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Early sowing systems can boost Australian wheat yields despite recent climate change


Price surges in staple foods trigger civil unrest and conflict1. The food riots of 2007–2008 and Arab spring uprisings (2010–2012) were, in part, a consequence of price increases due to a tightening supply of staple grains, particularly wheat. Prolonged drought in Australia contributed to the global wheat shortage; Australia accounts for 10% of global wheat exports2. Australian wheat yields have plateaued3 owing to reduced rainfall4,5 and increasing temperatures3 attributed to anthropogenic climate change6. If Australia is to increase wheat production in line with projected global population growth and demand, an increase in yield is required7. Crop simulations reveal that an early sowing system combined with slower-developing wheat genotypes could exploit a longer growing season8. We developed near-isogenic lines and tested this hypothesis in experiments across the grain belt of Australia, and extended the results using whole-farm simulations. Our proposed early sowing system can increase national yields by 0.54 (s.d. = 0.38) t ha−1 representing an additional 7.1 Mt annually under reduced rainfall and increasing temperature regimes. This adaptation could facilitate increasing yields across Australia under climate change with global food security benefits.

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Fig. 1: Mean grain yield benefit of the near isogenic lines at different sowing dates in different environments.
Fig. 2: Location of the 23 simulated sites relative to Australian winter cereal production, and the magnitude of the mean yield benefit due to the early sowing strategy.
Fig. 3: Variability in simulated annual yield benefit achieved by sowing wheat earlier using a slower-developing cultivar.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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This research is funded by GRDC co-investment in projects CSP00178 ‘Increasing yield and reducing risk through early sowing in the southern grains region’ and CSP00183 ‘Pedigree based association genetics of wheat phenology’. We thank Living Farm, Eurofins, AgGrow Agronomy, SARDI, QDAF, FAR Australia, Southern Farming Systems, B. Rheinheimer, A. Swan, L. Goward, J. Byrne, A. Wixon and J. Lawrence for managing regional experiments. We thank all wheat growers who hosted field experiments.

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Authors and Affiliations



B.T. developed the near isogenic lines. J.R.H., A.B.Z., A.F., A.P., B.T. and B.M.F. conceptualized and designed the experiments. J.R.H. analysed the experimental data. J.R.H., A.F., A.P. and B.M.F. maintained field experiments and collected field data. J.M.L. and J.R.H. designed the APSIM whole-farm simulation, J.M.L. conducted the simulation, and analysed and prepared figures. D.G. prepared maps and spatially extrapolated simulation results. J.R.H., J.M.L. and J.A.K. wrote the manuscript, with edits and contributions from all other authors.

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Correspondence to James R. Hunt.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Journal peer review information: Nature Climate Change thanks Sheri Strydhorst, Miroslav Trnka, Ken Giller and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Figure 1, Supplementary Tables 1–5

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Hunt, J.R., Lilley, J.M., Trevaskis, B. et al. Early sowing systems can boost Australian wheat yields despite recent climate change. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 244–247 (2019).

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