Australian grain growers are being urged to farm 'smarter' not harder in order to remain viable and sustainable in the long term.
Speaking at a Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Farm Business update in Narrabri, NSW, grain grower and principal of Penberthy Agricultural Consultants (PenAgCon) Drew Penberthy said growers needed to generate greater efficiencies in their farm business to offset slowing productivity growth and rising production costs.
“Australian agriculture in the future will be about improving the efficiency, sustainability and consistent supply of quality products,” Mr Penberthy said.
“More emphasis will need to be placed on inputs, storage, waste, distribution and ultimately farm profitability rather than perhaps just production.
“In spite of producing food on the driest inhabited continent, on low quality soils and with major climate variability, previous reliance on water and energy to drive up yields will not be an option for the next phase of our productivity gains.
“We need to make the business of farming valuable. For this to happen, more emphasis needs to be placed on farming system analysis of rotations, industry research and development (R&D), emerging data utilisation technologies, review of current farm structure and the perceived social value of agriculture to the wider community.”
The GRDC is investing in many of these areas including farming systems research, with a major project underway in the north aimed at improving the integrated management of weeds, diseases, pests, crop agronomy and water use efficiency.
Mr Penberthy said rotation management would play an integral role in future farm profitability, helping growers reduce fertiliser dependency, improve soil structures, reduce cereal stubble and therefore issues with diseases such as crown rot and root lesion nematodes as well as widening the choice of herbicide chemistries and improving rainfall capture, storage and water use efficiency.
“Controlled traffic, zero and minimum-tillage systems have certainly changed the production reliability in our farming systems. But with it have come plenty of other issues,” Mr Penberthy said.
“Rotations will be the key to managing many of the associated issues such disease, herbicide resistance and the safe use of residual herbicides as well as enabling earlier planting opportunities to combat heat risk, increasing double cropping opportunities, improving fallow efficiency through the use of cover crops and improving soils’ infiltration and water holding capacity.”
At the same time, technology promises to transform farming practice and dramatically reduce fuel and labour costs with the introduction of innovations such as driverless tractors and robots that can target and kill herbicide resistant weeds and deliver accurate doses of fertiliser and fungicides.
Data availability and utilisation will also offer unparalleled opportunities to improve production efficiency by detailing the genetic makeup (genotypes) of individual farms and how that relates to the physical characteristics of the farm (phenotypes) to anticipate performance under a diverse set of environmental conditions.
“Agronomists will still need the traditional knowledge of cropping systems, fertiliser regimes, field pathology and so on but they will also need to know about techniques to assess crop health based on analysis of the reflectance from crops and images captured from drones and/or satellites,” Mr Penberthy said.
“In future this data will be captured from even more diverse sources. Farmers and their consultants will link this information with predictive climate models and use the results to make more timely management decisions such as time of planting, fertiliser application, disease management, harvest management and ultimately when and how to market the commodity.
“At the end of the day this will allow the producer to capture a greater share of available profit margins.”
Underpinning these advances is a continued focus on R&D capacity and capability which will require Australia to collaborate globally and pioneer new models of research investment.
Mr Penberthy said Australian research capability and facilities were world-renowned and had successfully developed a focus on drought, frost, disease, plant architecture for hostile subsoils, along with yield and quality characteristics.
While excited by the opportunities facing Australian agriculture over the coming years, Mr Penberthy said the industry would only reap the benefits through practice change and technology uptake.
“Smart farming has many hurdles to overcome. The greatest obstacle is the current low profit margins which means that the implementation cost of these products is perceived to be too expensive.
“This will change as more people realise the benefits to their future bottom line, through increased efficiencies and more precise management decisions.”
To read Mr Penberthy’s Farm Business Update presentation, navigate to GRDC Update papers in the Research and Development section by following this link.
Drew Penberthy, PenAgCon
0427 255 752
Sarah Jeffrey, Senior Consultant Cox Inall Communications
0418 152 859