Narrabri farmer owned IA Watson Grains Research Centre, leased by the University of Sydney, has since 1958 been best known for its world leadership in developing rust resistant wheats, once the biggest threat to production in much of Australia.
Today the centre, while still a leader in rust research, is also involved and leads dozens of research projects resulting in gains to farmer incomes on average of several hundred million a year.
In various crops such as maize, sorghum and canola, the development of hybrid varieties has proven to dramatically increase yield.
But with cereals like wheat, hybrid development has been difficult, and while possible the economics have been doubtful.
However, University of Sydney research, led by Professor Richard Trethowan, with international support, has now developed a technology that is feasible and supports commercialisation with potential for big yield gains.
Researchers like Richard Trethowan believe hybrid wheat production is the next big commercial scale innovation likely to boost wheat income.
Research is now at the stage of widescale Australian and international trialling and the university is seeking interest from commercial partners.
Crown rot research across Australia, led by University of Sydney researcher Dr Phil Davies, is another highlight of current Narrabri research. Best performing breeding lines have averaged 9 per cent better yield than benchmark varieties under disease pressure conditions. These breeding lines with molecular markers (easier breeding identification) linked to the pyramided resistance genes are already being used by commercial wheat breeding programs.
University of Sydney's faba bean breeding program headed by Dr Kedar Adhikari, released in 2018 PBA Nasma, an improvement on previous northern varieties by 2-4pc and with better seed quality. Elite lines for future release are several per cent higher yielding compared to Nasma. Like several of the Narrabri research programs, GRDC is an important funding partner.
A well-advanced Narrabri research program, led by Dr Rebecca Thistlethwaite with other Australian co-researchers, is developing high-temperature tolerant wheats, involving assessing selections from around the world and incorporating promising material into Australian lines. Lines have been identified with up to 20pc yield advantage under high temperatures with stable grain weights and reduced screenings. Such material will be extremely beneficial to help crops finish under all too common hot and dry spring conditions.
Another aspect of improving chickpea varieties, led by Dr Helen Bramley, is developing chickpea with improved drought tolerance via measuring water extraction and root function at different soil depths to help identify better genotypes for breeding programs. Lines with reduced sensitivity to reproductive stage drought have been identified.
While chickpea breeding is a NSW DPI Tamworth based program led Dr Kirsty Hobson, with research plots on Narrabri as part of her program, the University of Sydney also has a big interest in pre-breeding research. Dr Angela Pattison is leading a pre-breeding study that has developed eight new groups of lines with improved heat and drought tolerance; confirmed using late sowing and field-based heat chambers.
Digital agriculture, embracing aspects such as drones, soil moisture and nutrient probes, automatic recording devices and robotics, all relating to crop pasture and livestock systems, as well as soil health, is another large Narrabri investment led by Dr Guy Roth.
Other big programs include weed research led by Dr Michael Walsh, including agronomic studies to assess more competitive crop strategies, world crop germplasm assessment, and physiological basis of heat tolerance in wheat.
Wheat breeding company AGT, with Dr Meiqin Lu (bread wheat) and Tom Kapcejevs (Durum), also operate a large program at the Narrabri centre with two higher yielded varieties recently released. Other companies also test their material at Narrabri which have included new releases this year.
Next week: Best annual ryegrass control strategy needs correct herbicide resistance clarification.
- Bob Freebairn is an agricultural consultant based at Coonabarabran. Email email@example.com or contact (0428) 752 149.