The volcanic summit of Weatherboard Hill rises 566 metres above an unsealed road that leads to a high-rainfall pocket of south-western Victoria said to have its own cold microclimate with low solar radiation.
There, in the Weatherboard district, sixth-generation grower Ben Findlay rose above the production challenges of his frosty, waterlogging-prone environment to produce southern Victoria’s top-yielding wheat crop in the 2020 Hyper Yielding Crops (HYC) Awards.
Ben received the award for growing a 31-hectare paddock of the RGT Accroc wheat variety that yielded 10.4 tonnes per hectare on his family’s 500ha ‘Heathfield’ farm, 30 kilometres west of Ballarat, during the 2020 season.
His accolade for ‘southern Victoria highest yield’ was one of three awards for the state, covering two regional categories (southern and northern Victoria), presented as part of the GRDC-invested HYC project from 2020–24 led by Field Applied Research (FAR) Australia.
A total of nine award-winners, including Ben, were selected from a field of 65 growers across the country who entered wheat paddocks in 2020 and volunteered data for each paddock in the first year of the HYC awards program.
HYC national extension coordinator Jon Midwood from TechCrop Services, who manages the awards, says the program aims to evaluate the performance of growers’ wheat paddocks and identify agronomic practices that can hyperdrive crop yields.
“All growers participating in the HYC Awards are provided with a detailed report that allows them to evaluate their agronomic approach compared with other growers in the same region,” Mr Midwood says.
For Ben, the program has not only provided a confidence boost, it also has enabled him to benchmark the agronomic performance of his wheat against the aspirational or biophysical potential yield that could be achieved on his farm.
For example, data supplied to growers participating in the program showed the Findlays’ wheat achieved about 94 per cent of its yield potential, estimated at 11.02t/ha.
This result saw Ben place fourth nationally, based on a national ranking for the percentage of yield potential achieved by participating growers. The HYC team developed the yield potential estimates for each wheat paddock using a model incorporating farm-specific conditions, such as rainfall, soil water holding capacity, temperature and solar radiation.
“We’re close to achieving our yield potential but there is still room for improvement,” Ben says. “It’s those one per cent gains through practice change that could see us close the gap between actual and potential yield.”
For instance, the Findlays’ award-winning wheat followed another wheat crop in the same paddock that averaged 10.1t/ha in the 2019 season.
However, the family’s decision to add faba beans to their crop rotation, which also includes barley and canola, provides a new break cropping option that could further increase wheat yields.
The awards data showed that the high-yielding crops produced by other award winners were linked to growing wheat after a break crop, typically a pulse – such as faba beans – or canola.