Managing the Yield Gap to achieve your yield potential in central west NSW

Author: Simon Fritsch, Agripath Pty Ltd. | Date: 24 Jul 2015

Take home message

Good crop yields result from storing water in the soil and converting this water and the in-crop rainfall efficiently into grain. Water Use Efficiency (WUE) Benchmarks can help to make better decisions on the use of soil moisture by developing yield estimates. They can be also used to compare yields or examine them in hindsight to check whether the crop has performed well at turning water into grain. More accuracy can be derived by using WUE benchmarks which are set for low, medium and high yields.

There are many aspects of farming systems which improve moisture storage and the water use efficiency of the crops being produced. Doing a good job with controlled traffic and zero-tillage will help maximise water storage. A sound rotation can help to minimise weeds, pests and diseases and boost farm yields and profits.

Good water use efficiency also needs weed control and optimum fertiliser use. Farm operations need to be done well and on time. This requires good labour management and finance to optimise inputs and keep machinery up to date.

When all these aspects are put together well, it is likely that the average farm can double profit.


1. Attainable yields

Water Use Efficiency benchmarks can be used to derive attainable yield for a location and season. At Coonamble it should be possible to store 90 mm of summer rainfall on average, which added to 16 mm of rainfall left over as harvest soil water, means 106mm is stored in the soil at planting. With 159mm of in-crop rainfall on average, the attainable yield of short fallow wheat is 2.86 t/ha at a target WUE of 11.5 kg/ha/mm.

Attainable yields for grain sorghum, are around 2.7 t/ha where water available to the crop is around 245mm and WUE 11kg/ha/mm. Figures shown in Table 1 are shown for a September plant, but this could be higher where sorghum is grown on long fallow with an extra 50mm of water, and where the crop is planted in December or early January to maximise the chance of in-crop rainfall.

Table 1. Attainable yields of wheat and sorghum calculated from WUE and by APSIM

Wheat

May 30 Plant

Planting soil water

In-crop
Jun -mid-Oct

Harvest soil water*

WUE kg/ha/mm

Yield** average

APSIM
150 mm PAWC #

APSIM
180 mm PAWC #

Northern NSW

High yield

Gunnedah

149

236

31

12.5

4.43

3.94

4.41

Medium yield

Moree

146

191

21

12

3.79

3.33

3.52

NW NSW

High yield

Coonamble

106

159

16

12

2.98

2.72

3.10

Medium yield

Walgett

106

142

20

11

2.51

2.53

2.90

Sorghum

Sep 30 plant

Planting soil water

In-crop
Oct - mid-Jan

Harvest soil water

WUE kg/ha/mm

Yield average

APSIM
150 mm PAWC

APSIM 1
80 mm PAWC

Northern NSW

High yield

Gunnedah

136

274

14

13

5.14

3.65

4.29

Medium yield

Moree

121

252

22

11

3.85

3.08

3.72

NW NSW

High yield

Coonamble

126

137

23

11

2.64

2.28

2.54

Medium yield

Walgett

125

148

28

11

2.70

2.3

2.59

*Average soil water at harvest calculated by APSIM

**Yield calculated from average rainfall data and water use efficiency figures

# Yields modelled using APSIM show attainable yield is higher with increasing soil water capacity

2. Benchmarking yields using local WUE numbers

The French and Schultz model has been widely used in southern Australia to benchmark wheat yield for a given water use, with a target of 20 kg/ha/mm, allowing for 110 mm of soil evaporation. Current varieties and farming practices now produce WUE closer to 25 kg/ha/mm (Sadras and McDonald 2011).

Benchmarks of WUE are improved if soil stored moisture is included in calculations, even if only an estimate. The application CliMate or the model How Wet can be used to estimate soil water, but even better measurements are now being made using EM 38 (Foley 2013). Deducting 110 mm for soil evaporation should be ignored because if winter rainfall and soil evaporation is low the deduction leads to spurious results where WUE is high in a poor yielding year, when in fact it is low due to a low harvest index.

In most years, there is little or no moisture left in the soil at harvest, but when there is spring rainfall, some account should be made of left-over water by adjusting the estimate of in-crop rainfall.

This approach, where evaporation is ignored, is supported by Hunt and Kirkegaard (2011) who say; “It is water use efficiency that is important as a benchmark when reviewing management, not transpiration efficiency”. Doherty et al (2010) and Sadras and McDonald (2012) also conclude that the most practical way of estimating WUE is to subtract soil water at maturity from soil water at sowing and add the rainfall that falls in between. This is what is proposed in this paper as the most appropriate way to use WUE in the Northern Region.

WUE should be more than a single number

The accuracy of using WUE to estimate yield can be improved by using a range, rather than a single number.  WUE improves with yield, as a result of a better harvest index. In extremely low yielding situations, the crop has used a lot of the available water growing to the flowering stage and the WUE can be less than a half of the WUE of a high yielding crop. As yield potential improves there is generally better tiller survival, more heads per hectare, more grains per head and higher grain weights. This all serves to improve the WUE.

Figure 1. Harvest Index of Wheat at Gunnedah, over 100 years, modelled by APSIM

Figure 1. Harvest Index of Wheat at Gunnedah, over 100 years, modelled by APSIM

The maximum efficiency of water transpired into biomass is 55 kg/ha/mm, according to French and Schultz (1984). This means the maximum WUE at a harvest index (HI) of 0.2 is 11, a figure which increases to 22 for a harvest index of 0.4. In the French Schultz equation around one third of the growing season rain was assumed to be lost through evaporation, so the WUE, as distinct from transpiration efficiency, would then convert to 7.3 for a HI of 0.2 and rise to 14 for a HI of 0.4.

In practice, in the Northern region, the WUE of wheat increases from around 9 kg/ha/mm where yields are less than 3 t/ha, to 12 kg/ha/mm for yields between 3 and 4 t/ha and is usually above 14 where there are yields exceed 4 t/ha due to a favourable season and high harvest index. (See Figure 2)  In cereal crops, harvest index increases with tiller survival, grains per head and grain weight, all of which boost yield and WUE in favourable seasons.

Figure 2. Yield of wheat produced by different amounts of soil water plus in-crop rainfall. Northern Grains Region 2007-2013. Farm plus trial data collated by Agripath.

Figure 2. Yield of wheat produced by different amounts of soil water plus in-crop rainfall. Northern Grains Region 2007-2013. Farm plus trial data collated by Agripath.

3. What is an extra 20mm of soil water worth?

The improvement which occurs in water use efficiency with extra soil water, means that as little as 20mm extra can go close to doubling crop profit. This is demonstrated from results of wheat yields (modelled using APSIM) at Gunnedah and Coonamble for soils with 150 and 180 mm of plant available water capacity. At Gunnedah, an extra 22mm of soil water increased WUE from 11 to 12 kg/ha/mm and yield by 537 kg/ha. At Coonamble an extra 16 mm increased yield by 381kg/ha, which means an extra 20mm should result in a yield increase of 476 kg/ha.

Table 2. Effect of soil water capacity on water storage and crop yield

Soil
PAWC mm

Wheat
May 30 Plant

Planting soil water

In-crop 
Jun - mid-Oct

Harvest soil water

WUE kg/ha/mm

Yield average

150

Gunnedah

136

236

28

11.1

3814

180

Gunnedah

158

236

30

12.0

4351

Increase

22


24.1

537

150

Coonamble

126

201

16

8.7

2716

180

Coonamble

142

201

17

9.5

3097

Increase

16


23.4

381

APSIM modelling by G. Mclean, DAFF Qld. 2014

Profit would increase from $286/ha to $408/ha with an extra 20mm at Gunnedah, a rise of 43% and from $123 to $217/ha at Coonamble, a rise of 76%. See Table 3.

Table 3. Effect of an extra 20mm of soil water on wheat profit

Wheat Gunnedah

Wheat Coonamble

average yield

Extra 20 mm

average yield

Extra 20 mm

Yield (t/ha)

3.75

4.3

2.7

3.19

Price

240

240

240

240

Gross $/ha

900

1032

648

757

Fertiliser:

123

123

70

70

Seed

30

30

28

28

Fallow sprays

60

60

50

50

Weeds, Pests

35

35

35

35

Fuel Repairs

52

52

48

48

Harvest costs

55

55

50

50

Freight Misc.

91

101

106

121

Labour

80

80

60

60

Machinery costs

88

88

78

78

Total costs

614

624

525

540

Gross Margin

286

408

123

217

Gross Margin %

70%

143%

57%

176%

Data from Agripath benchmarking

4. Water, Yield and Profit  - the important connection

The relationship between wheat yield and water available is shown in Figure 2. In this data, the average yield is 3.36 t/ha from 280mm of soil water and in-crop rainfall – a WUE of 12 kg/ha/mm.

Every disease problem, every mistake with seed, planting or variety selection, or not enough spent on inputs such as weedicide and fertiliser, can cost more than 10% in yield. It is common for three or more of these issues to be dragging down crop yields by some 30% and profit by 50-60%.

Control of crown rot is important for good WUE and yield of wheat. Rotation is important, but if wheat has to be sown after wheat, it should be planted into the middle of the old wheat rows for up to 9% extra yield (Verrell 2014). Varieties of wheat such as Suntop, offer potential to suppress nematode populations and avoid heavy losses from these pests, not only in wheat but in subsequent legume crops. Rotation plans which include some long fallows can pave the way for increased use of residual herbicides to help reduce costs and to better manage glyphosate resistance.

Good crop yields are a result of good planning and implementation of crop production involving a myriad of details, starting with the crop choice and variety, the rotation program and how moisture is stored and used on the farm. Combine this with good planting technology and timeliness, and the right details of fertilisers, weeds, pests and other aspects of crop agronomy and there is potential to substantially improve grain yields and profitability.

5. Adjusting crop sequence to avoid low margin crops

Long fallow crop sequences can sometimes be more profitable than double crops. It is all about the margin left over at the end of selling the crop. There is little point growing a string of low margin crops.

Table 4. Margins from a double-crop sequence compared to a long fallow

Chickpea double-crop

Wheat after Chickpea

Chickpea on long fallow

Yield (t/ha)

1.2

2.7

2.6

Price

400

240

400

Gross $/ha

480

648

1040

Fertiliser:

30

95

30

Seed

40

30

40

Fallow sprays

24

48

60

Weeds, Pests

72

15

80

Fuel & Repairs

52

52

60

Harvest costs

55

50

60

Freight & Misc.

53

76

74

Labour

45

60

72

Machinery costs

55

78

94

Total costs

426

504

570

Gross Margin

54

144

470


A double-crop of chickpea with a yield of 1.2 t/ha followed by wheat yielding 2.7 t/ha might have a combined margin of less than $200/ha. A chickpea crop on a long fallow with a yield of 2.6 t/ha, should have a margin close to $470/ha and could help to double farm profit. Good margins are important and too much opportunity cropping can result in reduced margins over the longer term.

6. Setting yield estimates for better decisions

Average data of WUE for wheat, sorghum and chickpea and suggested benchmarks at different yield levels are presented in Table 5. Calculation of yield estimates can be done at any time to help make decisions on planting, fertilisers and adjustments to varieties, seeding rates or row spacings.

At Coonamble, if soil moisture is low at say 80mm, then a low WUE benchmark of 9 kg/ha/m would be used. If the average in-crop rainfall of 159mm is used, the yield estimate is 2.15 t/ha. If moisture was particularly high, at 160 mm, the WUE should be better than 12 kg/ha/mm and yield potential from 319 mm of soil water plus in-crop rainfall would be 3.83 t/ha.

Table 5. Average WUE for various yield levels and suggested benchmarks in the Northern Grains Region (Trial and paddock data collated by Agripath).

Wheat

Low

Medium

High

Yield Range

2.5 t/ha

2.5-4 t/ha

4 t/ha

Average WUE

9.01

11.86

15.07

STDEV

1.87

1.92

2.04

Benchmark WUE

9

12

15

Sorghum

Low

Medium

High

Yield Range

3 t/ha

3-5 t/ha

5 t/ha

Average value

8.4

11.5

15.1

STDEV

1.64

2.13

2.60

Benchmark WUE

9

12

15

Chickpea

Low

Medium

High

Yield Range

1.5 t/ha

1.5-2.5 t/ha

2.5 t/ha

Average value

6.55

8.55

10.46

STDEV

1.02

1.61

1.81

Benchmark WUE

7

9

11


References

Doherty  A. et al. 2010. Quantification of wheat water use efficiency at the shire level in Australia. Crop and Pasture Science, 61, 1-11.

Foley J. 2013. A ‘how to’ for getting soil water from your EM38 field measurements. Accessed 7.01.15 from: http://www.grdc.com.au/Research-and-Development/GRDC-Update-Papers/2013/03/A-how-to-for-getting-soil-water-from-your-EM38-field-measurements

French R. and Schultz J. 1984. Water use efficiency of wheat in a Mediterranean-type environment. 1 The relation between yield, water use and climate. Aust. J. Agric. Res. 35(6) 743-764

Hunt J and Kirkegaard J. 2011. Dryland water use efficiency -What is it and how to improve it. http://www.grdc.com.au/Research-and-Development/GRDC-Update-Papers/2011/08/Dryland-wateruse-efficiency-What-is-it-and-how-to-improve-it

Sadras V and McDonald G. 2012. Water use efficiency of grain crops in Australia: principles, benchmarks and management. GRDC publication.

Verrell  A.  2014. Row placement strategies in a break crop wheat sequence. Northern Grains regional trial results. Accessed 7.01.15 from: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/520666/Northern-grains-region-trial-results-autumn-2014.pdf

Acknowledgements

Many of the ideas presented here have been developed as part of a GRDC project: The Economics of Closing the Yield Gap in the Northern Grains Region. The author would like to thank the GRDC and the growers who provide contributions for research for their continued support.

Contact details

Simon Fritsch
Agripath Pty Ltd
21 Bourke St, Tamworth, NSW 2340
Ph: 0428638501
Email: simon@agripath.com.au

Reviewed by

Peter Wylie and Chris McCormack