC chair John Woods and I undertook a review of the National Frost Initiative. Our aim was to identify any research that could be brought forward and to make doubly sure that our current research is focusing on the right areas.

One of the lessons already is the need to assess whether we need to broaden the scope of some research to cover earlier and later frosts. Most current research is focused on managing the impact of frost at flowering time – the typical frost period – but this recent experience shows starkly the potential for severe frost damage across a much-wider crop development phase.

We are also in the process of interviewing agronomists and consultants across Australia to determine how they help their clients manage frost risks in different parts of the country and to ask what knowledge and technologies they believe will add value. This activity is helping us, as research managers, to better understand the status of frost management in different production systems and different geographical areas. This helps us assess whether the products and services we are developing will meet industry’s needs. It is about ensuring that we target research correctly.

While frost is an annual risk for all growers, the severity of the impact last season, particularly in WA, is something that demands attention and appropriate action. It is not just the financial hit, but when a severe frost rips the rug out from under all the effort that has gone into setting up a fantastic season, there is a heavy emotional toll as well. Our job is to use whatever science is at our disposal to lift our capacity to reduce the impact of such events on the livelihoods of Australian growers.

The final outcomes from our research review are still being determined but we are confident that through this, and with the Australian grains industry’s continuing commitment to grains research, we will continue to strengthen growers’ position.

Frost, of course, is not the only challenge. Other production constraints include crop diseases. John Woods and I were delighted to be involved in the opening of Curtin University’s $46-million investment in infrastructure to support the GRDC and Curtin University’s collaboration in the Centre for Crop and Disease Management. Though located in Perth, the centre will provide an enhanced national research capability for reducing the economic impact of crop disease.

New varieties with higher levels of disease resistance, and improved disease-management practices, will put money back into growers’ pockets. And that, as with improved frost risk management, is our unwavering commitment.

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