Aussies bring back 'success secrets' from the US INTERNATIONAL GRAINS REVIEW by Lloyd O'Connell*

IN THE spring of 2001,18 grain farmers from South Australia and Western Australia were led by independent crop consultant Allan Mayfield on a farm study tour to the US and Canada to check out cropping innovations that may apply back home. The tour was partly supported by the GRDC. As reported by Mr Mayfield, the group brought back some new 'secrets for success' for their own farms.

Innovations in farm equipment and inputs

No-till seeders: Stubble manager wheels, closer plates and fertiliser applicators were of interest, especially to those in the group growing warm season crops.

Liquid fertilisers: Liquid formulations of phosphorus and nitrogen are common in the US. Some farmers in the group were keen to try liquid fertiliser at home and now have a better idea of what's involved.

Precision agriculture: PA is used over a greater proportion of the farming area in the US than in Australia. Around 12 million hectares of broadacre area are either yield- or soil-mapped and half of this is managed with variable rate inputs. An Illinois survey of farmers using variable rate inputs found 70 per cent were better off with the technology, 10 per cent worse off and 20 per cent saw no difference.

This encouraged farmers in the group with PA equipment to assess further yield variability and to look more closely at variable rate applications of inputs.

Biotechnology: Visits to research facilities like Monsanto in St Louis and discussions with US farmers and advisers enabled the group to form a much clearer idea of where biotech crops are likely to fit best in Australia. For example, a glyphosate-resistant pulse or canola would be of agronomic value. But a resistant cereal would need far greater cost and management to control it in subsequent crops.

Grain storage and drying: Of special interest was grain drying using large volumes of ambient air, a process known as 'pressure curing'. Grain is harvested at 20 per cent or higher moisture and dried down to 13 per cent or lower. In this process grain weight and protein are higher than if the crop was allowed to dry down to 13 per cent before harvesting. (This technology is making it to Australia as shown by our story in the adviser/ grower update feature pl8 — Ed.)

US farmers move to new crops

The US farmers the group met were generally reducing their wheat acreage in favour of other crops, namely canola, soybeans, maize, sunflowers and others. Zero-till seeding has greatly improved the reliability of these other crops. Wheat yields have remained static, and in recent years the weather has not suited wheat production.

But export competition with Australian wheat is likely to increase with the release of more hard white winter wheats. The hard white winter wheats constitute Australia's traditional export markets. Currently, US production of white wheat represents just 10 per cent of all wheat types grown, but in some climatically suited states like Kansas, hard whites will make up the majority of production within 10 years.

US farmers claimed that loss of their subsidies — which account for 50 per cent of their gross income — and multi-peril crop insurance would make them nonviable. This is likely to be the case for many until the land values and cropping costs adjust to the change.

A good indicator of the economic health of the farming industry is the number of young people in farm businesses. In one county in Kansas, there were only 10 farmers under 40 years old out of a total of 1,500.

The Australian group concluded that US subsidies are generally bad and entrench inefficiencies. Even with subsidies, land, rental and crop inputs usually rise to meet the income. The Australians generally felt they were financially better off than their US counterparts.

* Lloyd O'Connell is the editor of Australian Grain.

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Snapshot of the US grain industry
(Approx. average of past 5 years; comparative Australian figure in brackets)
Grain production, area and exports 
Grain crop area (major cash grains):175 m hectares (22)
Grain production (major cash grains) :420 m tonnes (36)
Grain exported (major cash grains):136 m tonnes (24)
Gross value of grain production:$AUD90 billion (8)
% of farmland in crop:46 (5)
% of all grains produced that are exported:32 (67)
Area sown to wheat:25 m hectares (12)
Wheat production:63 m tonnes (20)
Wheat exported:28 m tannes (16)
Average wheat yield:2.5 tlhectare (1.7)
% of wheat produced that is exported:45(80)
Grain industry demographics 
Number of grain farms:725,000 (40,000)
Average size of grain farms :240 hectares (1,650)
Grain industry R&D 
Total federal & state grain R&D funding :$AUD800 m (69.2 m)1
Publicly funded R&D per grain farm :$AUD1,100 (1,730)
Privately funded grain R&D as % of total :approx. 50% (85%)
Govt sanctioned grower research levies:Nil (1 % of net farm gate value of 25 leviable crops)

Region North, South, West