From little things big things grow

Photo of John Harvey

John Harvey, managing director, Grains Research and Development Corporation

I regard it as critical to hear directly from growers about their views on priority areas for the grains research levy.

I was recently in the Western Australian wheatbelt where Cyclone Olwyn delivered some steady rain, setting up the potential for a highly promising season given the widespread adoption of soil-moisture-retention practices.

Many of these stem from GRDC-driven research over the past decade; in fact, the suite of practice changes embracing the whole water use efficiency (WUE) program represents one of the most significant step-changes in grains production in the industry’s history.

Even so, I am aware of the public conversation about return on investment from the research levy. At the GRDC we are very conscious of this and of our need to listen to growers and invest wisely with on-farm profitability uppermost in mind.

This is the reason for the longstanding role of regional panels and the introduction of the Regional Cropping Solutions Networks in the western and southern regions and the Grower Solutions Groups in the north.

The GRDC is proud of the value and return on investment that the levy is delivering. The most recent independent impact analysis shows a benefit to cost ratio of 5:1 – $5.26 for every dollar invested.

Of course, research outcomes need to be adopted for this investment to be reflected in the profitability of a farming enterprise.

A recent Planfarm–Bankwest Farm Business Survey has revealed big differences between the top-performing enterprises, the average and the bottom.

In terms of farm operating surplus (dollars per hectare) this ranged from a mean of $391.72 for the top 25 per cent of grains businesses to $273.89 for the average, and $83.65 for the bottom 25 per cent.

This clearly represents a challenge for everyone involved in research extension, but it is also a very realistic opportunity because it only requires small lifts in operating performance to achieve big gains in profitability.

For example, the differences between the top 25 per cent of businesses and the average are just 0.1t/ha more yield, five per cent lower costs, and grain quality and marketing strategies able to achieve a three per cent higher grain price.

This shows that research adoption by growers does not require big, expensive, changes, rather it requires incremental adjustments. As soil consultant Michael Eyres notes on page 12 in this issue, a six per cent lift in yield in a dryland system can be enough to double profitability.

There is ample evidence showing summer weed control can deliver an average increase in seasonal WUE of 60 per cent. Trials, and commercial practice, show this alone can lift yields from averages of about 1.5t/ha to more than 4t/ha.

However, the national average remains at 1.74t/ha – meaning we have a sizeable gap between actual yields and potential yields, which are affected by many variables including limited water, the degree of adoption of best practice and the limits of different varieties.

It is this yield gap that the GRDC is most focused on because it represents the potential to increase the national gross value of wheat alone by $6.5 billion a year. That equates to $317,000 for the average Australian farm (3810ha, 61 per cent cropped, 58 per cent wheat).

This is a clear goal, which an industry that supports and values research, and in particular collaboration between growers and researchers, can achieve.


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Region National, North, South, West