Hyper-yielding and record-breaking wheat and barley crops in New Zealand might deliver high rewards, but they also involve big investments in inputs, which translates into high-risk farming - all lessons learnt by a group of Western Australian growers on a recent GRDC-invested tour across the Tasman.
GRDC's Regional Cropping Solutions Network coordinator Julianne Hill, who led the tour, says while the climate was vastly different to much of the WA wheatbelt, there were many take-home messages for the growers.
The group visited numerous farm businesses, including irrigated, partially irrigated and dryland properties.
"Obviously our group was very keen to see the businesses that held the world records for barley and wheat yields and to understand the drivers behind the profitability of those businesses," Ms Hill says.
The world record wheat yield of 16.79 tonnes per hectare was grown in 2017 on the 490-hectare irrigated property of Eric and Maxine Watson at Ashburton, just south of Christchurch on the South Island.
Ms Hill says the key to these hyper-yielding crops is access to water. But despite the availability of water, she says, the resource is the most expensive input into the farming business.
The Watsons must intricately understand their business budgets to manage water and to ensure that they balance risk with reward.
"The break-even point for this type of cropping is around 8t/ha," she says.
"Also, with five insecticide applications, one pre-emergent herbicide and a number of fungicide applications throughout the season, this is a very-high-input crop."
Two applications of plant growth regulators are also required to slow down plant growth, to avoid lodging and improve straw strength.
The break-even point for this type of cropping is around 8t/ha.
"This crop is planted in early April and not harvested until February of the following year - so it is a very-long-season wheat that needs to be constantly monitored and managed," Ms Hill says.
"The growers believe the success of their crop is because of the attention to detail and the importance of timeliness of operations."
The crop is desiccated with glyphosate prior to harvest and the thick stubble is currently burned to allow the seeder to get through the stubble.
"Growers in New Zealand believe that it is only a matter of time until burning of stubbles may be prohibited in the future, so they might be forced to look at other stubble management options, such as mulching, to reduce the stubble load," Ms Hill says.
Another highly anticipated stop on the tour was a visit to Warren and Joy Darlings' partially irrigated 570ha property at Timaru, on the South Island's east coast.
"Warren and Joy currently hold the world record for barley yield at 13.8t/ha (achieved in 2015), but with the recent outbreak of the fungal disease Ramularia, their yields have decreased to seven to 10t/ha - and this drop in production has been the case for many barley growers throughout New Zealand," Ms Hill says.
"Warren does not believe his yield record will tumble anytime soon, at least while Ramularia is a current issue in New Zealand barley crops."
The Darlings have significant challenges with the high-risk, high-input crop at harvest time - with high grain moisture levels forcing them to dry grain throughout the harvest season.
"They harvest when the grain gets down to 17 per cent moisture, then the dryer runs right throughout the three months of harvest to reduce this moisture content to 14 per cent for delivery," Ms Hill says.
"The addition of the drying operation that was set up in 2018 has helped significantly in their harvest operations.
"They also cannot burn their stubble since they farm on the edge of town and have many neighbours surrounding their property."
Transport is also a challenge for the business.
"Interestingly, we learnt from the Darlings that 70 per cent of all bread produced on the North Island is made from Australian grain because it is cheaper to transport from the east coast of Australia than it is to transport it from the South Island - which demonstrates the very real challenges these farmers have with logistics," Ms Hill says.
The Carrfields Seeds business in Ashburton, on the South Island, supplies the seed product to many businesses throughout New Zealand - including record-breaking wheat producers Eric and Maxine Watson in Ashburton.
The Watsons use cereals as a break crop in their rotation of high-value crops, such as carrot seed, lawn turf and pulses.
"At this business, we saw a range of very different challenges, not least of which was the land price - which is currently sitting at around $45,000/ha," Ms Hill says.
She says nitrogen leaching into underground water is being carefully monitored and nitrogen applications have been restricted for these environmental reasons.
"Water consent licences are difficult to obtain and New Zealand does not allow any genetically modified crops to be grown," she says.
"However, our group were stunned at the number of crop and pasture options that could be grown on one property, particularly on the Canterbury Plains - where growers estimate that over 200 options were a viable proposition.
"But, interestingly, there appeared to be less regulation on the use of chemicals, the types of products used and issues such as spray drift."
The tour group also visited the Southern Field Days, Dunedin Speights Brewery, livestock businesses and two dairy farms.
Ms Hill says another interesting lesson from the tour was the number of options for land ownership or management available in New Zealand agriculture.
Apart from the traditional owned and leased land, the New Zealand government also owns and manages farming businesses through Landcorp Farming Ltd right across the country.
"We also heard about FarmRight, which is a consultancy group that supplies a whole-of-farm management system - including independent professional managers with proven systems and structures required to successfully run a profitable large-scale investment," Ms Hill says.
"As well as this, there were also those who had bought into their own farming business by initially leasing cattle and over time using profit sharing, purchasing significant herds and leveraging them to buy land."
Twenty growers from across WA's grain growing regions participated in the tour.
GRDC investment in study tours
GRDC is committed to generating leadership, innovation and education in the grains sector. It has moved to a continuous investment cycle for all research, development and extension investments. Grower and adviser study tours will now also be offered on a continuous basis, aligning with the investment process.
The study tours will support growers and advisers to gain new knowledge, learn new skills, build relationships and leverage GRDC's research investments.
The study tours are to be aligned with GRDC investment targets and successful tour applications will demonstrate a clear learning objective that, if addressed, will encourage practice change on-farm.
Australia's hyper-yielding crop research
In Australia, GRDC has invested in the establishment of five centres of excellence and a network of focus farms in high yield potential grain-growing environments across Australia.
This GRDC five-year Hyper-Yielding Crops initiative will push the economically attainable yield boundaries in a range of winter grain crops.
It builds on the success of the GRDC's Hyper Yielding Cereals Project that has been conducted in Tasmania over the past five years.
GRDC Research Code KJH2002-001AWX