Global Warming Crop Resilience? Aussie Farmer Helps CSIRO Develop Long Coleoptile Wheat

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Faced with a lack of interest from commercial grain producers, an Aussie farmer has stepped in to help the CSIRO test a new strain of wheat which can be planted deeper in the soil than conventional varieties, allowing the wheat more access to retained soil moisture, potentially boosting yields by 30-40%.

Long coleoptile wheat could help farmers adapt to climate change 

WA Country Hour / 

By Emma Field and staff

After more than two decades of searching, Australian scientists may have found the most significant climate change adaption for wheat growers. 

And a determined Western Australian farmer, who wants access to the new wheat genetics, which could allow farmers to crops in hotter and drier environments, has trials of the new wheat varieties on his farm. 

Wheat is the largest crop grown by Australian farmers, but climate change is threatening grain production.

How is this wheat different?

The new genetic wheat trait being tested means the plant can grow a longer coleoptile, which is the first shoot that comes out of the wheat seed when it germinates and makes its way to the surface to become the first leaf.

The longer coleoptile will allow farmers to plant the wheat seeds much deeper in the soil.

And this will be critical when summer rain moisture is deep in the soil, well below the normal 4 centimetres depth at which the grain is conventionally planted.

With a longer coleoptile, farmers could plant the wheat deeper into summer rain moisture prompting immediate germination, rather than waiting for the first autumn rain.

And in dry years when there is minimal autumn rain, like this year in Western Australia, having wheat with a longer coleoptile might be the difference between growing a crop or not.

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If you ignore the obligatory ABC genuflection to the alleged climate crisis, this appears to be an exciting development. Dwarf grains were the keystone of the 1960s green revolution, which saved much of the world from a constant threat of hunger. Instead of growing useless long stalks, dwarf grains put more of their energy into producing grain, which dramatically boosts yields.

But if I have understood this article correctly, the price of high yield dwarf grain genetics was a shorter coleoptile, the initial sprout which emerges from the seed. The short coleoptile limits how deeply seeds can be planted, which in harsh climates like Western Australia and presumably parts of Africa and the USA, limits when seeds can be planted, and increases the risk of seedlings drying out. Even in harsh Western Australian Summers there is lots of moisture buried beneath the dry surface, but short coleoptile seeds cannot be planted deeply enough to access this buried moisture.

This new grain variety potentially solves this problem by keeping the yield advantages of conventional dwarf varieties, but circumventing the effect existing dwarf genetics has on coleoptile length, creating a dwarf variety which can be planted deep enough to access buried moisture.

If the grain wins acceptance, Dr. Greg Rebetzke of the CSIRO and Southern Cross farmer Callum Wesley deserve a big thank you for bringing us this advance.

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August 20, 2020 2:07 am

Food security for the vulnerable most population is actually grave challenge for world to face , in wake of climate change

Reply to  Neetu Singh
August 20, 2020 2:40 am

What climate change would that be then?

spangled drongo
Reply to  Neetu Singh
August 20, 2020 3:06 am
Reply to  Neetu Singh
August 20, 2020 4:54 am

You have it backwards. CO2 is plant food. The Earth has greened a lot in the satellite era (when we have been able to measure green area) probably due to enhanced atmospheric CO2.

The other thing is that enhanced CO2 reduces the size of pores and therefore reduces transpiration. That means enhanced atmospheric CO2 increases the water use efficiency of crops.

The effect of enhanced atmospheric CO2 on crop production more than offsets any effects of global warming.

Crispin in Waterloo
Reply to  commieBob
August 20, 2020 6:24 am

Hear, hear, CommieB You nailed it.

Everything that benefits production per unit moisture mass is to be encouraged. The genetic editing needed to make a very long coleoptile and a short stature mature plant will of course, arrive eventually as breeders understand more.

For arid continents like Australia and the Central/west USA/Gobi and surrounds this will be a blessing. Obviously the Sahel (which is invading the Sahara desert as CO2 rises) would be turned into a vast wheat belt. I am quite confident that Africa will be the breadbasket of a future healthy world. This will realise the dream of Dr St Barbe Baker of progressively pushing the Sahara desert back by planting trees (peach trees if I recall) each year. Biomass growth becomes more water efficient each year, as can already be seen in the Southern Sahel where tree cover is increasing rapidly. Greenpeace once put out a statement condemning the tribal group that was planting trees for food and fuel in the SW Sahel for wrecking the grasslands, turning it into permanent forest.

Reply to  commieBob
August 20, 2020 6:25 am

So far, the only affect “global warming” has had on crop production, is a slight increase in the growing season.

Reply to  Neetu Singh
August 20, 2020 6:24 am

A few tenths of a degree is going to make that big of a difference?
Anywho, having more CO2 in the atmosphere means plants can survive on less water, which is a good thing for food security.

Reply to  Neetu Singh
August 20, 2020 7:21 pm

How true, the “climate change™” agenda threatens to try to reduce atmospheric CO2.

This would certainly cause lower crop yields and badly affect vulnerable populations..

Patrick MJD
August 20, 2020 3:13 am

Hope no “wheat” toads were involved.

spangled drongo
August 20, 2020 3:13 am
Ron Long
August 20, 2020 3:23 am

Good report, Eric. Doom and Gloom on one side and millions of smart, focused persons on the other (but enough about Democrats and Republicans). The ability of humans to adapt and flourish is what makes them different from other animals. Hats off to wheat farmers, especially those pushing production forward.

August 20, 2020 4:12 am

that “useless” stem growth that they gene fiddled to short meant a lot less HAY for animal fodder and mulch etc.
and as shown the genomes used to create it also makes the global crops it was bred into susceptible to UG99
Aus so far has managed to stay clear of it but..for how longis the Q.
if this is natural bread and breeds true the nyes its a boon
we plant in autumn for winter wheats so thats why the first “breaking” rains are waited for, then a grim wait for follow on.
WA soils migh thold moisture deeper than 4cm?
not many place in my area do soils sandy n low mineral low everything
amazingly we still get decent yields
but at a huge cost for additives/chemicals
funny cos wild grasses do hugely well with zero added.

Tim Gorman
Reply to  ozspeaksup
August 20, 2020 4:51 am

Around here wheat straw is *not* fed as hay. There simply isn’t enough nutrient left in dried out wheat stubble. That doesn’t mean the wheat straw isn’t useful, it is used for bedding in all kinds of environments., i.e. mulch. But it simply isn’t useful for feeding.

Reply to  Tim Gorman
August 20, 2020 7:03 am

You have to forgive ozspeaksup, she’s opposed to anything invented after about 1850.

Patrick MJD
Reply to  Tim Gorman
August 20, 2020 7:16 pm

Straw is an excellent building material.

Reply to  Patrick MJD
August 24, 2020 2:04 am

It’s used to make mud bricks, which are used in as many as a dozen houses a year in Australia. And traditional straw roofs, perhaps as many as zilch every year.

Reply to  Tim Gorman
August 21, 2020 8:00 am

While they generally don’t use wheat straw, straw is fed as hay to cattle. Locally at least wheat straw is sometimes used as bedding and if bored or hungry animals will munch on it. But yes it lacks in nutrients.

My area ships a lot grass straw to areas where grass is limited (i.e. Japan) who then spray it with needed nutrients for their cattle. The straw is used as both bulk to satisfy the need to eat a certain amount of feed each day and as a carrier for the required nutrients to maintain healthy weight. Wheat straw just isn’t as dense as grass so requires more effort to be used and quite frankly it’s just better to work it right back into the soil when preparing the field for it’s next crop. Farmers typically bale straw in 1000 pound bales which are shipped to a company who compresses those bales into even more dense bales before shipping to the end user. I haven’t seen that end of the business but have been told the final bales is several tons in weight by the time it’s ready to ship.

FYI, market for straw was developed when they started banning burning of perennial grass fields. The straw has to come off the field one way or another or it will ruin your crop cycle. At first farmers were just baling the straw and piling up stacks on the edge of fields to rot because there was no market for it. Slowly a market was developed and the straw is no longer wasted. Downside is it takes more chemicals for pest/disease control. Immolating insects and molds are quite effective at minimizing infestations.

–>Former grass seed farmer from what is called the grass seed capital of the world.

Reply to  ozspeaksup
August 20, 2020 6:26 am

Is anyone running out of hay? If not, why the worry? Unless you just have to come up with something to whine about, no matter how irrelevant.

Reply to  ozspeaksup
August 20, 2020 8:25 am

A lot of farmers in my area are combining the wheat high, leaving the wheat stalks in the field (vertical) and planting soy beans as the second crop for the summer. Saves the cost of bailing the wheat stalks and adds back any of their nutrition back into the soil.

August 20, 2020 4:37 am

‘that “useless” stem growth that they gene fiddled to short meant a lot less HAY for animal fodder and mulch etc.’

Do Aussies really refer to straw as “hay”? Goodness me. And does Australian wheat straw contain much nutritious value for cattle? Goodness me again.

Reply to  dearieme
August 20, 2020 9:16 am

Only Australian city farmers AKA inner city trendies without a clue.

August 20, 2020 4:44 am

This is the kind of science I support. Give the farmers more ways to adapt. Goodonya!

August 20, 2020 5:36 am

OMG!!!! Now climate change is going after beer!!!!!

Right-Handed Shark
Reply to  Yooper
August 20, 2020 9:53 am

It was only a matter of time, but I must admit it’s not the angle I was expecting.

Ian MacCulloch
August 20, 2020 6:02 am

Brilliant – I remember sowing the early short stem varieties in trials on Gurley Station (since subdivided) near Moree in the mid 60s. Gamenya? They allowed for better yields and faster stripping due to shorter stems about 30 to 40 cm

August 20, 2020 7:06 am

Any updates on global greening recently? I suspect the improving farm practices since the 60’s (i.e. low till, no till, etc.) will take some of the marginal lands and begin to restore them.

Climate believer
August 20, 2020 7:21 am

Great, why not, another part of the agri evolution since the 60’s in increasing cereal production and yields.

According to worldbank data Australia has gone from producing about 9 M metric tonnes of cereal back in the 60’s to about 50 M mt in 2017, and that’s using about a million km² less agricultural land.

Straw can be fed to cattle and horses as chaff (chopped up), it’s used sparingly as part of a low nutrient diet or to try and rectify a lack of fibre, that is if you can get them to eat it.

Reply to  Climate believer
August 20, 2020 8:12 am

Just try dribbling some molasses over the straw and see how eagerly the cows chomp it down.

Reply to  Mr.
August 20, 2020 9:53 am

In India we used to soak oil cake in water and then pour the juices on the chaff to get cows to eat it. Only starving cows will touch it otherwise.

August 20, 2020 8:52 am

Cheaper and easier to build better wheat than to build a better battery.

August 20, 2020 5:10 pm

Unlike the U.S. and Canada, Australia very quickly runs out of land suitable for farming as you head away from the coast, particularly in Western Australia. And Southern Cross in Western Australia is at the edge of wheat farm area, getting into arid salt flat country. So I could understand a Southern Cross farmer wanting to find a wheat variety that works well in those arid conditions.

August 21, 2020 3:42 am

If you can access it, this BBC radio item on a leading plant scientist covers fascinating information on similar crop improvements and GMOs

August 21, 2020 8:03 am

This is why the world will not end up starving anytime soon despite doomsayer predictions. Advances in agricultural keeps outpacing population growth. Starvation is due to political/economic/disaster reasons nut because the world isn’t producing enough.

August 22, 2020 1:45 am

I guess that will be to the detriment of low till, no till.

Reply to  lee
August 24, 2020 2:08 am

That’s doubtful. The conditions that make low till (or no till) necessary don’t change, even if you use this new grain.

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