Opportunities and challenges for southern grain growers

Author: Sharon Watt | Date: 27 Sep 2016

At a GRDC-funded National Variety Trials site at Inverleigh in Victoria are (back row from left) Liam Ryan, GRDC; Panel members Jon Midwood and Tanya Howitt; GRDC Southern General Manager of Farming Systems, Soils & Agronomy, Stephen Loss; Panel member Peter Kuhlmann; GRDC Southern Manager, Systems & Agronomy, Andrew Etherton; Panel member John Bennett; GRDC Managing Director Steve Jefferies; (from row from left) Panel member Rob Sonogan; Panel chair Keith Pengilley; and GRDC Southern Manager, Regional Grower Services, Craig Ruchs.
GRDC Southern Regional Panel chair Keith Pengilley (left) of Conara, Tasmania, inspects aerial blackleg infection in a canola plant with Panel member John Bennett of Lawloit, Victoria.

The 2016 cropping season is presenting southern grain growers with a unique set of opportunities and challenges, according to the Grains Research and Development Corporation’s Southern Regional Panel which has completed its annual spring tour.

Panel chair Keith Pengilley says that despite low prices for cereals, a high degree of positivity is permeating the southern cropping industry on the back of significant growing season rainfall which has promoted high yield potential.

“In the past when seasons have been good, we generally haven’t seen such levels of positivity. People in the grains industry are generally risk averse and rightly so, given the dry years we’ve experienced,” Mr Pengilley said after the Panel’s week-long tour through Victoria’s high, medium and low rainfall cropping zones.

“But this year, the mood is generally buoyant. Hopes are high for bumper yields and hopefully these will counter low grain prices. I expect that when we balance out yields and prices, most growers will achieve an average year, and that’s what we need after two failed years.”

Mr Pengilley said further substantial falls of rain occurred during the tour, especially in areas such as the Victorian Mallee where the rain was needed.

“The rain has fallen at the right time – during early grain-fill – providing crops with a massive boost. “It’s the year growers needed to have, particularly in those areas which have just come out of two dry seasons.”

Mr Pengilley said growers would be looking to extract as much as they can out of the season to offset low grain prices.

“In lower rainfall areas, this could be one of the two years in 10 where growers need to make massive profits to keep their system going for the next 10 years. It’s just unfortunate returns per tonne this year won’t be high.

“It’s therefore important they make every dollar a winner and so they must be equipped with the skills, ability and resources needed to push the envelope when conditions are favourable, as they are this year.”

Mr Pengilley said that the seasonal situation observed by the Panel in Victoria was mirrored elsewhere in the southern cropping region, including Tasmania and South Australia. While most growers have welcomed the wet conditions, above-average rainfall has created agronomic issues in parts across the entire southern region.

The Panel saw first-hand that waterlogging, especially in the high rainfall zone and into north-eastern Victoria, is a considerable issue this year and will take off top-end yield for some growers.

“How we manage waterlogging economically – be it through genetic tolerance in varieties and better agronomic management of crops and soils – is a research question that requires further attention, in addition to the GRDC-funded programs we already have in place, such as the one being conducted in Hamilton in south-west Victoria which is focused on nitrogen usage in waterlogging situations.”

The Panel, accompanied by GRDC southern regional staff and new GRDC Managing Director Steve Jefferies, was informed that aerial blackleg disease in canola is another major concern this year.

“Yield losses are likely, but for most growers canola will still be a profitable crop this year,” Mr Pengilley said.

Other constraints raised by growers and farming systems groups during the Panel tour included weeds and herbicide resistance. “This is still a major bugbear for growers, especially in terms of how we manage resistance economically,” Mr Pengilley said.

“In addition, a big question for a lot of growers in lower rainfall areas is around herbicide residues, and the impact that has on growers’ crop choice and their ability to capitalise on favourable situations.

“If you have chemical residue carryover, you are impeding next year’s crop growth or limiting your opportunity to select the most profitable option for your farming system in some cases.

“As an industry, we all need to better understand that so we can equip growers and advisers with information to enable them to be in a more informed position.”

Mr Pengilley said that in areas of low soil organic matter and low rainfall, herbicides appear to be behaving in a different way and persisting in the environment for longer compared with other agroecological zones.

And while growers are currently focused on managing diseases, pests, nutrients, weeds and the impact of waterlogging, the ramifications of season 2016 are likely to continue beyond harvest this year.

Mr Pengilley said cereal grain prices could force growers into recalibrating their farming systems next year, with increased interest in livestock, canola and pulses expected.

“There could be a change of focus from just growing wheat or barley for grain – we could see cereal crops being cut for hay or used for brown manure as weed control, and for people with livestock in their system, there could be an opportunity to plant crops early to capitalise on grazing value and counteract grain prices at the other end.”

Mr Pengilley said the tour had provided Panel members with a greater understanding of growers’ concerns and needs which in turn would help to inform GRDC investments in relevant research, development and extension, ensuring the best possible outcomes for growers.

For Interviews

Keith Pengilley, GRDC Southern Panel

0448 015539


Sharon Watt, Porter Novelli

0409 675100

Region South