Australian grains researchers, like grain growers, are well aware that heat and drought events may happen at any stage of the cropping season and can have a significant impact on crop profitability.
For the past decade, a key element of investigating the value of new crop traits in responding to environmental stresses has been researchers' ability to conduct accurate, repeatable and relevant trials using infrastructure such as Managed Environmental Facilities (MEFs).
In 2009, GRDC invested directly with Sydney University, the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and the Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) as they set up their specialist MEF infrastructure in response to a national review of drought research facilities.
The aim of the MEFs was to enhance grain production in water-limited environments by providing regional support for national research projects and scientists with sites set up at key environmental locations at Merredin in WA, Yanco in southern NSW and Narrabri in northern NSW.
The MEF sites offer researchers the ability to control water availability through irrigation and rain-out shelters, take detailed physiological measures throughout the season, and provide valuable locations to develop and validate new technologies such as high-throughput field phenotyping.
Today, the three MEF sites are well established and have, in many cases, played an instrumental role in the delivery of significant cereal research outcomes back to industry. This year, the projects that were initially set up to use the MEF reach their conclusion, so the facilities will be available for use by new researchers for new projects with no requirement for the work to be tied to a GRDC investment. This means the institutions which own the infrastructure can effectively open these specialist MEF research facilities to a broader range of scientists and institutions.
GRDC general manager of genetic and enabling technologies, Dr Nicole Jensen, says the MEFs were a credit to DPIRD, NSW DPI and University of Sydney and have and would continue to provide an invaluable resource to support grains industry research.
"Through our $15 million co-investment with the infrastructure owners, the MEFs have become well-established, so we are pleased that the facilities will now be available to more researchers investigating traits related to drought, heat and frost," Dr Jensen says.
"The MEFs are a critical part of a broader range of infrastructure owned and operated by these research organisations that are used for research that benefits the grains industry."
Wheat pre-breeder Greg Rebetzke, from CSIRO, has used the MEFs since their development and says the infrastructure has changed the Australian grains research landscape.
"The MEFs provided researchers for the first time with a controlled field environment where we could accurately, transparently and independently assess a range of traits and genetics in the field," Dr Rebetzke says.
"In the first instance this was the simulation of the amount and timing of water stress that underpins drought. There is also some potential to simulate other environmental stress including heat or frost conditions.
"For the first time the MEFs allowed the wider research community to compare side-by-side and develop value propositions for a range of traits, under a range of conditions and confirm the importance of cooler canopies linked to deep roots, improved early vigour, improved crop establishment and modified canopy architecture in improving water-productivity.
"More recently, MEFs confirmed the varietal proposition of new wheat dwarfing genes with the capacity to allow for deep sowing. This information was supplied to commercial breeding programs, along with new genetic sources and breeding tools such as new molecular markers, to hasten the uptake and use of these genes."
The MEFs provided researchers for the first time with a controlled field environment where we could accurately, transparently and independently assess a range of traits and genetics in the field.
In summary, Dr Rebetzke says, the MEFs have played an instrumental role in the timely development and delivery in some of the latest pre-breeding technologies.
"The other critical aspect to this national MEF program was the way it bought together different research organisations and commercial breeding companies in a way that ultimately benefited Australian grain growers.
"The MEFs allowed plant pre-breeders like me to put our traits and genetics out in the field and provide comparative data to growers and breeding programs."
It's a summation supported by Ian Pritchard, the manager of field research services in WA for DPIRD. He says the national MEFs program changed the way trials were conducted throughout WA and beyond. "Initially we wanted to be able to compare trials across the three MEFs sites so the importance of having a standardised approach to day-to-day management really came to the forefront," he says.
"This approach has had a significant flow-on effect for broader research and as a result of the MEF program we developed a 'hymn book' - or blueprint - for all trial work in WA and I think that is a major legacy of the original MEF program," Mr Pritchard says.
"From an infrastructure perspective, the MEFs now form an integral part of the facilities we have that allow for more accurate and comprehensive research into frost, heat and drought."
The three MEFs are:
- Merredin, WA - which is managed by DPIRD. For more information about this facility contact Ian Pritchard: email@example.com
- Yanco, southern NSW - which is managed by NSW DPI. For more information about this research facility contact Kathryn Bechaz: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Narrabri, northern NSW - which is managed by the University of Sydney. For more information about this research facility contact Gina Bange,: email@example.com