HRZ researchers seek growers' aidBig Mac goes for the good oilFocus on social gains

By Gio Braidotti

Researchers at the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), Victoria are looking to growers in the high-rainfall zones (HRZ) of NSW, Victoria, SA and WA to help them with information they believe will overcome a low harvest index in these areas.

Currently, HRZ wheat achieves only one-third of its potential yield as indicated by the low harvest index - the amount of grain produced relative to the total crop biomass.

The typical harvest indices in other high-rainfall zones in the world are in the order of 0.5 (that is, half the crop biomass is grain and half straw) with a maximum potential estimated to be around 0.6.

In the HRZ of southern Australia, the percentage of the total crop biomass in grain is only about 30 to 40 per cent. About 60 to 70 per cent of the energy is converted to straw, but the conversion rates of light, water and nutrients to grain indicate there is potential for much higher yields.

The DPI project - combining researchers from the Genotype and Management Combinations for the HRZ and the Subsoil Constraints team - ultimately wants to provide growers with better varieties and management guidelines that will allow them to address issues of higher yields and different crop requirements in different HRZ regions across Australia.

But first, breeders need information from growers themselves and researchers are distributing a survey with this issue of Ground Cover.

The questions cover crop practices and the reasons for the choices growers make on varieties, markets and end-uses, the ease of growing and managing a particular crop, the perceived impacts of climate on yields and quality, and how cropping fits into the overall farming system. With respect to soils in the HRZ, researchers are keen to learn growers" views on the impacts of subsoil constraints on crop production and how these problems are managed.

Data collected from the survey will be analysed and presented to breeders, industry and growers within a six-month timeframe.

Although the survey is being led by the DPI, the project also involves CSIRO, Charles Sturt University, the Department of Agriculture Wa, the Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research, Southern Farming Systems and the South Australian Research and Development Institute.

GRDC Research Code DAV00061

For more information: Angela Clough, Ballarat, 03 5336 6618

By Rebecca Thyer

As the push grows for healthier foods, particularly in the fast-foods industry, some direct opportunities are opening up for oilseeds.

Two years ago, the restaurant chain McDonald"s launched a new menu range and changed from using beef tallow to a canola oil blend. In the coming year, as part of its global oil project, McDonald"s plans to be using a vegetable oil blend that is another reduction in trans and saturated fat, building further opportunities for the oilseeds industry, according to Simone Hoyle, from McDonald"s Supply Chain.

Ms Hoyle told the Australian Oilseeds Forum in Sydney that changes to McDonald"s menu had led to an additional 438,000 new customers a week compared to two years ago. McDonald"s is a newcomer to canola oil, only swapping a couple of years ago from its "sacred beef tallow" to a canola oil blend with 75 per cent less saturated fat.

Ms Hoyle said McDonald"s had always assumed beef tallow, which they had used for more than 30 years, was fundamental to the product. "But after five years of research, we found that consumers cannot detect any difference. It might be because consumers have a taste for vegetable oil; it"s already very familiar to them."

The company decided to change to canola after it surveyed customers. "The oil we use to fry our products is important for our business and when we surveyed consumers, their fourth main concern was the type of fat or oil we used. Most thought we were using vegetable oil already."

The company now uses a blend of 90 per cent canola and 10 per cent high-oleic oil, and would use more high-oleic oil if it were available. (Grains with high levels of oleic acid have been linked to lowering blood cholesterol levels in people.)

"As part of our global oil project, we want to further reduce the level of trans fat in our oil down to about one per cent," Ms Hoyle said. She added that the trend towards healthier eating would only increase the need for healthier oils such as canola.

By Kellie Penfold

Research initiatives like the Grain & Graze Program need to also take into consideration non-agronomic factors such as sociology if they are to succeed, say academics.

Sociology researcher Dr Len Palmer, from Charles Sturt University, says social research can often answer questions that agricultural research cannot - such as what drives farmers to adopt new methods, or how families and communities influence farm decisions.

Dr Palmer, who spoke at the Grain & Graze national research planning forum in Victoria this year, says the program needs more than just promotion to encourage its adoption. It requires economic appeal, and had to fit with social networks and communities, which differ from region to region.

Grain & Graze"s national coordinator, Dr Richard Price, says building social capital is as important as improving profits and managing natural resources. "Mixed farming can bring employment back into regions and reduce the risks associated with commodity prices and climate variability, a major contributor to psychological and social stress," he says.

Corangamite/Glenelg-Hopkins in southwestern Victoria is one of the nine Grain & Graze regions, and according to its coordinator, Cam Nicholson, makes use of existing social networks and farmer communication.

"We are using innovative, passionate farmers to communicate the research," Mr Nicholson says. "These farmers have the practical experience behind them to interpret the results of the work we do and deliver it in a way that resonates with other farmers."

In Wa"s Avon region, Grain & Graze is studying social issues, such as time management and decision-making, to help farmers create a healthier balance between work and leisure.

In the coming year, local farmers will keep detailed weekly diaries and calendars of work and non-work commitments.

GRDC Research Code LWR23

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