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Image of Debbie Sparkes

Debbie Sparkes

Professor of Agronomy, Faculty of Science


  • workRoom 330 South Laboratory
    Sutton Bonington Campus
    Sutton Bonington
    LE12 5RD
  • work0115 951 6074
  • fax0115 951 6060


Professor of Agronomy

Debbie's research focuses on crop physiology and its application to improved crop management. Current projects include:

  • Understanding soil-plant interactions to improve sugar beet productivity
  • Impact of minimum tillage on soil structure and crop production
  • Impact of cover crops on soil structure
  • Improving harvesting and processing efficiency of vining peas


Expertise Summary

Crop physiology; agronomy;

Teaching Summary

I lead a number of undergraduate and masters level modules;


Field Crops: a week long field course based on visits to growers and applied research facilities

Plant Physiology: from cell to crop


Principles of Crop Science

I also contribute to a number of other modules such as Statistics and Experimental Design for Bioscientists, Grassland Management and Contemporary Agricultural Systems.

Research Summary

My research interests fall within two main areas; crop physiology and sustainable agriculture. Current and recent research includes:

  • Understanding soil-plant interactions to improve sugar beet productivity.

​This five year programme, funded by the British Beet Research Organisation, is divided into three work packages:

1.Evaluating and mitigating limitations to water uptake: A range of techniques, including X-ray CT imaging of intact soil cores, will be used to identify limitations to water uptake by the sugar beet crop. Field experiments will then explore strategies to overcome the most important limitations to water uptake, thereby increasing water availability for crop growth and enhancing yield.

2.Identifying rooting traits for optimal nutrient uptake: This work package will evaluate the diversity in rooting traits in UK and European sugar beet germplasm and explore relationships between rooting traits and nutrient uptake. The aim is to develop a rapid rooting screen for nutrient uptake efficiency. Allied to this work, and informed by the rooting traits associated with improved nutrient uptake, will be field experiments to evaluate nutrient placement techniques.

3.Improving establishment and early growth: The third work package will investigate soil physical properties at drilling (e.g. aggregate size, bulk density, shear strength, moisture content) and their relationship with emergence rate and final plant population. Data collected from a field survey across a range of soil types, will be used to develop a model that uses soil physical properties, plus environmental information (e.g. soil texture, temperature etc.) to predict establishment. The model will be validated across soil types and seasons before being used to develop a tool that growers can use in-field, to predict establishment rate, based on seedbed quality. The tool will facilitate grower decision making regarding the required seed rate or whether to improve establishment by, for example, carrying out additional cultivations.

  • Soil management

A long term research experiment has been set up at the University of Nottingham's Farm to investigate the impact of cultivation strategy and residue retention on soil physical properties crop growth and yield and greenhouse gas emissions.

In a separate project, we are investigating the effect of cover crops on soil structure and on the growth and yield of the subsequent crop. This work combines detailed experiments in the glasshouse with replicated field experiments and on-farm measurements

Selected Publications

I am currently working with the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) to review future research requirements for UK sugar beet production

Past Research

  • Exploiting resource use efficiency and resilience of ancient wheat species. A combination of early domestication of crop plants and modern plant breeding has led to reduced genetic diversity in crop species compared to their wild progenitors making them more susceptible to biotic and abiotic stresses. This narrow gene pool makes it difficult to select for crop varieties that perform well in harsh environments. Landraces and progenitors of modern genotypes could provide the genetic diversity required to maintain genetic progress of crops such as wheat. Preliminary data indicates that spelt has a higher radiation use efficiency than bread wheat, and that emmer may have a higher water use efficiency. This project tested the preliminary data collected by repeating the evaluation of the ancient wheat species in terms of radiation capture and conversion (fractional interception, biomass production, radiation use efficiency, harvest index and grain yield) to see whether these trends are consistent across seasons and growing conditions. The experiment will compare spelt, einkorn and emmer with a range of elite varieties of wheat currently in use in the UK. In addition, water use efficiency, N uptake efficiency and N utilisation efficiency were be examined.
  • Bioenergy from wheat straw. Wheat straw represents a potential source of biomass for the production of liquid transportation fuels to replace petrol. However, wheat needs to be optimised for several key parameters to make this process more effective. A wide range of wheat germplasm (elite cultivars, advanced breeding lines, mutant populations) were characterised for biomass production, partitioning between grain and straw, and cell wall deconstruction and subsequent fermentation to ethanol.
  • ​Modelling the impact of climate change on UK wheat production

During a recent sabbatical at CSIRO in Australia, I validated the APSIM wheat model for use in the UK and then used APSIM to investigate the impact of climate change on UK wheat production.

School of Biosciences

University of Nottingham
Sutton Bonington Campus
Nr Loughborough
LE12 5RD, UK

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