John Innes Centre trial aims to find wheat which can resist spring droughts
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
The dry spring may have caused problems for East Anglia's farmers – but it has created the perfect conditions for a scientific trial aiming to help crops cope with future droughts.
Despite this week's rain bringing welcome relief to growers, Norwich-based researchers said wheat yields will already have been damaged by April's lack of rainfall, which left plants short of water during a crucial stage in their development.
The John Innes Centre (JIC) is running its second year of field trials to assess the impact of a dry spring – and whether a Spanish variety could hold the genetic key to resisting future droughts.
A hectare of dry, sandy land at Bawburgh has been split into two halves, each planted with 177 different progeny from a cross between two wheat varieties: Garcia, which thrives in the hotter climate of southern Europe, and the UK bread-making wheat Paragon.
One side has been watered since the start of April, so it can be compared with how the same plants perform without irrigation.
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Unsurprisingly, the irrigated plants are taller, greener and healthier. But there are some plots which appear to be faring better than others in the dry half of the trial – although the full results won't be clear until the crop is harvested.
Dr Simon Griffiths, project leader at the JIC, said the Defra-funded research aims to identify drought-resistant plants and provide seed breeders with markers highlighting the genes responsible for this trait, which could then be incorporated into commercial wheat varieties.
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'You think of wheat flowering as an important time, when you see the ears coming out, but that is when the grain is filling,' he said. 'It is now when the plant's ability to make the grain is being determined.
'This is why we are specifically looking at the impact of a dry spring, which we think is a particular problem.
'We want to be ale to tell commercial wheat breeders we have got this combination of genes which will give you a more resistant plant, and they will take them and cross them into commercial varieties.'
Dr Griffiths said if there is a lack of rainfall during the summer, both halves of the trial will be irrigated, to isolate the impact of a dry spring on yield, rather than the effect of a dry summer.
'If there was a drought all the way through you would not know whether if was affecting grain-filling or the formation of the grains,' he said. 'So we have split the two.
'It would be quite valid to do it the other way round but we wanted to focus on grain formulation because we think this is a particularly important problem for grain stability in the UK.
'We know there will be a yield impact from this kind of drought, and it could be up to 20pc, but we cannot predict what is going to happen later this year.'
Dr Clare Lister, a researcher running the trial, said only 24mm of rainfall was recorded at the JIC this April, compared to 63.8mm in 2016, which made a drought comparison much easier this year.
'Last year, we were waterlogged until May, so we didn't expect to be irrigating this year – but it is good for the experiment,' she said.
'In April we are at growth stage 31, when the stem starts to elongate. That is when the grain number is determined.
'If there is drought at this time of year, then the plants will suffer and ultimately it will reduce the yield.'
A prolonged period of low rainfall can severely affect agriculture through crop failure, reduced crop yield, deteriorating quality, disrupted access to drinking water for livestock and increased fire risk in heathland areas.
Paul Hammett, water resources specialist for the National Farmers' Union, said: 'Farmers can and do act early to improve their prospects of coping with prolonged dry periods by using water-saving devices like effective use of irrigation equipment, science-based soil and water management, and irrigation best practice.'
Top tips from consultants at ADAS for farmers to make efficient use of the available water include:
• Knowing the water holding capacity of the soil in each field, and the water requirements of each crop.
• Using effective soil moisture monitoring systems to schedule irrigation accurately.
• Choosing the right application equipment for each situation and knowing how to use it to get uniform and timely delivery.
• Auditing performance afterwards to seek ways of improving the efficient use and application of water.