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practices add an extra complication. In some
parts of India, wheat is planted in rotation
with rice. Dr Gurjeet Gill from the University
of Adelaide explains that soil degradation
is common in rice--wheat systems, caused
by excessive tillage and 'puddling' of soil (to
minimise water infiltration) in flooded fields for
paddy rice production.
"This aggressive tillage for rice production
creates an inhospitable soil environment for the
following wheat crop," Dr Gill says.
Since 2006, Dr Gill has headed an ACIAR
project that developed a no-till rice-production
system to complement no-till systems for
wheat developed and introduced in past ACIAR
research. He collaborated with Chaudhary
Charan Singh (CCS) Haryana Agricultural
University, Punjab Agricultural University and the
International Maize and Wheat Improvement
Center (CIMMYT) in India. The project is active in
India's north-western plains zone of Punjab and
Haryana, as well as the eastern state of Bihar.
The result is a mechanised double no-till
system that produces similar rice yields while
using up to 30% less irrigation water and
less labour. As a bonus, soil structure is not
degraded during the rice rotation, which allows
for 10% higher wheat yields.
"With double no-till, farmers can retain
stubble and go in with a drill to sow the next
crop," Dr Gill says. "In most cases, crop residues
are removed from the fields and used as animal
feed in an integrated cropping-livestock system.
"We found that traditional varieties perform
well in the double no-till system. Hybrid rice
does particularly well, as does Basmati rice."
Locally made seed drills have been shown
to perform well and do away with the need to
hand transplant rice seedlings from the nursery
to the field---an immensely hard job performed
Deeper roots: the 'Holy Grail'
Working side-by-side, Australian and Indian
wheat researchers are extending the search for
improved productivity underground---to the
"With regards to roots and improved water-
scavenging traits, researchers worldwide have
barely begun to make discoveries," Dr Watt says.
"Almost all the research we are doing is new,
so there are many opportunities for making
important discoveries and that has created quite
a keen atmosphere within the project."
Critical to these efforts are three field sites
in India that provide near-ideal conditions to
screen for diversity in root architecture. The trial
sites are located in the central and peninsular
states, where wheat is grown entirely on soil-
stored moisture acquired during the monsoon.
Without rainfall to confuse the results, wheat
lines whose roots are best suited to scavenging
moisture deeper in the soil profile as the season
progresses can be identified.
The quest for deeper roots is an ambitious
one ---something of a 'Holy Grail' among wheat
breeders. Dr Watt explains that impressive yield
gains are thought to be possible with roots that
are just 10 centimetres deeper at the time of
flowering and seed setting.
"We have calculated that the uptake of an
extra 10 millimetres of water can contribute
to an extra half tonne of grain per hectare,"
she says. "So the deep-root trait has very high
water productivity: a high yield per water
available to the crop."
Coring to measure root architecture and
soil moisture commenced in 2010 and the
preliminary analysis indicates the existence of
a lot of genetic variability---both in root depth
and distribution---in the pool of Indian and
"I think we will get that extra root length,"
Dr Watt says. "We easily have an extra 10 cm
within the genetic variation in root system
depth ... in fact, we have up to 40 cm."
The next major challenge is making
the selection process simpler on behalf of
breeders, replacing soil coring with simple
proxy measurements based on above-ground
"No-one in the world has yet managed to
develop a reliable proxy test for deeper roots,
but I think we can do it," she says. "That is the
great advantage of working in these Indian
environments. We can clearly see the wheat's
ability to access deep soil moisture. So I do
feel optimistic this project can eventually help
at above 35°C and 80% humidity. Farmers have
also been encouraged to perform laser levelling
of their fields before sowing to ensure even
These innovations stand to have long-term
beneficial effects on food-production resilience
and farm profitability by helping to conserve
oversubscribed water resources, especially
declining groundwater, improve soil fertility
and eliminate the need to burn straw. There is
an additional and rather surprising economic
impact as well.
"As wages rise in India due to industrialisation,
farmers' labour costs have quadrupled in recent
years," Dr Gill says. "Despite India being densely
populated, farmers are facing declining access
to labour and, with it, a decline in production.
Double no-till helps reverse that trend."
Dr John Dixon, who manages ACIAR's
Cropping Systems and Economics research
program, says another important outcome of
ACIAR's involvement in India has been growth in
capacity within the Indian agricultural R&D sector.
"We've built the capacity in India to roll out
conservation farming to interested farmers,"
he says. "In so doing, India is now in a position
to help other countries, like Pakistan, to adopt
no-till and reap the benefits as once Australia
helped India." n
PROJECT: Indo--Australian Program on
Marker-Assisted Wheat Breeding
CONTACT: Dr Michelle Watt (CSIRO Plant
Dr Paul Fox (ACIAR) firstname.lastname@example.org;
Dr John Dixon (ACIAR), email@example.com;
Dr Gurjeet Gill, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr John Dixon
Dr Gurjeet Gill
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