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GRDC helping growers mitigate risks posed by a fast-changing environment

GRDC managing director Steve Jefferies.
Photo: GRDC

Adoption of sustainable farming practices has changed the face of grain growing.

I recently presented at the Australian Grains Industry Conference on the topic of how GRDC is helping grain growers mitigate the risks associated with a rapidly changing environment.

This was a good opportunity to re-assess our thinking on this fundamental issue.

Firstly, though, it has to be said that Australian grain growers have been exceptional in adopting sustainable farming practices in the face of climate and other environmental pressures.

I showed a photo of a 3.5-kilometre-high dust storm that hit Melbourne at 3pm on 8 February, 1983.

This dust storm was the accumulation of almost a foot of topsoil from the South Australian and Victorian Mallee and it turned day into night. There was no crop harvested in the summer of 1982.

Compare this to 2018. The growing season rainfall was very similar to 1982. But 36 years later, the region was able to achieve average wheat yields of one to two tonnes per hectare, which for many growers meant a small profit.

This huge change, which isn't widely appreciated outside farming circles, has been driven by the adoption of conservation tillage practices - including direct drilling - along with revolutionary improvements in crop genetics, nutrition, pest and disease management, and improved overall crop husbandry and agronomy.

Not surprisingly, apocalyptic dust storms have been consigned to history.

Australian grain growers have been exceptional in adopting sustainable farming practices in the face of climate and other environmental pressures. - GRDC managing director Steve Jefferies

Efficient input use

More efficient use of inputs, such as fuel and chemicals, also sees greenhouse gas emissions from cropping down to a fraction of what they were just three decades ago.

Fundamental to the adoption of conservation farming systems and the environmental sustainability benefits they deliver, has been grain growers' access to, and diligent use of reliable, effective and affordable herbicides, including glyphosate.

GRDC is often asked what we are doing to assist grain growers to mitigate the risk of losing or having reduced access to these important chemistries and the potential impact this would have on ongoing sustainable grain production.

To answer this, GRDC has a three-tiered approach:

  1. GRDC invests in improving growers' awareness of the importance of diligent and responsible label use of our current chemistries, as well as improved application technologies and improved application decision-making tools that reduce the risk of damaging spray drift;
  2. GRDC is investing with Bayer CropScience in the development of new safe chemistries to manage problem weeds in Australia; and
  3. GRDC also invests in many non-chemical weed control methods, including emerging microwave and laser technologies, robotics, and other 'green' technologies that widen the choices and effectiveness of weeds management.

You can hear more about the corporation''s investments in the video 'GRDC RD&E Plan 2018-2023'.

GRDC also continues to invest in the development of farming systems that compete more strongly with weeds. This includes more competitive crop varieties, cover crops and improved integrated grazing systems.

GRDC also continues to invest in the development and extension of harvest weed seed control technologies, which can go a long way to stopping build-up of weed seed banks and so reduce the need for herbicides.

I mentioned how modern farming systems have substantially reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

By far the most important contributor to greenhouse gasses by the Australian grains industry today is the manufacture, use and volatilisation of nitrogen fertiliser.

Consequently, GRDC is also investing in how to improve profitable and sustainable management of crop nutrients.

GRDC is investing, in partnership with CSIRO, in novel methods for reducing the energy cost of the manufacture of nitrogen fertiliser.

GRDC is also investing in new formulations of nitrogen fertiliser that improve its efficiency so that more of the nitrogen is used by the crop and less remains for volatilisation and escape into the atmosphere.

Complementing this is GRDC's increasing investment in the productivity and profitability of pulses in farming systems which should further reduce the reliance on manufactured nitrogen fertiliser.

Most important for GRDC is that our strategy on the sustainability of grain production is based on grain growers being in a position to adopt further sustainable farming systems or practice changes - and this stands, or falls, on ensuring these innovations and developments are contributing to enhanced or at least maintained profitability.

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