A single wheat crop in Narrabri has had a dramatic rescue from New South Wales’ wet start to summer.  

Key points:

  • Workers at a Narrabri plant-breeding site harvested an entire crop by hand between heavy rain bursts
  • The bread and pasta wheat crop is used for genetic research and sent to breeders across Australia
  • More than 500 lines of genetic material was harvested

While parts of the north-west were bucketed by rain last week, a crop used for vital genetic research was sitting and waiting — with only an overhead net to protect it.

Annette Treadrea, of the University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute, said this crop was one of the most important in the institute’s current studies due to its impact on Australian wheat breeders.

Close up picture of farmer hands holding a head of wheat that's ripe to be harvested

The genetic strains being trialled are for bread wheat and durum pasta wheat.(ABC Rural: Tara De Landgrafft )

The crop’s seeds were imported from Morocco and Mexico at the start of 2021 and sent to the Department of Primary Industries’ glasshouses in Tamworth to be vetted for diseases. 

One or two seeds from different genetic strains were then given to the University of Sydney site to germinate. 

But when it began to rain heavily in areas surrounding Narrabri, researchers had to act quickly, Ms Treadrea said.

“We needed to get this genetic material off,” she said.

People ranging from plant researchers to casual staff were rushed to the site, where they hurriedly harvested it by hand between 10-15 millimetre showers.

“I was in the field and called everyone out thinking ‘everything’s dry, let’s go’.

“And then we got 15mm of rain so everything turned to mud again.”

women standing in a wheat crop field with bags

A single net was the only thing between the genetic research material and 15mm of rain.(Supplied: University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute)

They managed to harvest 230 pasta durum wheat lines and 280 bread wheat lines in a single day.

“We helped the local economy and bought all the gum boots we could,” Ms Treadrea said.

Each tagged line of durum wheat had its head cut and placed into bags. 

“Unfortunately, because the seeds were still wet, we are now taking it to our glasshouses and dehydrators to make sure it’s still viable,” she said. 

“Hand harvesting is what we usually do, but we don’t normally do it in ankle-deep mud.”

Other research wheat crops, normally mechanically harvested, also had to be rescued with a small sample of grain heads cut to save its genetic material. 

But after the staff’s quick work, all the genetic material was saved. 

The seeds will now go to Australian breeding companies for pasta and bread, with leftover samples used for next year’s trial crop. 

Wheat crop used for vital research rescued by hand between heavy rain bursts
Source:
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