Innovation and optimism win out in testing times

Writer Nicole Baxter, who hails from a family grains property in New South Wales, first contributed to Ground Cover in the mid-1990s. She reflects here on the industry as she has observed it first-hand.

My job as a writer has allowed me to witness some extraordinary changes within the grains industry as growers have sought to overcome production constraints and build profitable and resilient businesses.

When I started contributing stories to Ground Cover in 1994, most people worked their paddocks at least once before sowing, relying on ground-driven combines fitted with sweeps to plant seed into moist soil.

Back then, many temperate grain-growing businesses were based on clover pastures and mixed farming was the norm. Wall-to-wall cereal cropping was considered risky, but as the wool price took a dive, survival for some was only made possible by increasing the area under crop.

In response, fences were removed to create efficiencies and consecutive cereal crops were direct drilled using airseeders fitted with small winged points, which soon gave way to knife points and press wheels, and more recently disc openers, in the hope of reducing moisture loss from the soil.

But as the reliance on chemical options for weed control increased, weed resistance to herbicides became a concern. It was challenges such as this that highlighted Ground Cover’s important role in providing a forum in which growers could share lessons learnt and knowledge gained. Other growers, observing this, were able to put in place practices to help prevent them from heading down a similar path.

When I think about the most enduring message I have heard from growers and researchers over the years, it is this: “Timeliness, diversity and flexibility pay.”

While some approached herbicide resistance by using haymaking or chaff carts to drive down the weed seedbank, others chose green or brown manuring, increased seeding rates or narrow windrow burning.  

One exciting innovation, only recently commercialised, is the Harrington Seed Destructor, which destroys weed seeds at harvest. But equally encouraging is the work of those testing mouldboard ploughing once every 10 to 15 years to bury weed seeds to a depth from which they are less likely to germinate.

Not surprisingly, as livestock prices have lifted in recent years we see new avenues for innovation in the resurgence of interest in growing crops for grazing as well as grain. As with most R&D and on-farm innovation, the overarching objective is to lift returns per hectare.

It can be exhausting, yet also a source of great enthusiasm and motivation when growers share what they learn – what has worked in their situation and, just as importantly, what has not worked. Such insights help strengthen the sense of community among growers, irrespective of where they farm.

Personally, given my own family’s grain-growing enterprise, one of the most exciting developments being tested right across Australia is using precision agriculture (PA) to apply inputs according to plant-available water capacity.

Many people who have a long-term ‘relationship’ with their land have some understanding of which parts of their farm consistently produce the best returns, so it all makes sense. But what is really exciting is the advent of technology that allows us to accurately measure this and apply our resources accordingly.

As fences disappear and farm sizes increase, I suspect more people will start using decision supports such as deep soil testing, the online crop forecasting tool Yield Prophet, real-time moisture sensors and other PA technologies to differentially apply inputs to mitigate risk and increase profit.

For almost two decades, I have enjoyed learning about the different approaches Australian growers and their families have taken to generate sustainable futures for their businesses. I continue to be inspired by the optimism and humour with which many address the challenges they, and all of us in this vital industry, face.

I look forward to continuing to share these stories of innovation and hope, and showing the pride that people have in being professional farmers.