Arable Horizons sees crops to cope with climate extremes
Water is likely to have the biggest impact on agriculture as an effect of the changing climate. Helping growers and agronomists to manage issues of both too much and too little water is the primary objective of Syngenta’s $2 billion investment in R&D to find sustainable agriculture solutions.
Speaking at the Farmers Weekly Arable Horizons Building resilience into on-farm water management, sponsored by Syngenta, the company’s UK Technical Manager, Dave King, announced the initiative will look to develop two new breakthrough technologies a year specifically targeted at mitigating the effects of climate change.
“Agriculture globally is one of the biggest victims of the consequences of climate change effects, including floods and drought," he highlighted.
"Yet it is in the unique position of recognising that it is also part of the problem, in generating significant levels of greenhouse gasses."
“At the same time, it is tasked with the challenge of continuing to feed ever increasing consumer demand. Managing crops in the future will be a combination of greater resilience to withstand the effects of climate extremes now, along with a longer-term commitment for agriculture and land management to be a key component in the solution to reversing current trends,” he said.
Mr King highlighted research into exciting new technologies have demonstrated the capability to consistently produce high yields, whilst building in the resilience to better cope with effects of climate extremes. The challenge is to now develop proven systems that will enable growers to integrate practices economically on-farm and within the regulatory framework.
Over recent seasons much of the Syngenta research has focused on the soil and what goes on below ground. “Soil structure has such a fundamental influence on crop health and performance, as well as for drainage and water retention, along with locking up carbon to reduce impacts of greenhouse gasses,” according to Dave King.
He reported initial results from a long-term Syngenta conservation agriculture initiative, in collaboration with the GWCT and NIAB, have shown reduced intensity establishment systems can cut greenhouse gas emissions from soils by 50%, compared to plough based cultivations, along with a 70% reduction in fuel use and up to 50% reduction in costs.
Furthermore, the replicated field scale trials have shown an increase in earthworm numbers as a reflection of soil health in the reduced intensity cultivations, along with an increase in farmland birds. The comparative systems are also fully costed for farm output and profitability.
“The research project is set to continue through a full five-year rotation on two contrasting commercial farms, on heavy land in Leicestershire and light land in Kent. Crucially, it fully reflects the immense challenges faced by farmers and the need to react in real-time to changing situations; this season there will need to be the same rethink after the inability to get crops established on the heavy land, for example.”
Arable Horizons host farmers
Farmers Weekly Arable Horizons was hosted by Euston Estate, the 2500 hectare in-hand Suffolk farming business in one of the driest parts of the UK. The farm typically receives just 50 to 55 mm of rainfall a year.
With water such an important resource for root crops grown on the estate, farm manager, Matthew Hawthorne (below), highlighted the essential role of both irrigation and drainage.
The estate has invested over £2.2m in 200 million gallons of reservoir storage capacity and the capability to irrigate up over 2000 hectares. State of the art technology and monitoring governs extraction of water when available – which also helps to protect downstream communities from flooding – along with making best use of resources through the season with improved leak detection and better scheduling of inputs.
Furthermore, some 250 hectares of cover crops are sown each year, to enhance organic matter levels on the breckland sand soils and better retain water and nutrients.
Along with improving soil structure, comes the ability to encourage and enhance root systems that will drive crop health and plant performance, advocates Dave King.
“Plants with stronger rooting are clearly better able to cope with managing water extremes - be that scavenging for moisture and nutrients to deal with the extreme drought of summer 2018, or to stay standing after the deluge of rain in June 2019."
“The challenge for growers is that when you sow the crop, you don’t know if it is going to be a 2018 or 2019 season; we need to develop systems that will cope with both extremes.”
With stronger rooting hybrid barley, for example, in over 60 reference yield trials across four seasons, with a Jan to June rainfall variation from 184 mm to over 500 mm, it delivered consistently higher yields every season, from 0.6 t/ha to 1.1 t/ha, compared to conventional barley varieties.
“The successful development of hybrid wheat could be one of the breakthrough technologies that will enable growers to better manage climate extremes,” predicted Mr King.
He also highlighted agronomic advances that are geared to managing crops to perform more consistently through challenges of climate extremes. With sedaxane seed treatment, for example, the benefit of encouraging early vigour to get crops out of the ground has been invaluable in this season’s difficult conditions, where drilling has been possible.
“Increasingly new crop protection technologies are looking to do more than control disease per se,” he advocated. “We are investigating physiological traits that give the capability to regulate genes that are associated with stress during the plant’s growth. We can seek to dial down the expression of undesirable genetic traits that are associated with stress related issues, such as drought, and enhance the good genes, such as protein generation in milling wheat, for example.”
To further manage drought tolerance, which has historically had a far greater impact on crop yields than excess water, targeted agronomy can maximise photosynthesis, without increasing evapotranspiration that will exacerbate issues of moisture deficit.
“Bigger leaves typically result in greater water loss,” he pointed out.
“But we have identified that the fungicide, Solatenol, has a beneficial physiological effect in regulating stomatal opening. In the field we see untreated leaves wither and die in drought stress conditions, whilst the treated flag leaf can stay open and green for longer to capture energy for the plant.”
Aiming to increase crop plant resilience to a range of environmental pressures from changing climate will be another element to agronomy decisions on how to best use existing and new agronomics, alongside a suite of other integrated tools.
With the challenges of climate extremes further adding to the existing complexities of farm and crop management, developments in digital technology will be vital for proactive decision making. “We don’t want to be just reacting to situations, but need to build in the resilience that we can rely on through the season,” advised Dave King.
The huge investment in research is generating an immense amount of data and information that has really valuable application for planning and every day decisions on farm, he believed. Digital platforms will provide the mechanism and capability to deliver decision making support in real time and directly linked to precision application.
“Years of integrated trials at Syngenta Innovation Centres is revealing the implications of cultivations and establishment techniques on blackgrass populations in different seasons and with widely varying seed dormancy, for example.
“The power of digital technology gives growers the capability to adapt their actions based on real-life experience of what has happened in previous seasons with a similar scenario," he advocated.
”When you then build in elements such as a variable seed rate calculator tailored to soil moisture holding capacity, for example, it becomes possible to fully utilise the agronomic capability of seeds, crop protection and new biocontrols.
“It will give the ability to consistently produce crops better able to cope with the extremes of climate change, as well as the tools to effectively integrate practical and economic systems that can reach carbon neutral goals in the future.”