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Down on wheat drought

Agriculture.com Staff 01/11/2011 @ 11:08am

By Ed Haag

Any farmer can tell you that dry and wet periods run in cycles. Despite periodic droughts, as in the 1930s, the last 100 years have been mainly damp.

In many areas of the Corn Belt, a soaking wet 2010 shows wet conditions still persist. In some areas, though, there’s evidence the wet trend is shifting.

“I don’t think we are ever going to return to the precipitation we saw in the 1980s and 1990s, because we have already shifted out of that wet phase,” says Richard Seager, senior researcher from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Seager and his associates have collected historic data from sources that include tree ring samples. These accurately reflect a continuum of growing conditions dating back as far as 1200 A.D., he says.

Research conducted by Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, University of Nebraska, supports Seager’s conclusions. His analysis of historic records clearly shows periods of extended drought happening more frequently than they have over the last 200 years. Svoboda notes some of these droughts lasted several decades and fundamentally changed the ecology of impacted areas.

“Regardless of where you stand on the global warming issue, it just makes sense that we should be prepared for these events,” he says.

These warnings have not gone unheeded. Some regional grower associations, working with their respective land-grant universities, actively support expanding breeding programs for drought-resistant crops. Washington State University’s (WSU) wheat breeding program is a beneficiary of such efforts.

“In low-precipitation areas, even small incremental gains in drought hardiness can make a difference,” says Scot Hulbert, who holds the Cook Endowed Chair in Cropping Systems Pathology position at WSU.

International Cooperation, Local Focus

The Washington Grain Commission (WGC) established the R. James Cook Endowed Chair in Wheat Research at WSU in 1998, with a $1.5 million endowment. This chair was created to strengthen research and graduate education in the plant, soil, and microbiological sciences.

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