Lucerne shows its value in dryland trials

By Tim Clune, Primary Industries Research Victoria, Rutherglen Centre

The benefits of on-farm lucerne production on dryland farming systems has been known for some time. Convincing growers of the benefits to consider adoption has been more problematic.

A new GRDC-funded project by a team from the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, aims to increase the incorporation of lucerne in dryland farming systems. Working with grower groups across northern Victoria, the team surveyed growers to identify knowledge gaps and attitudes that may act as barriers to incorporating lucerne in crop rotations.

Early in the project, grower focus groups identified the lack of economic analyses surrounding the introduction of lucerne in crop rotation as a major barrier to its broader adoption.

To address the lack of robust economic data, 14 farmer cooperators in Victoria’s Wimmera/ Mallee, North Central and North- East volunteered their farms as case studies to assess the impact of replacing annual species with lucerne in the cropping rotation.

Farmer co-operators were selected from a wide range of cropping environments. Average annual rainfall ranged from 324 to 583 millimetres, with growing season rainfall ranging from 212 to 383mm. Soil types on which lucerne was grown included red and white sand, heavy grey clays, red/grey and black alluvial soils, sandy loams and box/buloke flats.

As Table 1 indicates, the effect on business profitability of incorporating lucerne was overwhelmingly positive.

In each case study, replacing annual pasture in cropping rotations increased the profitability of the business, as measured by discounted cashflow analysis. On average, the adoption of lucerne increased business profitability by 67 percent across the 14 case studies.

The reasons for establishing lucerne were as varied as the cropping environments and included soil health issues, summer weed control issues, profitability concerns, feed availability issues and as a means to control waterlogging.

The relative increase in profitability was influenced by a number of factors, including crop and livestock enterprise and changes in management as a consequence of incorporating lucerne in the farming system.

Assessment of the enterprise mixes according to their contribution to farm income using gross margin analysis, indicates that the increase in profitability, on average, tends to be associated with improvements in livestock enterprises across northern Victorian farms.

Incorporating lucerne cropping and livestock increased gross margins by an average of 20 to30 percent in comparison with the annual system. However, the impact on the cropping enterprise gross margin for any one farm ranged from -29 percent to 263 percent of the annual system. Likewise, impacts on the livestock enterprise gross margin ranged from -5 percent to 282 percent of the annual system (Table 2).

In cropping enterprises, the impact of lucerne was most marked in situations where the adoption of lucerne coincided with a change in cropping rotation.

The increase in livestock gross margin as a result of adopting lucerne in the farming rotation is related to two factors. Firstly, the adoption of lucerne has enabled growers to increase carrying capacities, on average, by 75 percent (Table 1). Secondly, the impact of lucerne had its greatest effect in livestock enterprises that produced lambs for the meat trade. Benefits

Growers now have hard economic data to assist them in developing strategic plans to meet the economic and environmental demands of mixed farming systems.

The study indicates that the adoption of lucerne provides improved business profitability and increases flexibility in cropping, livestock and mixed enterprises.

Long-term benefits can be achieved through effective utilisation of the cropping phase of the rotation and higher stocking rates, though incorporating lucerne in cropping rotations should be considered as part of a broader management change on a case-by-case basis.

The information gathered from the project is being presented through roadshows across northern Victoria, and the project will culminate in a book describing the case studies and lucerne management.

Table 1: Effect of incorporating lucerne on business profitability of the 14 case studies Change in profitability compares lucerne-based system with annual-based system. Profitability estimated using discounted cashflow analysis.

B = Barley, C = Canola, F = Fallow, L = Lupins, M = Medic pasture, O = Oats, P = Peas, T = Triticale, V = Vetch, W = Wheat, DSE = Dry Stock Equivalent

Table 2: effect on gross margin (gm) of incorporation of lucerne on their cropping and livestock enterprises

For more information:
John Schneider,

GRDC Research Code: DAV 453, program 4

Region South