Scientists created a tool to identify frost-damaged crops very early

Farming is extremely complicated. You are a businessman, but also a heavy machine operator, agronomist and a bunch of other things. And your entire operation depends on climate conditions so much they can make or break you. For example, frost can introduce significant damage to your crops, especially if you don’t detect it early. Now scientists at the University of Adelaide found a new way to non-invasively screen cereal crops for frost damage.

Barley is one of the more important food crops for humans, but a lot of it is lost due to frost damage. Image credit: Bene16 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Frost is one of the biggest enemies of farmers and yet not much can be done about it. Small gardens can be protected against frost, but huge crops fields are pretty much making farmers pray that temperatures don’t drop below zero. It is estimated that Australian grain growers lose about $360 million every year thanks to frost. Those damages can be managed if the impact of the frost is noticed early.

Because there’s a thing – you can’t always tell that frost has damaged the plants. At first the impact may seem negligible and when plants continue growing the impact of the frost damage emerges. If farmers could recognize that frost ruined their fields early, they could cut the crop for hay and minimize their losses this way. You may say – why don’t they just look at a thermometre? Well, margins here are very small – one-degree difference in temperature could result in frost damage escalating from 10 % to 90 % in wheat.

That is why scientists are developing a much better tool for frost damage screening. It employs  terahertz waves (which lie between the microwave and infrared waves on the electromagnetic spectrum) to penetrate the spike to determine differences between frosted and unfrosted grains. This allows identifying the scale of the damage before it is visible to the naked eye. Professor Jason Able,  leader of the project, explained: “This technology could possibly be developed into a field-based tool, which could be used by growers and agronomists to assist with their crop management and help minimise losses due to frost. The technology as it stands could also be used by plant breeders to make more rapid and more informed selection decisions about the performance of one breeding line over many others.”

Scientists tested this technology and found results to be repeatable and highly accurate. Their machines are able to tell between frosted and unfrosted barley spikes. They were also able to detect grain positions in each individual spike.

Essentially, this technology could one day aid farmers in a decision making process following a colder period of the year. Scientists are now going to do some more research and development to turn this technology into a working commercial system. Then it will be tested in real fields and eventually will be available for farmers internationally.


Source: University of Adelaide

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