Wheat and heat: Using computer models to predict crop growth

It may be winter at the moment in Australia, but researchers there are keeping their sights on all things warm with the focus of their research: how heat waves affect wheat.

Their study mixes real-world observations with computer science, creating models that demonstrate how wheat responds to heat-caused changes in the air, soil, water and nearby microbes — a move that could help farmers mitigate the damaging power of heat waves. And with wheat being a global powerhouse of a crop, with over 700 million tons grown around the world every year, this information could be a great help in feeding our growing population.

“Heat waves can greatly reduce wheat in growing regions and modeling could aid in finding strategies to limit the impact of extreme weather and climate change,” said James Nuttal of Agriculture Victoria’s Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources. “This can specifically come in handy during the sensitive periods of crop flowering and the grain filling phase.”

Over the course of three experiments conducted on a few plants, the team found that high temperatures five days before flowering reduced the eventual number of wheat grains to appear on the plant. High temperatures during the growing phase stunted growth, resulting in smaller plants.

The team used its findings to generate computer models that simulate the wheat growing process, which allowed them to predict how hypothetical wheat would respond to a variety of kinds of heat waves, taking into consideration its length, intensity, timing and weather conditions. Future tests are planned with entire fields in mind, not just a select number of plants.

“As a scientist, there is satisfaction in finding relationships between crop growth and stresses like heat waves,” said Nuttal. “I also think the work is valuable because we can help crop models identify possible ways that allow us to keep producing the food our planet needs.”

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