Finding new ways for dryland farmers to stay profitable

Ninety three percent of Australia’s annual grain crop is grown under dryland conditions. Southern Panel Chair of the Grains Research and Development Corporation, explains how national and international research is helping farmers in this challenging environment.

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Australia is the world’s driest continent, yet just 7 percent of our total grain crop is grown on irrigated soil. The rest is produced under dryland conditions.

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) is helping farmers who work in this very challenging environment to remain profitable. “We’re developing varieties of wheat that are more tolerant to pests and frosts in order to increase yield,” says Keith Pengilley, Southern Panel Chair of the GRDC. “In Western Australia alone there’s something like a million hectares of land where yield is being suppressed by dryland salinity, so we’re also developing varieties with a higher tolerance to saline conditions.”

International partnerships

The GRDC spends roughly $180 million a year on research and development (R&D). Universities, the CSIRO and state government departments spend similar amounts, bringing the total annual investment in grains R&D to between $500-600 million. By contrast, leading international biotech companies invest billions of dollars every year.

“We’re very minor in terms of size but we do play a very significant role in the world market,” says Pengilley. “We’ve formed very close partnerships or working agreements with many international companies so we have immediate access to their new technology. At the same time, the work we’re doing here can benefit farmers around the world.”

As wheat makes up about two thirds of the total Australian grain crop, it would seem sensible to funnel the lion’s share of resources into this area. However, the other third of the GRDC’s research portfolio includes 25 leviable crops ranging from barley and oats, to pulses, canola and peanuts. As most of these have too small a market to attract commercial investment, the GRDC must fund relevant research for these smaller crops.

“These minor crops have significant benefits as a food source and they’re also important in terms of crop rotation,” Pengilley explains. “You can’t just keep on growing wheat year after year – an ideal cycle would be two cereal crops then one of something like canola or pulses. Farmers are aware of this but, as the wheat crop overshadows everything else in Australia, it can be difficult to find the right balance of investment.”

The most successful farmers are constantly fine-tuning their systems and planning for the future. “It isn’t just a question of how well a crop does this year, you need to understand the impact it’ll have on the paddock in years to come,” Pengilley continues. “You should also take the requirements of your end-users into account. A flour miller in China, a durum wheat processor in South Australia and a noodle-maker in Japan are all looking for specific qualities in the grain. If you’re going to succeed commercially you need to know exactly what they want and work towards providing that.”

Preserving dryland fertility

The Western Australian No-Tillage Farmers Association (WANTFA) is driving adoption of sustainable and profitable broad acre cropping systems by sharing farmer experiences and innovations from their research and field trials. Here are some of their key recommendations for preserving soil’s biological fertility.

  • Minimise soil erosion.
  • Try to maintain/increase organic matter contents.
  • Use diverse rotations.
  • Select nitrogen fixing bacteria to match the host plant and soil characteristics.
  • Calculate fertiliser applications to account for soil nutrient supply.
  • Consider whether any addition to soil will change the physical and chemical environment.
  • Remove practices that promote plant pathogens.
  • Consider management practices and commercial products for their capacity to enhance soil fertility.
  • Be patient. Soil biological processes take time to develop.

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