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Pulse productivity gains

Field pea flowers.
Photo: AM Photography

The challenge

The soil fertilising properties of pulses are making them integral to the ongoing productivity of Australian grain cropping systems. However, a number of challenges – both trait-related and agronomic – must be overcome before the full range of sustainability, productivity and profitability benefits can be more fully realised across Australia.

The southern growing region has proven the most amenable when it comes to including pulses in crop rotations. As such, the region is at the coalface of innovation.

In recognition of this geographical leading edge, GRDC sought a step change in pulse productivity and profitability by investing in a capacity-building program in the southern region. This took the form of the pulse-related research and development work undertaken within the Victorian Grains Innovation Partnership (VGIP) that ran between 2019 and 2022.

The VGIP was a strategic partnership with the State of Victoria through its Agriculture Victoria Group and the then Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions.

Project VGIP1B specifically targeted improvements to pulse productivity. Other arms of this program targeted soil constraints (see story on page ##), thereby allowing the program overall to target productivity across the farm system.

The response

Capacity was developed within Agriculture Victoria to evaluate a broad range of pulse crops using a whole-of-system analytical strategy. This included exploiting climate data, soil maps and crop simulation models to identify and understand the pulse crop’s physiological and agronomic constraints.

The key objectives were to:

  • characterise the physiological trait diversity of pulse germplasm;
  • assess production values in pulses and opportunities to improve profitability; and
  • assess agronomic practices to understand production constraints.

Structured this way, the program sought to define new crop traits that work together with agronomic practices to improve productivity. Efforts were also made to deliver the new knowledge to growers and build industry confidence around the cultivation of pulses.

The impact

Outcomes from this development work were broad-ranging. They included higher-yielding and more-stable crops that better deal with important abiotic stresses and their associated yield constraints. Of these stresses, drought was identified as the major constraint in the low and medium-rainfall zones.

For field peas and lentils, these developments translate into yield gains of up to 10 per cent on existing cropping areas. These two crops were also the pulses that achieved the largest economic impact if productivity step changes were implemented.

Taking into account forgone barley and wheat crops, the productivity gains are worth $24 per hectare in gross margins. In addition, there are also nitrogen savings delivered to subsequent cereal and canola crops.

Overall, GRDC invested $2.5 million towards the total program spend of $5.5 million.

The total present value of investment is $5 million but it has produced benefits with a net present value of $61 million. This amounts to a benefit to cost ratio of 12.2 to 1.

In addition, the program delivered research infrastructure and capacity gains that are driving pulse productivity and profitability gains into the future. This now forms a base for ongoing efforts to adapt trait characteristics and agronomic packages to improve and expand the cultivation of high-value pulses.

The new capacity also forms a framework now used by breeders to assess pulse crosses.

With further research, development and extension, the sum of innovation delivered through the VGIP investment as a whole is expected to deliver on-farm practice changes that will create a net benefit in the order of $340 million over 30 years on present value terms. This amounts to a benefit to cost ratio of 12.3 to 1.

More information: view the Delivering impact case studies.

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