Editorial by John Lovett: Managing past the drought

John Lovett

ONCE AGAIN drought has cut a terrible swathe through the Australian grain industry. As we go to press, rainfall in many of the main growing areas has been only 10 per cent of what is considered normal for this time of year.

ABARE was forecasting a wheat crop of about 13.5 million tonnes, compared with.24 million last year. Wheat production will suffer, in particular in NSW, parts of Victoria, SA, the eastern part of the WA wheatbelt and parts of southern Queensland and central Queensland.

In the drought of 1994-95 the crop was only about 9.5 million tonnes - but, since then, Australian farmers have become much more able to cope with drought.

ABARE's chief commodity analyst, Terry Sheales, has said that farmers are also dealing better with the financial drought, as about a billion dollars has been put into farm management deposits in the past few years to create a resource from which money can be drawn down in times like these.

This shows that many experienced farmers had recognised the inevitable return of the drought cycle and had prepared for it.

The first official warnings came in February this year from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with statements warning of the potential for 'El Nino-like' activity from the southern hemisphere winter onwards.

With forecast net farm income down about 60 per cent on last year's figures, the grains research sector has also had to prepare for a financial drought. This is because the cycles in biological research run for a long time. Accordingly, research and development projects must often run for years, and this research cannot be turned on and off like a tap.

The Grains Research and Development Corporation manages an extensive range of research projects and has used its financial reserves to buffer these projects from the sudden impact of events like drought. As the drought began, the GRDC committed $120 million for its research effort for next financial year, and reserves remain robust.

Examples of planned investments for 2003-04 include:

  • investigating new ways to manage subsoil constraints such as boron and aluminium toxicities, salinity and acidity. These are having a major impact on productivity and the environment in the southern and western graingrowing regions. New research will develop measures that growers can use to manage these constraints;
  • developing 'real time' soil testing techniques which will give growers better information about their soil nutrient status at crucial times of the cropping year - for example, immediately before seeding;
  • further development of the canola, maize and navy bean industries;
  • new ways to beat weed and pest management problems;
  • research into re-shaping crops - leading to perennial wheats and other grains; and
  • networks for change and learning that involve grower groups and their technical advisers.

These and many other focused priorities are being outlined to the GRDC's research-organisation partners, enabling the new 'partnerships for change' between researchers, growers and their advisers to better address the industry's needs.

Priorities for grains research in the year 2003-04, and application details for research organisations, are published in the GRDC's Investment Plan. This is available on the GRDC web site at www.grdc.com.au.

Region North