Trials test northern Australia cropping

Image of Dr Phillip Banks

Dr Phillip Banks

A recent scoping study indicates winter cereals cropping in northern Queensland has the potential to lift Australia’s total area planted to grain – currently about 22 million hectares – by as much as 50 per cent.

The estimation by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) comes as the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the global cereal crop will need to increase by one billion tonnes, and meat production by 200 million tonnes, by 2050.

Showing potential to help meet this target is 10 million hectares of black cracking clay soils (vertisols) in the Queensland tropics found to be suitable for growing adapted winter cereals.

While the area is considered grazing country, a two-year study has concluded there is opportunity to develop domestic and export feed grain industries there.

The leader of the study, QAAFI plant geneticist Dr Phillip Banks, found that feed wheat, triticale and forage oats could be successfully grown in northern and coastal Queensland.

On the other hand, trials examining phenology (plant characteristics influenced by genetics and environment) showed that barley and durum wheat were less suited to the region’s tropical conditions – disease being the main constraint.

For cereal crops that could be acclimatised, the trials revealed that they introduced an added agronomic benefit for tropical farming systems by reducing nematode pressure in peanuts and maize where these crops followed wheat. 

QAAFI wheat physiologist Dr Jack Christopher said wheat showed the most potential as a prospective winter crop in the tropical north.

High-yielding lines

Wheat lines drawing on tropical germplasm sourced from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) were higher yielding in trials than Australian wheat cultivars, even those developed for subtropical and temperate growing conditions.

For example, the CIMMYT-derived Australian Prime Hard wheat variety Buchanan yielded more than five tonnes per hectare. Other wheat varieties developed from CIMMYT lines, such as GBA Hunter and Zebu, were also high yielding.

Dr Christopher said the high yields achievable in such wheats suggested winter cereals could be developed into a grains industry in tropical Australia.

“Tropical Australian livestock industries provide a huge potential market for locally produced grain which would, for example, enable increased beef cattle finishing for Asian markets, supplementary feeding of dairy cattle and provide a local source of grain during poor grazing periods,” he said.

Dr Christopher suggested a staged approach to the tropical industry’s development, with an initial focus on establishing the feed grain market to absorb demand from the existing beef and dairy cattle sectors.

In terms of grower incentive, he said a wheat industry in northern Queensland would already have a price advantage over wheat feed grain prices in central and southern Queensland because of the freight cost for transporting feed wheat from central Queensland – a cost usually borne by cattle producers.

In a second phase of the tropical industry’s advancement, Dr Christopher said he could see no reason why winter cereal cropping could not be developed to supply export flour markets.

But before this could happen he emphasised the need to examine tropical adaptation in a wider range of crop genotypes, particularly those sourced from international breeding programs such as CIMMYT and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA).

“The preliminary findings show that simply moving existing cereal varieties and agronomic practices from central and southern Queensland to the state’s northern and coastal areas would not result in optimal productivity,” he said.

Crop potential for northern WA

A research site 200 kilometres east of Marble Bar, Western Australia, is testing the potential for winter crops to be grown using groundwater drained from mining operations.

Oats, barley, maize, vetch, French serradella, and Persian, arrowleaf and balansa clovers were planted this year at a 38-hectare irrigation site on the remote Woodie Woodie research site. It is the first time barley and these legume species have been grown in the region.

Led by the Department of Agriculture and Food, WA (DAFWA), the trials are part of the Pilbara Hinterland Agricultural Development Initiative (PHADI) – a project testing the use of surplus mine dewater for irrigated agriculture.

Department project manager Chris Schelfhout says the project supports DAFWA’s goal to expand irrigated agriculture across the north.

“The trial’s centre-pivot irrigator has been sown to a range of temperate grasses and legumes to assess suitable crop rotations of annual species,” Mr Schelfhout says.

“Clovers, serradella and vetch were selected to provide a high-protein fodder option should irrigators choose to run a stand-and-graze system.”

Mr Schelfhout says he inspected in June a trial lucerne crop that was sown in September 2015 and it was flourishing, but he noted the project’s reliance on dewater from a nearby mine meant the continuity of water supply was vulnerable to the fluctuations of the minerals sector, demonstrating the need for secure access to alternative water sources to ensure uninterrupted irrigation.

PHADI is a $12.5-million initiative funded by the WA Government’s Royalties for Regions program.

More information:

Chris Schelfhout, DAFWA,
(08) 9368 3937

More information:

Jack Christopher, QAAFI,,

07 4639 8813


Boggabilla grower to head up the GRDC


Panel tours a cornerstone of industry cohesion

GRDC Project Code DAQ00140