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Development of a protocol for testing waterlogging resistance in winter cereals

Principal Investigator: Michel McElroy and David Hooker

Research Institution: CEROM and University of Guelph

Timeline: April 2019 – December 2022   


  • Develop a novel system for the evaluation of excess water/ice stress in fall-seeded cereals.
  • Assess the feasibility of using said system as a tool for wheat breeding and cultivar evaluation.


  • The short-term impact would be the development of an inexpensive field method that would allow agronomists and producers to test available varieties of winter wheat for their performance under spring waterlogging conditions. This would provide valuable information in cultivar selection for producers in soils with less-than-ideal drainage.
  • Long-term impact would be a potential new tool for plant breeders to efficiently screen genotypes for resistance to stresses associated with excess water, potentially accelerating the development of new cultivars better adapted to the effects of climate change.

Scientific Summary:

Long-term studies have demonstrated the crucial role of winter wheat in crop rotations, but its feasibility as a crop option depends heavily on winter survival, especially in eastern and northern Ontario. Excess water during the late-winter/early-spring freeze-thaw cycle period in particular is associated with multiple abiotic stresses, including ice encasement, frost-heaving and waterlogging. As temperatures increase, standing water can also cause a proliferation of root-borne diseases causing further damage. Management practices can limit the severity of excess water, but many major factors in poor drainage (soil type, topography) are beyond the control of producers. Climate change models forecast an increase in extreme precipitation events and greater variation in winter/spring temperatures in Eastern Canada, elevating the risk of damage from excess water.  

One potential solution is the use of cultivars that are better adapted to stresses associated with water stress. Unfortunately, selecting for these traits can be difficult and cumbersome: waterlogging under natural conditions is typically patchy in distribution, resulting in an uneven stress pressure, while assays under greenhouse conditions are expensive and do not reflect the multiple stressors present under field conditions. Optimally, testing for water stress among cultivars would be analogous to disease, where plants are allowed to grow under near-natural field conditions while applying an even and measured disease pressure to ensure that plants are subjected to the same stress. This project aims to develop a field system to properly evaluate excess water stress for winter wheat, using a hill-and-furrow system to simulate different topographies.

External Funding Partners:

Producters de Semences du Quebec