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GRDC-DPI partnership strengthens agronomy, pathology research

NSW Department of Primary Industries crop physiologist Dr Rajneet Uppal in canola heat stress trials. Heat chambers were used to apply heat stress.
Photo: Nicole Baxter

GRDC - NSW DPI Agreement

GRDC and the NSW DPI have committed to a long-term partnership to drive innovation and build capacity and capability in fields strategically important to them both. This is the first in a series of stories in which Nicole Baxter reports on some of the work being undertaken.

A significant and long-term commitment by GRDC and the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) will see $130 million invested in grains research to build research capacity in projects of importance to northern region growers.

GRDC general manager applied research and development programs Brondwen MacLean says a key driver of the GRDC–NSW DPI partnership, known as the Grains Agronomy and Pathology Partnership (GAPP), is to encourage innovation and long-term planning among researchers.

“The primary driver of the GAPP is to maintain our capacity in winter crop agronomy and pathology research by initiating flexible and innovative projects that encourage researchers to undergo long-term planning and take risks,” Ms MacLean says.

“In addition to long-term research, the GAPP has instigated a ‘sprint program’ where projects operate over three to six months to allow researchers to test hypotheses and look at alternative methods for addressing issues facing the grains industry that are aligned with GRDC’s RD&E plan.”

The GAPP has 23 winter crop research projects governed by two committees – executive and technical – comprising three members each from GRDC and NSW DPI. It also employs as full-time bilateral manager NSW DPI’s Dr Nicole Rice, who says one of the GAPP’s aims is to maintain and build scientific capacity, infrastructure and technology investments.

The primary driver of the GAPP is to maintain our capacity in winter crop agronomy and pathology research by initiating flexible and innovative projects that encourage researchers to undergo long-term planning and take risks. - Brondwen MacLean

NSW DPI deputy director-general agriculture Kate Lorimer-Ward says 50 full-time equivalent positions are supported by the GAPP across the northern grain growing region.

“Fifty people are employed on GAPP projects, which includes 35 new positions ranging from research officers, technical and assistant officers based in Wagga Wagga, Yanco, Condobolin, Canowindra, Orange, Trangie, Breeza, Grafton, Tamworth, Narrabri, Toowoomba and Emerald,” she says.

“Through the GAPP, we are also currently supporting two PhD students and are looking to expand our capacity to offer more training opportunities going forward.”

Ms MacLean says the GAPP’s winter crop pathology program seeks to reduce the impact of plant diseases through reduced yield losses and cost-effective use of inputs.

“Within the winter crop agronomy and physiology program we aim to improve the yield potential of winter cereals, pulses and oilseeds,” she says. “Significant investments through GAPP are not only a commitment to world-class research to help growers improve their profitability, but also to improve research collaboration, reduce duplication and invest in new research technologies and infrastructure.”

More information: Dr Nicole Rice on 0418 113 633 or nicole.rice@dpi.nsw.gov.au

Tool to study chickpea roots

NSW Department of Primary Industries research officer Sean Bithell. PHOTO: Anne Brook, NSW DPI

NSW Department of Primary Industries research officer Sean Bithell. Photo: Anne Brook, NSW DPI

NSW DPI research officer Sean Bithell has spent the past year road-testing a new molecular tool developed to allow agronomists and researchers to rapidly and accurately study chickpea roots.

Previously, he says, there were no quick and reliable methods to determine the distribution and depth of chickpea roots in soil.

“A grower might want deep-rooting plants because there is moisture at depth,” he says.

“However, shallow roots may only be needed in high-rainfall areas, where rainfall is reliable or where the crop is on irrigation.”

Extracting entire chickpea roots from soil for dry matter analysis is time-consuming and complicated.

Also, researchers only have a small window of time to process samples before the roots decay. With GRDC–NSW DPI investment under the GAPP, Mr Bithell commissioned Dr Daniele Giblot-Ducray from the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) to develop a test to detect and quantify the root DNA of different chickpeas in soil.

The new tool will provide a quick and cheap means of allowing agronomists and growers to make variety choices based on rooting depth, or help identify soil constraints that are restricting root growth in particular paddocks. - Sean Bithell

Mr Bithell sends soil samples that include chickpea root material to SA for processing through the SARDI Molecular Diagnostic Centre, which can DNA-test hundreds of samples a day.

A DNA test is considered ideal because it also allows the study of pathogens that feed on or around the roots, enabling researchers to investigate the mechanisms chickpeas use to resist soil-borne diseases.

“We’ve found DNA and root dry matter results can be similar, but they can also differ as the root DNA concentration can vary with root age and condition, with late-season samples giving the most consistent results,” Mr Bithell says.

“The tool now allows us to easily study the roots of one variety, although comparing the roots of different varieties is more complex. The new tool will provide a quick and cheap means of allowing agronomists and growers to make variety choices based on rooting depth, or help identify soil constraints that are restricting root growth in particular paddocks.”

More information: Sean Bithell on 0429 201 863 or sean.bithell@dpi.nsw.gov.au

Decision-support data

NSW Department of Primary Industries cropping systems data analyst Hongtao Xing with NSW DPI bilateral evaluation leader Allison Blake. PHOTO Nicole Baxter

NSW Department of Primary Industries cropping systems data analyst Hongtao Xing with NSW DPI bilateral evaluation leader Allison Blake. Photo Nicole Baxter

NSW DPI bilateral evaluation leader Allison Blake is leading a team identifying gaps in previous research and synthesising data to assist growers in making better management decisions for winter crops according to location and climate. She is working with a climatologist, data analysts, a monitoring, evaluation and reporting specialist, and economists to map the abiotic (non-biological) factors that cause crop stress in eight geographical areas in NSW and Queensland.

Specifically, the GRDC–NSW DPI GAPP project focuses on wheat, barley, chickpeas, canola, lupins, field peas, faba beans and lentils. To date, Mrs Blake says 21 abiotic stressors, including frost, heat and moisture evaporation, have been mapped, along with climate and soil attributes.

“The project members have analysed rainfall averages across winter growing seasons for the past four decades and have also produced maps showing the mean number of frost events in 10-day windows from July to October from 2005 to 2014,” she says.

These new insights will enable growers to respond by changing crop and variety choices, sowing dates, targeting inputs to changes in predicted yield, improving risk management through better awareness of seasonal constraints and pre-empting the need for other management modifications, such as disease control. - Allison Blake

In addition, the team is analysing existing records from NSW DPI’s agronomy and pathology field experiments and GRDC’s National Variety Trials to identify research gaps and optimise the performance of crop models including APSIM (Agricultural Production Systems sIMulator).

The data-mining aspect of the work ensures research from the past five years is included to prevent repeating work already done. Through modelling, Mrs Blake says it will be possible to predict the effects of a changing and more variable climate.

“These new insights will enable growers to respond by changing crop and variety choices, sowing dates, targeting inputs to changes in predicted yield, improving risk management through better awareness of seasonal constraints and pre-empting the need for other management modifications, such as disease control,” she says.

“Another outcome will be the capacity to predict likely crop performance in areas where a crop has never been grown or has not been grown under optimal conditions.

“Eventually, we plan to use the information to develop a decision-support tool or app to assist growers with pathology and agronomy management under varied weather scenarios.”

More Information: Allison Blake on 02 6933 4343 or allison.blake@dpi.nsw.gov.au

Managing winter cereal diseases

NSW Department of Primary Industries senior plant pathologist Dr Steven Simpfendorfer processes cereal survey samples for visual, plating and PREDICTA® B assessment of disease levels. PHOTO: Chrystal Fensbo, NSW DPI

NSW Department of Primary Industries senior plant pathologist Dr Steven Simpfendorfer processes cereal survey samples for visual, plating and PREDICTA® B assessment of disease levels. Photo: Chrystal Fensbo, NSW DPI

NSW DPI senior plant pathologist Dr Steven Simpfendorfer leads a GAPP project that aims to minimise the impact of wheat and barley diseases from central NSW to southern Queensland. The work involves developing integrated disease management (IDM) strategies, providing diagnostic support and surveillance, and communicating IDM options to growers and advisers to assist with disease management.

“Surveillance and diagnostic support are essential to determine changes in disease prevalence and distribution,” Dr Simpfendorfer says.

“We collect random wheat and barley samples from flowering to mid-grain fill in crops from Dubbo in central NSW to Westmar in southern Queensland.”

Additionally, Dr Simpfendorfer and his team are piloting methods to develop the PREDICTA® B test as an in-crop diagnostic tool in collaboration with SARDI. “We use samples from our survey to run PREDICTA® B tests for root and crown pathogens and a second panel of tests for leaf and stem pathogens,” he says.

Dr Simpfendorfer says growers and agronomists play a critical role in surveillance and are encouraged to report suspected disease outbreaks and submit samples for diagnosis. “We offer free diagnostic support.” He says low levels of wheat streak mosaic virus (WSMV) were reported in a few wheat crops in central NSW during 2018. “Growers were advised to inspect the whole paddock and retain seed for sowing from areas where wheat curl mite has not spread WSMV infection to minimise seed-borne infection levels this season.”

Given the dry conditions in 2018, Dr Simpfendorfer is encouraging growers to have their seed tested for germination and vigour to ensure effective crop establishment and high yields, particularly if seed is sown deep and unsown seed from 2018 is earmarked for sowing.

More Information: Dr Steven Simpfendorfer on 0439 581 672 or steven.simpfendorfer@dpi.nsw.gov.au

Improved stress diagnostics

NSW Department of Primary Industries crop physiologist Dr Felicity Harris with her shading trials at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Institute. PHOTO: Nicole Baxter

NSW Department of Primary Industries crop physiologist Dr Felicity Harris with her shading trials at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Institute. Photo: Nicole Baxter

Planting a wheat variety outside its ideal sowing window can lead to yield losses from frost or heat, but pinpointing the cause of the damage is difficult when a large number of frost or heat stress events may occur during a season.

NSW DPI crop physiologist Dr Felicity Harris says if one frost or heat event occurs it is easy to say it occurred when the plant was at a specific development stage. “Every season brings multiple abiotic stresses that may include frost events throughout reproductive development, heat and drought stress, or even limited solar radiation in some years,” she says.

“We wanted to develop better methods of pinpointing specific stresses and quantifying their impact on yield, specifically in wheat.”

Dr Harris says it can be difficult to identify specific damage. For example, in 2018, drought tipping was confused with frost damage, as both frost and moisture stress occurred simultaneously. During the past two years, she and her team have induced stress at different timings. In 2017, shade-cloth shelters were used to limit light and cause stress to wheat plots in the field from stem elongation through to mid-grain fill to determine how the crop responds and compensates at different developmental stages.

“Glasshouse experiments also looked at the impact of shading on plant responses and yield under controlled environment conditions,” she says.

Another aspect of the work being done under the GRDC–NSW DPI GAPP was collaborating with CSIRO’s Dr Rudy Dolferus to field test 60 wheat lines at Wagga Wagga and Yanco that were developed with varied levels of tolerance to drought. “We’re using novel genetics and field phenotyping to identify a genotype that may be able to better cope with drought stress at the early reproductive stage,” Dr Harris says. “The aim is to develop field-based methodologies to quantify the effects of specific abiotic stresses to be used in agronomy research in the future.”

More Information: Dr Felicity Harris on 0458 243 350 or felicity.harris@dpi.nsw.gov.au

‘Salvage’ fungicides show merit

NSW Department of Primary Industries senior plant pathologist Dr Kevin Moore with chickpea pods infected with ascochyta blight. Dr Moore encourages growers to apply traditional fungicides before rainfall and to only use salvage fungicide options according to label and permit directions. PHOTO Nicole Baxter

NSW Department of Primary Industries senior plant pathologist Dr Kevin Moore with chickpea pods infected with ascochyta blight. Dr Moore encourages growers to apply traditional fungicides before rainfall and to only use salvage fungicide options according to label and permit directions. Photo Nicole Baxter

While traditional chickpea ascochyta blight fungicides need to be applied before rain because they are protectants only, new chemistry and formulations offer the possibility of ‘salvage’ fungicide options for ascochyta blight after rain.

NSW DPI senior plant pathologist Dr Kevin Moore – whose work is part of the GRDC–NSW DPI GAPP – says recent research shows chickpea ascochyta blight can be controlled if a pre-rainfall fungicide application is missed.

“There are four likely scenarios when this might occur: when unexpected rain occurs; the spray contractor doesn’t arrive; your own rig breaks down; or there is insufficient time to spray the entire chickpea crop before rain,” he says.

“Aviator Xpro® and Custodia® were tested in the field during 2017 and in the glasshouse during 2018, with both stopping ascochyta blight development when applied after rain.”

In the glasshouse experiment, when chickpea plants were at the four to five-leaf stage, Dr Moore inoculated the seedlings twice with ascochyta blight and put them into a rainfall simulator.

Fungicides (chlorothalonil, Aviator Xpro®, Custodia® and an experimental product) were applied 24 or 48 hours after inoculation.

Only Aviator Xpro®, Custodia® and the experimental product stopped ascochyta blight development and they did so at both application times.

In a second experiment, Dr Moore tested Aviator Xpro® and Custodia® on chickpeas with 14 nodes at four times: 24, 48, 72 and 96 hours after inoculation.

“Aviator Xpro® and Custodia® stopped ascochyta blight when applied up to 72 hours after inoculation but not after 96 hours. This result needs to be confirmed in field trials but it suggests that if growers wait until after 72 hours before spraying, the disease won’t be stopped,” he says.

If a pre-rainfall spray is missed, Dr Moore says one potential option based on this preliminary work is to consider an application of either Aviator Xpro® or Custodia® within 72 hours post the initial infection period, which commences with rainfall.

He encourages chickpea growers to continue with the industry best-practice recommendation of applying fungicide treatments before rainfall to control ascochyta blight.

“Any delay in a grower’s ability to apply Aviator Xpro® or Custodia® treatments beyond 72 hours after the initial infection period puts a crop at high risk of developing ascochyta blight infection,” he says.

“Growers should read and follow the label and permit instructions, adhering to the Aviator Xpro® product label by applying treatments no later than late flowering and 28 days before harvest for Custodia® as per the permit 81533.”

More Information: Dr Kevin Moore on 0488 251 866 or kevin.moore@dpi.nsw.gov.au

Canola heat tolerance tested

NSW DPI crop physiologist Dr Rajneet Uppal is working towards the development of heat-tolerant canola varieties, which may lead to a five per cent lift in crop yields.

The researcher, whose work is a GRDC–NSW DPI investment under the GAPP, has just completed two years of experiments to explore a novel method for evaluating canola heat tolerance in field trials.

In 2017 we confirmed canola is most sensitive to heat stress from day one to day seven of flowering; however, in 2018 we expanded the trial to look at the impact of heat stress from bud initiation to seed development. - Dr Rajneet Uppal

Heat chambers were developed to apply heat stress to canola at different times during its developmental phase. “We wanted to pinpoint the stage at which canola was most sensitive to heat stress and measure the impact on yield and oil,” Dr Uppal says.

“In 2017 we confirmed canola is most sensitive to heat stress from day one to day seven of flowering; however, in 2018 we expanded the trial to look at the impact of heat stress from bud initiation to seed development.”

During the first year of the study, the temperature in the heat chambers was elevated to 31°C for three hours over four days, but in year two of the trial the heat was turned up to 35°C for five hours over eight days.

Also included in the study were irrigated treatments to see if the yield penalty was caused by moisture stress more than high temperature.

Dr Uppal says the next step is using the heat chambers to screen canola varieties and better understand the mechanisms that allow some varieties to yield well in hot and dry conditions.

“Heat stress is expected to increase in the future so we need to create new canola varieties that are well adapted to our changing environment.”

More information: Dr Rajneet Uppal on 0436 341 649 or rajneet.uppal@dpi.nsw.gov.au

GRDC Research Code: BLG101, BLG109, BLG208, BLG102, BLG209, BLG108

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