Steve Jefferies, GRDC managing director.
I had a great opportunity over the first two weeks of September to join part of the GRDC’s annual spring panel tours. These are a chance to meet with a broad cross-section of growers, advisers and researchers, and I came away with plenty of enthusiasm for our work ahead.
On the way to the WA tour I had the opportunity to launch a new oat variety, Durack, with Mark Webb, director-general of the Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia (DAFWA). The National Oat Breeding Program is a great example of why the GRDC was created more than 25 years ago – to remove the research fragmentation and lack of critical mass that make investment in small crops R&D very difficult. Managing a balanced portfolio of investment in incremental, step, and transformation technologies was also problematic.
Today’s consolidated structure means the GRDC can manage a balanced portfolio of R&D investment on a national basis. The National Oat Breeding Program exemplifies this. The program is led by the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) but has operations, in collaboration with other research agencies, in most states. The new variety Durack comes from such a collaboration between SARDI and DAFWA.
The scale of a breeding program is a critical success factor. The larger the population size (i.e. more yield plots), the greater the likelihood of success. The GRDC’s consolidated structure allows for sufficient oat breeding funding to allow genetic progress as well as the development of varieties, such as Durack, with local relevance. (Durack is an early-flowering option for WA’s lower-rainfall areas.)
Other similar GRDC-supported national breeding programs include chickpeas, lentils, faba beans, field peas, vetch, durum wheat, soybeans, mungbeans and peanuts.
My visit to WA’s northern wheatbelt also amplified the importance of being a part of the panel tours. Even though I have worked in wheat breeding in WA for more than 15 years, this tour highlighted some of the serious constraints faced by northern WA growers that I had not previously fully appreciated. Subsoil constraints, including non-wetting topsoils, acid sub-soils and hard pans, are some of the consistent problems faced by northern growers.
Add to that sclerotinia in canola and lupins, lack of an alternative pulse crop to lupins, high seed cost for hybrid canola and related crop establishment issues, difficult-to-manage weeds, such as double-gee and blue lupins, as well as the regular problem of herbicide resistance, were all issues consistently raised with me.
In the second week of the tour season I travelled to south-west Queensland then to south-west Victoria.
In south-west Queensland the issues centred on summer crops, including lack of a solid summer pulse crop and problems accessing the better-performing sorghum hybrids. Winter cropping issues included herbicide resistance and difficult-to-control weeds, such as feathertop Rhodes grass, diseases in chickpeas, and root diseases in wheat. Sub-soil constraints were also an issue for Queensland growers, particularly accessing nutrients at depth while crops are chasing moisture.
Overall, I was very impressed with the high level of expertise and industry leadership shown among the young grower groups we met. Everyone was very aware of the critical importance of innovation to their business, and expectations for the GRDC to deliver are high.
I also became more aware of how important private agronomists are to delivering new technology to an ever-increasing proportion of growers.
Growers I spoke to welcomed the new GRDC regional office structure and the increased direct contact with GRDC staff that this facilitates.
Growers in WA and Queensland raised concerns over the continuing decline in state government grains RD&E capacity and were pleased to learn how the GRDC is working with the agencies to address this change.
The panel tours provided an opportunity for people to clearly articulate the challenges we face as an industry, locally and nationally, but there was also a lot of enthusiasm which we, as a GRDC team, can draw on as we address the issues that growers need us to resolve.
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