Drought-tolerant wheat 'exciting'

Reports by Jo FulwoodCountryman

A new wheat variety that can tolerate drought conditions early in the season is being trialled at the Department of Agriculture and Food's Merredin Research Station.

The variety, known only as W110905, could be used as parental breeding stock if early signs of vigour, despite six weeks of drought through June and July, translate into reasonable yields and good grain quality.

Two GRDC-funded trials were run side by side, using different wheat varieties, with half the varieties receiving irrigation once a week and the other half cut off from any moisture in the early part of the season.

The trials, a collaboration between DAFWA and CSIRO, were planted on June 14 into moist soil and were controlled through the Centre's Managed Environment facilities.

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DAFWA senior research officer Bob French said on visual inspection, W110905 showed strong, early growth vigour, despite the fact that it had not received any moisture post seeding for six weeks.

"I'm quite excited about it. It looks pretty impressive in the field at the moment," Dr French said.

"Visually it looks better, with more vigour. We'll have to wait to assess how exciting it really is, there are still a few things that might happen before the end of the season but we plan to let it experience the seasonal conditions as they come naturally."

He said early sowing of crops was necessary to optimise production, however, opening rains could often be light and were sometimes followed by extended periods without rain.

"We've identified that these early drought periods are becoming a feature of our environment and we think that under projected climate change, those conditions are very likely to occur more often in the future.

"In many Wheatbelt locations, this exposes young crops to significant risks of disabling water deficits. It is important to have crop varieties that can survive these conditions with minimal impact on their yield potential once good follow-up rains come.

"Most drought tolerance research that has been done in Australia has been targeted at drought that occurs at the end of the growing season.

"But with the types of starts that we get to our season in WA - 2012 being a good example - we often get significant periods of stress after crop establishment.

"What it would mean for growers is that they could soon have access to varieties with a tolerance to this level of stress that could be planted earlier, more confidently, and it's likely they would be better suited to dry sowing conditions."

Dr French said it was not known how much rain was going to fall when the season broke so when seasons started like this year, this type of variety would not suffer such a yield loss.

"So it should lead to less yield variability from season to season," he said.

While W110905 is not planned for commercial release, it is available to plant breeding companies for breeding purposes.

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