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Heated fields experiment finds an upside to climate change for farmers

Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used heated field plots to reveal why warmer Octobers bring better yields of oilseed rape crops. Pictured: An aerial view of the heated plots. Picture: Phil Robinson

Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used heated field plots to reveal why warmer Octobers bring better yields of oilseed rape crops. Pictured: An aerial view of the heated plots. Picture: Phil Robinson

Phil Robinson

A pioneering experiment using heated field plots to test how crops respond to temperature has revealed an unexpected upside of climate change for farmers.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used heated field plots to reveal why warmer Octobers bring better yields of oilseed rape crops. Pictured: An aerial view of the trial field. Picture: Phil RobinsonScientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used heated field plots to reveal why warmer Octobers bring better yields of oilseed rape crops. Pictured: An aerial view of the trial field. Picture: Phil Robinson

The field trial at the John Innes Centre in Norwich - the first of its kind - was set up to investigate why warmer Octobers tend to bring higher yields of oilseed rape.

The autumn-sown crop is particularly sensitive to temperature at certain times of the year, with yields varying by up to 30pc as a result.

The study found that warmer Octobers delay the flowering of the plants the following spring, giving them more time to grow - resulting in higher volumes of valuable seeds being harvested in summer.

That could be good news for growers, as damaging cold Octobers are now much less frequent than they were in the past.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used heated field plots to reveal why warmer Octobers bring better yields of oilseed rape crops. Pictured: An aerial view of the trial field. Picture: Phil RobinsonScientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used heated field plots to reveal why warmer Octobers bring better yields of oilseed rape crops. Pictured: An aerial view of the trial field. Picture: Phil Robinson

Prof Steve Penfield, one of the authors of the study, said: "We found that oilseed rape plants stop growing when they go through the floral transition at the end of October, and that warmer temperatures at this time of year enable the plant to grow for longer, giving more potential for higher yields.

"By establishing the link between autumn temperatures and yield, our study highlights an example of climate change being potentially useful to farmers."

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Temperature is critical for the lifecycle of oilseed rape because it determines at what point the plant goes through the transition from vegetative state to flowering.

This process, called vernalisation, is well understood in the lab as a requirement of a prolonged exposure to cold temperature. But an increasing body of research suggests vernalisation might work differently under more variable conditions experienced by a plant in the field.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used heated field plots to reveal why warmer Octobers bring better yields of oilseed rape crops. Pictured: An aerial view of the heated plots. Picture: Phil RobinsonScientists at the John Innes Centre in Norwich have used heated field plots to reveal why warmer Octobers bring better yields of oilseed rape crops. Pictured: An aerial view of the heated plots. Picture: Phil Robinson

In this study, the team used soil surface warming cables to raise the temperature of field plots by between 4C and 8C, simulating warmer October temperatures. Two varieties of oilseed rape with differing vernalisation requirements were trialled.

Laboratory tests on dissected plants showed that warming in October conditions delayed floral transition by between three and four weeks for both varieties.

"This study was only possible because were able to create the lab into a field to simulate how climate change is affecting UK agriculture," said Prof Penfield.

"It's important to be able to do this because yield is highly weather-dependent in oilseed rape and it is very likely that climate change will have big consequences for the way we can use crops and the type of variety that we need to deploy."

The full study has been published in the scientific journal Current Biology.

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