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Multiple skills for challenging environments

Mitch Buster is part of a large GRDC–NSW Department of Primary Industries capacity-building project. He is studying the interaction of root architecture with water use and fusarium crown rot in high-value cereals with the aim of improving productivity.
Photo: Hayley Wilson

Adaptability to water scarcity and the ability to tolerate or resist diseases are fundamental crop production features for challenging environments.

For Mitch Buster, these are key drivers underpinning his grains industry research.

“Raised on an irrigation property west of Bourke, NSW, I have always had a keen interest in Australian agriculture. When an opportunity arose to be in involved in the future of the grains industry, it appeared to be a good fit and an exciting opportunity,” Mr Buster says.

With an honours degree in rural science from University of New England in 2019 exploring the effects of banded phosphorus in tropical and subtropical pasture systems, particularly assessing the impacts on root system architecture, he is well-equipped to tackle a PhD combining agronomy, pathology and physiology.

Mr Buster’s postgraduate study is part of a GRDC-invested capacity-building project for the northern region. It is being supervised by Dr Steven Simpfendorfer (NSW Department of Primary Industries) and Dr Richard Flavel (University of New England).

Multidisciplinary approach

“My PhD study is taking a multidisciplinary approach exploring root architecture to improve nitrogen and Fusarium crown rot (FCR) management in high-value winter cereal crops,” he says.

In particular I will look to understand the effects of crown rot infection on the physiology of nitrogen movement, nitrogen use efficiency and grain quality in Australian Prime Hard (APH) and durum wheat.

“I will then investigate whether there are genetic differences in root architecture of commercially available APH wheat and durum varieties that can influence the depth and timing of nitrogen uptake and soil water use, and if this can be exploited to improve fertiliser use efficiency.”

Mr Buster is also exploring a range of novel technologies to more accurately determine soil water, tissue nitrogen and Fusarium disease levels at key growth stages during the season to guide further management decisions.

“I am especially interested in exploring broadacre detection of FCR using remote sensing, as this could significantly aid the timeliness and accuracy of decisions.”

Results from glasshouse trials in 2020 have confirmed that infection with FCR reduced grain yield by 9.5 per cent and water use by 7.5 per cent compared to non-infected plants. This is the first confirmation that FCR reduces water use.

“Using a drone fitted with a radiometric thermal camera, I have identified FCR-infected plots at stages before visual symptoms – basal browning – were expressed. This occurred with temperature increases of 0.9°C compared to non-infected treatments.”

Increased canopy temperature is caused by plants being unable to transpire as efficiently as non-infected plants. This is likely due to the fungus colonising the plants’ vascular tissue and compromising plant function.

This fundamental scientific finding using cutting-edge technology could provide a new way to detect FCR tolerance and screen varieties for this.

The ability to detect FCR spatially across fields may allow site-specific management of FCR infection. Coupling this information with further study of potential genetic differences in root architecture, depth and timing of nitrogen uptake and soil water use could improve fertiliser use efficiency and achieve protein targets for premium cereal crops.

Mr Buster enjoys the applied aspect of his work and is keen to work with growers and consultants on industry priorities in the future.

More information: Mitch Buster, 0428 306 914,

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