It’s a burning hot day in Bolgart, Western Australia. The air is stuffy and dry. Trevor Syme looks at the parched red soil beneath him. Recently, he harvested his grain crops. As in every year, this has been a serious challenge for Syme: “Australia is the driest continent on earth. Additionally, our farm is situated in a low-rainfall zone where soil fertility is very low. This negatively impacts our soil and, therefore, our crops.”
But instead of feeling discouraged, Syme has found an ingenious strategy to compensate for this extreme farming circumstance. On his 3,800-hectare field, consisting of cereals and legumes, he implemented his own clay delving system to counteract non-wetting soils. For this, an agricultural machine called a delver penetrates the soil and breaks into the clay. Through this process, clay-rich subsoil gets into the water-repellent surface soil. This benefits the field soil because clay contains good moisture and promotes nutrition retention. “The increased wettable surface area in the topsoil created by clay delving has a positive impact on seed germination and grain growth. This can greatly benefit our yield,” explains Syme. “Clay delving has cost me half of the price of traditional clay spreading methods, which means notable cost savings at my farm,” he continues.
With the help of a precision agriculture mapping system across his property, Syme is able to determine the exact spots that need the implementation of clay delving: “This way I can find out which parts of my soil are non-wetting and need clay delving treatment. The result is increased production in these areas.”
How many hectares of wheat grain crops are needed to provide a family of four with bread for 10 years?
Australian Experts for Grain
Around 4,000 km east of Bolgart, in the Australian region of New South Wales, Will Ronald operates the 2,000-hectare farm “The Point”. Ronald has to cope with the same issue of dry soil – and also has a strategy at hand to alleviate this challenge: “For the production of our wheat, sorghum and cotton crops, we water 400 hectares with pivot irrigation to make a return on investment.”
In this irrigation technique, sprinklers rotate around a pivot point to water the crops. A circular area centered on the pivot is irrigated, often creating a circular pattern on the field. “Through pivot irrigation, my crops receive regular, consistent water. This method allows me to determine how much water the plants receive and how often. That gives me planning certainty and saves resources.“
Besides climatic conditions leading to water scarcity that impacts his soil, Ronald has also experienced herbicide resistance on his farm. “Our crops particularly suffer from resistant ryegrass.” To counteract, Ronald makes use of weed seeker sprayers based on a digital farming technology: Each of the spray nozzles is equipped with infrared cameras that recognize the condition of the grain crops. They only turn the spray nozzles on and off in relation to the present weeds. “They don’t spray anything that doesn’t need to be sprayed. This precision farming tool saves our business money on chemicals and prevents weed resistance issues.”
Through pivot irrigation, my crops receive regular, consistent water. This method allows me to determine how much water the plants receive and how often. That gives me planning certainty and saves resources.
Besides on-farm strategies, Australian grain growers also receive support on a institutional basis. For example, the Grain Producers Australia (GPA) association supports Australian grain growers on a national level. Third-generation grain farmer Andrew Weidemann is its Chairman. He knows the industry inside out: “The grains industry plays a vital role in Australia’s economy, contributing to food security and representing almost one fourth of total agricultural exports. Currently, farmers plant around 22 million hectares of commercial grain crops annually across Australia,” he explains.
Fostering Grain Farmers’ Interests
Weidemann and the GPA support Australian grain growers with a range of activities, including working with the government to strengthen grain growers’ voice and interests. For example, Weidemann recently asked the government to invest in transport infrastructure because “in the grain sector, high freight costs – the costs between the farm gates and the consumers – are massive.” For example, rail networks on the Fifth Continent are almost 60 years old, leading to inefficiencies. “Currently, Australia’s grain trains offer less capacity and drive slower than the ones of many international competitors, such as Canada. These circumstances cost Australian grain growers both time and money, leading to competitive disadvantages with their international target markets,” states Weidemann. According to the Australian Export Grain Innovation Centre, Australian grain freight costs represent, on average, over 30 percent of total production costs.
The grains industry plays a vital role in Australia’s economy, contributing to food security and representing almost one- fourth of total agricultural exports.
In this context, Weidemann has also witnessed high overall production costs as a major threat for the industry: “Production costs in a lot of areas now doubled in the last ten to 15 years, yet our level of productivity actually hasn’t lifted.” Therefore, he and the GPA fight for better grain prices to increase the profitability of the Australian grain sector. “In this case, we work directly with the Department of Agriculture within the government.”
The GPA also cooperates with crop research organizations like the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), as well as with multinational companies like Bayer, to practice grains research that help the industry in the long run. Australian grain growers and the public sector are putting funds together to support this research. “Focus points within our joint research activities are crop disease issues, weed research and Australia’s soil constraints,” explains Weidemann.
The three Australian grain experts prove that challenges do not necessarily mean a one-way street. Instead, grain farmers and experts can cope with these circumstances by thinking of clever solutions – on the field, in the public and with the help of research.
Grain Research Down Under
The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis brings together researchers from universities across Australia as well as research organizations to tackle an ambitious seven-year research program. Professor Robert Furbank, Centre Director, explains the Centre’s research and achievements within the grains sector.
What are your research goals? Which grain varieties do you and your team examine?
The Centre’s main aim is to contribute to the development of new, higher yielding crop varieties. To achieve this, the Centre aims to improve the way crop plants capture CO2 from the atmosphere and energy from sunlight and the efficiency with which they convert CO2 to sugars. The natural photosynthetic machinery in existing grain crops, such as wheat and rice, is far from optimal, so re-engineered, ‘supercharged’ photosynthetic machinery has the potential to increase crop yields, while using less water and nutrients.
Could you give an example of a recent study on grain research and the results?
Centre researchers have recently applied new high-throughput phenomics and sensing technologies to large-scale field breeding trials of sorghum varieties in Queensland. These experiments have identified variation in photosynthetic traits, which can be used in breeding new, improved sorghum varieties.
How do your cooperations – for example with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) – work? What do you aim to achieve together in terms of grains research?
The Centre brings researchers from CSIRO Agriculture and Food together with researchers from the Australian National University to work on improving photosynthesis in wheat and rice. In addition, two new collaborative projects, established in linkage with the GRDC, will examine the genetics of respiration and photosynthesis in wheat. Improving photosynthesis offers a new, unexploited avenue for improving crop yields.
Re-engineered, ‘supercharged’ photosynthetic machinery has the potential to increase crop yields, while using less water and nutrients.