Increasing the resilience of cereal and oilseed rape production to weather damage.

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: Lancaster Environment Centre

Abstract

Severe weather can cause cereal and oilseed rape crops to become uprooted or their stems to break, a process called lodging. This means that the crops do not grow to their full potential, the quantity of seed they produce (the yield) is substantially reduced and the quality of the grain decreases meaning that it cannot be used for certain purposes such as bread making. Lodging makes crops more susceptible to infection by fungi which can produce toxic chemicals which render the grain unusable. These impacts of lodging can substantially reduce the value of a crop and there can be additional costs of drying the grain harvested from lodged crops. Hence, it is estimated that lodging can cost UK farmers £170M in a severe lodging year. High winds can also cause oilseed rape pods to shatter which releases the seeds and they cannot be harvested. This costs UK farmers in excess of £7M per year. By taking appropriate action (e.g. choice of crop variety and how it is managed) it is possible for farmers to reduce the likelihood of lodging and pod shatter. However, farmers need information to guide their decisions and currently this is largely absent.

This project will develop a computerised system for predicting the risks of lodging and pod shatter. It will be based on a model of how crops behave under conditions of high wind speed and soil moisture that will be developed from field experiments. The system will calculate the distribution of lodging and pod shatter across a farm that is likely to occur under severe weather conditions. This information is useful to farmers for developing plans in advance of a growing season. It will show farmers how weather damage can be reduced by selecting particular crop varieties to plant in particular fields and by adjusting the timing and density of seed planting.

The system will also support farmers to make decisions within a growing season. To do this it will use satellite images to monitor the growth of crops early in the growing sean and use this information together with scenarios of different weather conditions during the season to predict which fields or parts of fields are likely to be damaged by weather. This will allow farmers to take action to avoid weather damage in vulnerable fields or parts of fields by controlling the growth of crops (by altering the timing or amount of fertiliser and chemical growth regulators) and by applying chemical pod sealants. Later in the growing season the computerised system will download short-range weather forecast information and use this to predict the risks of lodging in the forthcoming weather conditions. If certain fields are predicted to be vulnerable to lodging then the farmer can arrange to harvest those fields before lodging occurs.

Overall, the decision-support tool produced by this project will enable farmers to reduce the risks of weather damage to crops. This will increase farmer's capacity to produce food and reduce unnecessary use of chemicals and energy on farms which will be beneficial for the environment.

Technical Summary

A framework for 'Crop Failure Assessment due to Lodging Losses' (CROPFALL) will be developed using open source geospatial tools. Drivers of crop weather damage will be quantified using meteorological, soils, topographic and land use data to estimate soil moisture and wind speed and direction at fine spatial and temporal resolution.

Data from field experiments will be used to adapt a generalised crop lodging model for cereals and oilseed rape, identify early-season growth parameters indicative of later-season lodging risk and construct a predictive model of pod shatter in oilseed rape. The lodging and shatter models will be implemented within the framework and validated.

We will develop CROPFALL to inform strategic (pre-growing season) decisions. We will apply meteorological scenarios in CROPFALL to predict crop damage in individual fields. By comparing damage risk based on current agronomic practice with risks when management is modified (changing variety, sowing date and seed rate), CROPFALL will identify optimal combinations of strategic practices that minimise damage.

Earth Observation (EO) data from a variety of passive and active sensors will be used to measure early-season crop growth and assess field scale and within-field variability. The EO techniques will be validated using ground-based data.

We will develop CROPFALL to inform tactical (within-season) decisions. Early-season crop growth data from EO will be used with meteorological scenarios to predict later-season crop damage. By comparing damage risk based on current practice to risk when management is modified (varying nitrogen, plant growth regulator and pod sealant applications), CROPFALL will identify optimal combinations of interventions to minimise damage.

CROPFALL will be applied to commercial fields to demonstrate its capacity for mitigating weather damage to crops. Engagement with the project partners and various extension activities will disseminate the system's capabilities.

Planned Impact

This project will benefit farmers, the broader agricultural industry, consumers and the environment.

The system developed in this project will allow farmers to make informed decisions about the strategies and techniques they can use to reduce weather damage to crops. It will identify which fields are susceptible to lodging and pod shatter and thereby which crop variety can be planted to reduce weather damage and which sowing date and seed rate is optimal. This will produce tangible financial benefits for farmers by reducing yield loss, diminished grain quality, prevalence of mycotoxins and the additional costs of drying grains harvested from lodged crops.

The system will also support farmers to make timely and effective tactical decisions within the growing season to minimise lodging and pod shatter by controlling crop growth (by varying fertiliser and using plant growth regulator treatments) and applying pod sealant treatments. Farmers will be provided with the evidence to optimise the timing and spatial distribution of these agronomic practices across the farm and within fields. This again will have direct financial benefits for farmers by minimising yield losses due to weather damage and reducing the establishment of oilseed rape volunteer plants in following crops while also minimising spend on chemical applications. Achieving greater yield per unit of input costs will help farmers to withstand the high volatility in prices of global commodities such as cereals and oilseed rape, thereby increasing the viability of their businesses. This also has the benefit of reducing production costs and stabilising the food supply chain which generates positive outcomes for consumers in terms of food price and availability.

The technologies developed within this project will enable farmers to better exploit variable input rate technology. Many farm implements (e.g. fertiliser spreaders) have the capability of varying inputs within a field. Exploitation of these technologies is often limited by availability of robust algorithms with which to integrate the relevant environmental and crop information to quantify how crop inputs should be varied. Better targeting of crop inputs will reduce environmental pollution, e.g. reducing nitrogen fertiliser to areas of crop which have already taken a lot of nitrogen up will help to reduce excess nitrogen use and risk of nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions. Therefore, by improving the resilience of crops to weather damage and targeting crop inputs, the system will achieve sustainable intensification by obtaining greater yields with reduced resources. Thus, the project will generate significant environmental benefits.

Initially, the benefits of this project will be experienced by the individual farmers at the study sites used within the project. Subsequently, widespread benefits will be realised when the operational system is rolled-out. To achieve this, a series of agricultural extension activities and media publications will disseminate the outcomes of the project widely to farmers and agronomists. This will ensure that the decision-support tools developed in this project are adopted widely throughout the UK. Furthermore, the project will benefit the broader agricultural industry in the UK, in the first instance via our project partners. The research outcomes will present opportunities for precision farming, agro-chemical and plant breeding companies to develop new or improved products and services targeted at reducing crop weather damage.

Therefore, by improving the resilience of cereal and oilseed production systems to extreme weather events, this project will make substantial contributions towards maintaining the viability of UK arable farms, bolstering innovation in the agricultural industry, reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture and ultimately securing affordable food supplies.

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