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Dairy Lucerne Research Tops National Award

04 March 2011

AUSTRALIA - It might not be long before Australia’s dairy farmers are able to grow drought tolerant lucerne after Tasmanian researcher Dr Keith Pembleton received the Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s Award this week for his innovative project.

Dr Pembleton was awarded ABARES’s Science Award in Dairy sponsored by Dairy Australia worth $22,000. He then competed against 10 other primary industry winners to win the prestigious award worth $33,000 from the Federal Minister for Agriculture. Keith said the prize would enable him to continue his research into lucerne and help identify which of the lucerne genotypes currently available in Australia show superior drought tolerance and water-use efficiency.

It is the first time a Dairy Australia Science Award recipient has been given the top award.

Dr Pembleton was elated, surprised and humbled at winning the national award among such an “amazing” group of scientists from all primary industries.

“I still have a lot of unanswered questions from my original research and without this award I wouldn’t be able to pursue the answers – it is critical to supporting the research,” Dr Pembleton said.

“There has been increasing interest in growing lucerne in ‘drought-proof’ dryland dairy farming systems.

There has been a resurgence of lucerne being planted on dairy farms now that there are hardier, disease resistant and pest-tolerant cultivars available and for this very reason it is poised for a big comeback as a forage – which makes it a key species to prove drought tolerance.”

While eastern Australia has been experiencing extremely wet conditions lately, Dr Pembleton said Australia would always experience both wet and dry years, increasing the need for drought-tolerant forage. “For pasture-based dairy producers to remain profitable, there is a need for the forage base to be adaptable to drought conditions,” he said.

Dr Pembleton’s four-year study to date, which was carried out at the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research (TIAR) Dairy Centre, found cold-acclimation genes allow winter-dormant lucerne cultivars adapt to dry conditions. It was identified the genes which cause winter dormancy and freezing tolerance expressed in the semi-winter are dormant, but not the highly winter-active cultivar, during dry times.

“It suggests these genes would also help the plant to adapt to the drought as well as freezing temperatures. As these genes are only found in the more winter-dormant cultivars of lucerne, we are recommending those cultivars for environments where the plant is likely to be exposed to a water deficit at some point during the year,” he said.

The next phase of the project, which is a 12-month program starting in June this year, will identify novel sources of drought tolerance traits in lucerne by investigating the recently identified link between drought tolerance, winter dormancy and freezing tolerance.

Dr Pembleton said this would enable farmers to select currently available drought tolerant cultivars, while providing breeders with novel sources of drought tolerance traits to improve the drought adaptation of lucerne into the future.

Dairy Australia program manager Dr Mani Iyer said the project had the potential to provide significant benefits to the dairy industry.

“As input costs continue to rise and variability in our climate increases, this sort of research is just what the industry needs to further develop our on-farm productivity efficiencies,” Dr Iyer said.

“Dairy Australia is committed to supporting young and promising scientists like Keith through its capability development programs to develop and retain promising innovators for the long term benefit of the industry.”

TheCattleSite News Desk



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