Monday, August 13, 2012

Crop scientists are breeding – and farmers are raising – plants and animals more tolerant of drought

Texas rancher Ron Gill puts out cottonseed
feed for cattle bred for heat. (AP photo)
Across American agriculture, farmers and crop scientists have concluded that it’s too late to fight climate change, writes David Pitt of The Associated Press. They are responding with a new generation of hardier animals and plants specially engineered to survive, and even thrive, in intense heat with less rain. Cattle, Pitt reports, "are being bred with genes from their African cousins who are accustomed to hot weather. New corn varieties are emerging with larger roots for gathering water in a drought. Someday, the plants may even be able to "resurrect" themselves after a long dry spell, recovering quickly when rain returns."

"The single largest limitation for agriculture worldwide is drought," said Andrew Wood, a professor of plant physiology and molecular biology at Southern Illinois University. Kansas farmer Clay Scott is testing a new kind of corn called Droughtguard as his region suffers through a second consecutive growing season with painfully scarce precipitation.

The urgency also is evident in Texas, where rainfall has been below normal since 1996. Crops and pastures were decimated in 2011 by a searing drought, and some got hit again this year. Ranchers have sold off many animals they couldn’t graze or afford to feed. Cattle inventory, at 97.8 million head as of July 1, is the smallest since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a July count in 1973. At least one rancher is now breeding cattle with genes that trace to animals from Africa and India, where their ancestors developed natural tolerance to heat and drought. (Read more)

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