A profitable stubble system

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Andrew Etherton, GRDC manager agronomy and farming systems

Across Australia, stubble is retained on approximately 60 per cent of cropped land, with about three-quarters of this retained as standing stubble. The days of multiple workings of paddocks and summer dust storms that carried away precious topsoils are now fortunately a rare occurrence. Instead many growers have adopted stubble-retention practices because they know that despite the challenges faced, the benefits of improved soil water infiltration and storage, along with reduced soil erosion, are valuable to assist with managing seasonal variability in rainfall.

The adoption of stubble retention has required significant changes in other farming practices. Yet growers have embraced stubble retention and adapted both their equipment and their farming practices. There will always be challenges to overcome in fine-tuning systems that incorporate stubble retention regardless of whether they are in the low, medium or high-rainfall areas. Concerns identified include confirming the amount of stubble needed to prevent erosion and evaluating the modifications that enable machinery to handle heavy stubble loads.

To address these and other questions, the GRDC initiative ‘Maintaining Profitable Farming Systems with Retained Stubble’, also known as the Stubble Initiative, was developed to support grain growers across New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania through the development of regional guidelines to help growers retain stubbles profitably.

Farm systems groups worked with growers on locally relevant issues, while contributing to coordinated R&D on pests, weeds, disease and nutrition in stubble-retention systems across southern Australia. The R&D was coordinated and supported by CSIRO, with communications and extension coordinated by SARDI.

The Stubble Initiative, which concluded in June 2018, has enabled partners to address locally relevant issues with coordinated support for R&D and extension over five years. The goal was to provide growers from south-eastern Australia with practical information and knowledge to guide their cropping programs and crop-management decisions with the retention of stubbles while overcoming the associated challenges. Each group has developed (and has made available) regionally specific guidelines for stubble retention.

These guidelines cover the five phases for stubble management:

  • harvest
  • post-harvest
  • preparation for seeding
  • seeding and
  • in-crop agronomy.

This GroundCoverTM Supplement provides a snapshot of key recommendations for each phase, along with the outcomes of other research in stubble-retained systems.

For growers it all begins with harvest, where decisions made about cutting height and trash management will affect operations throughout the coming season (see Stubble management begins at harvest and Profitable headers set-up). In post-harvest, summer/fallow management and grazing affect soil properties for following crops (see Managing stubble in summer protects soils and profits and Grazing benefits stubble-retention cropping systems as well as livestock). In preparation for seeding, growers select crop sequences that will influence nutrition requirements and decisions about reduction or removal of stubbles before sowing (see Reduce risk with a two-year break from cereals, Why do stubble-retained systems need more nitrogen). Sowing decisions depend on machinery, row spacings and placement (see Stubble retention on Kangaroo Island, What's all the row about row spacings and Emergence a testing time for HRZ canola). Finally, retained-stubble systems affect in-crop agronomic management, such as weeds and diseases (see Hitting the target with pre-emergent herbicides, Brome RIM puts weed strategies to the profitability test and South Australian growers reap the benefits of HWSC).

The farming systems groups participating in the Stubble Initiative were the Eyre Peninsula Agricultural Research Foundation, Central West Farming Systems, Mallee Sustainable Farming, Riverine Plains, MacKillop Farm Management Group, Birchip Cropping Group, Southern Farming Systems, Irrigated Cropping Council, Victorian No-Till Farmers Association, Mid North High Rainfall Zone Group, Yorke Peninsula Alkaline Soils Group, Upper North Farming Systems,  Lower Eyre Agricultural Development Association and FarmLink Research.

More information:

Andrew Etherton
0408 505 566