Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.03.2000

Dropping barriers to production: when and why the GRDC invests in farming systems research

Grain silos at Capella, Central Queensland.

Researching farming systems is like herding cats ... with farmers, researchers and technical advisers in the posse.

For example, if you introduce lucerne into a farming system, it affects groundwater, weeds and subsequent crop yields as well as lucerne agronomy.

Or, if you introduce no-tillage farming, it may affect wind erosion, soil structure, sowing times, positional availability of trace elements, herbicide resistance and disease build-up. Rather than focus on a single aspect of this, farming systems research must incorporate the whole.

Other factors that come into play are the social, economic or production aspects of a system.

In Australia approximately 19 million hectares of agricultural land are planted to grains at any one time. The area the industry occupies is far larger, with crops grown in rotation, leaving many hectares in pasture.

Often, traditional farming methods don't combine well with sustainable agriculture goals.

Farming systems research involves growers, researchers and advisers in large-scale, on-farm experiments. Due to the complex nature of farming systems, traditional small plots are rarely used.

Information is vital to the process as farming systems components are linked, with one change affecting others and the system as a whole. Results are extended to the wider grower community in the region.

GRDC investment criteria

GRDC investment in farming systems research builds on clearly identified issues which require research to better inform producers, and this should result in the reasonable expectation of a significant return to the industry.

At the same time, the farmer/researcher group should have available the methodology and tools to deliver a successful outcome. Farmer involvement at all stages is critical to success.

A project is most likely to gain investment when substantial changes in the farming system are being investigated.

For example, the introduction of lucerne into a farming system affects groundwater, weeds and subsequent crop yields as well as lucerne agronomy.

Or, the promotion of no-tillage farming in a system may affect wind erosion, soil structure, sowing times, positional availability of trace elements, herbicide resistance and disease build-up. Rather than focus on a single aspect of this, farming systems research incorporates the whole.

Other factors that come into play are the social, economic or production aspects of a system.

Assessing performance

A farming system is defined here as a set of interacting components where a change made to one component will affect other components.

When the project is evaluated the following performance indicators are used:

  • grain conversion efficiency
  • nutrient balance audit
  • integrated weed management
  • integrated disease and pest management
  • paddock condition
  • rotational gross margin
  • environmental indicators
  • human resource capacity.

Changes made to improve profitability can be assessed in this framework.

How a project gets started

Production issues are identified within a group framework where neighbouring growers have a common interest and commitment to getting the research done. The first step is to decide on a research question or questions with input also from others in that farming region.

Key to a successful project is strong and effective interaction between growers, advisers and researchers. The preferred GRDC model is a project leader dedicated to the project on a full-time basis and leading staff devoting approximately three-quarters of their time to the project.

Evaluation

As a responsible investor of grower levy dollars, the GRDC favours a clear methodology that utilises benchmarks and performance indicators, allowing comparison between the pre-project practices and those emerging from the project. A whole-farm economic modelling approach is favoured to examine the impact of changed practices on whole-farm profitability.

Most projects take two to three years to become operational, with funding gradually phased out over several years. The GRDC supports projects for up to five years, after which time it is expected the projects will be self-funding.

Successful projects lead to changed practices in a farming system, dropping barriers to production and enhancing profitability, while protecting the resource base.