RESEARCH underway across the northern NSW and southern Queensland grain belt could result in a new option for summer cropping: chickpeas.
University of Sydney Professor Richard Trethowan, who is director of The Plant Breeding Institute, said there had been a great deal of interest from growers in the potential for sowing heat tolerant chickpeas on summer moisture.
"A lot of people in those areas often have moisture in late summer," he said.
"And it's an option because you can plant on that late summer moisture, and you can harvest before you put a winter crop in. It's a different season, a different window.
"Interestingly, the quality of the seed if you plant the right genotypes is beautiful."
The current two-year project evolved from a previous four-year project, Legumes for Sustainable Agriculture Program, which imported hundreds of samples of chickpea genotypes from different gene banks around the world for a pre-breeding program.
At the time researchers were looking for ways to improve the tolerance of winter crops of chickpeas to both cold and heat in spring.
Mean temperatures lower than 15 degrees at flowering can cause flowers to abort, reducing yield, and an untimely hot spell can affect both grain quality and yield.
University of Sydney research scientist Dr Angela Pattison decided to up the ante on testing for heat resistance by planting some material, including short season lines from India, in summer.
"The idea was to flip the season on its head and grow them at the end of summer, so that they're producing their pods in the temperate parts of the year, when the money maker - the weather - is favourable," she said.
"So they're avoiding the stress rather than trying to breed tolerance to it."
Half the lines showed promise and were tested for a second year. At the same time, several grain growers in the Bellata area sowed some of the current varieties in commercial scale trials in late January.
PBA Seamer produced yields similar to conventional sowing dates, but harvest in late autumn last year was challenging because the crop was still happily growing - a month after spraying some pods were still green, they contained immature seeds and the stems were flexible.
Dr Pattison said varieties suitable for growing in summer needed three characteristics.
They had to be fast growing, with a season no longer than 90-120 days, insensitive to changes in day length, and have an internal trigger that tells the plant when to stop growing.
Winter grown chickpea crops stop accumulating biomass in spring when they become stressed by rising temperatures and drier soils.
"And then the farmer will just spray it out like they do with cotton, when it gets close," she said.
"But when you plant them in summer, the total opposite happens. The weather is getting more and more favourable for them, and they don't stop. If it doesn't stop, no matter how many sprays you put on it, it's not going to crisp up and dry, it gets soggy. And so you get these harvestability problems with it. Because you can imagine trying to harvest something that's only half dead in May. It's just too soft."
Under the current project, experimental trials have been sown at two planting dates across five sites: Breeza, Narrabri, Gatton, Pittsworth and Emerald.
Unfortunately, the Gatton and Pittsworth trials had to be written off after flooding earlier this year.
Nonetheless, Prof Trethowan said it was an exciting time.
Trial crops at Breeza were harvested recently and the site at Narrabri "looks a million dollars".
"We will repeat the trial next year to gain some extra information and we might even extend the number of sites, given that we've lost some information this year through floods," he said.
"All the data so far has been Narrabri based. The question is, is this a specific adaptation to Narrabri? Or is this something that could be applied across a really wide region, and there's a lot of chickpeas sown from Central New South Wales to Central Queensland."
Prof Trethowan said the future of the research depended on the success of the trials and availability of funding.
"If these trials show that this type of chickpea has a place and there's a desire to take advantage of that late summer moisture from enough growers that justifies further investment into the genetics," he said.
"Initially it will be standard plant breeding practices, finding the diversity, crossing it in, accumulating the genes."
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