While the amount of available land for annual cropping has reached its likely potential, the Australian grains industry is confident that yield increases will continue to drive production growth.
Nationally, 23 million hectares of Australian land is planted with annual crops, a figure which is unlikely to grow significantly.
But with the average Australian cropper growing around 55% of their potential yield, researchers are confident that improving actual lead will allow the industry to continue growing.
Dr Zvi Hochman, CSIRO’s chief research scientist, said that some progressive farmers grow crops reaching up to 75-80% of their maximum potential.
“You’re never going to get that figure up to near 100pc in the long-term, there are always unexpected things that occur, whether it’s frost or waterlogging or disease, but this would be a good figure to aim for.”
While improved farming methods are driving yield grains in many areas, the effects of climate change are hampering others.
“We’ve been making improvements in percentage terms of around 1pc a year, but given seasonal rain is declining and temperatures are warming through much of our cropping belt in low and medium rainfall zones that top potential yield is coming back,” said Dr Hochman.
Associate Professor James Hunt from La Trobe University said that while climate change had adversely affected the performance of grains in some areas, improvements in farming practises have resulted in better resource efficiencies.
“Climate change has eroded yield gains since the 1990s, the yields have stagnated over that period, dragged down by the big droughts,” he said.
“What we have seen, however, is that when we get the right conditions we can do a great job, especially compared with what used to be grown with equivalent rainfall.”
“Based on a water use efficiency basis we are doing better than ever.”
Future Grain Growth to Come from Technology
Future improvements in yield will likely come from advances in technology and research, according to Dr Hochman.
Better understanding and implementation of existing knowledge is a key method in closing the yield gap, while future breakthroughs will also play a significant role.
Dr Hochman said that practises such as the use of dual purpose cultivars would help marginal areas to manage risk.
“Having a crop that can also be cut for hay if the season comes in dry is a great way to manage production risk. Croppers have already adapted more drought tolerant varieties such as barley and in the summer cropping regions sorghum, so they are actively managing that risk.”
Similarly, those in high rainfall zones are strategically using crops to help manage excess moisture.
Farmer Neil Vallance from Lake Bolac in Victoria said that long season varieties provided a sound approach for his wetter country.
“We bought a farm to the south of us at Mortlake last year and we’ve found it gets very wet, we plan to use it more for pasture and livestock.”
“Dual purpose grain and graze canola is fantastic, this year the canola did a great job in drying out the profile and it tolerated the wet autumn much better, so that might mean a few more marginal paddocks can be cropped.”