Wheat records – time to keep score

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Photo of Tasmanian grower Rob Terry standing in wheat paddock

Tasmanian grower Rob Terry on a quest to find Australia’s highest wheat yields.

PHOTO: Catherine Norwood

Toowoomba-based irrigated grains researcher Dr Allan Peake was recently asked to identify the record wheat yield for Australia. He is now on a quest to find out, and is asking for growers’ help

Australia has always taken pride in sporting achievements. From the great tennis players of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, our cricket team over many eras and Olympic champions, to a love of horseracing, motor racing, yachting, netball, hockey and four football codes, there is no shortage of sport to capture our attention.

And sport means records to be broken, be they goals kicked, premiership wins, grand slam tallies or Test centuries. So for a country that is so adept at keeping sporting records, it comes as a surprise that we do not know what our best is when it comes to wheat yields.

This is the question posed by Tasmanian grower Rob Terry and the Tasmanian manager for Southern Farming Systems (SFS), Ian Herbert. Rob and Ian have been researching the verification process for a world-record crop (16.79 tonnes per hectare held by New Zealand growers Eric and Maxine Watson). While they do not believe they are quite ready to attempt the world record, they feel that recent yields achieved in Tasmania mean it is likely to hold the Australian record, although that is yet to be proven.

(From left): Ian Herbert (SFS), agronomist Terry Horan, and Rob Terry and his daughter Zara in Rob’s high-yielding crop of Einstein wheat.

Tasmanian growers are achieving much higher yields through their participation in the GRDC-funded ‘Hyper Yielding Cereals’ (FAR00003) project, managed by Nick Poole (Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) Australia) in conjunction with SFS. Widespread investment in irrigation infrastructure also allows them to achieve higher yields with a consistency not possible in rain-fed situations.

Rob Terry contacted CSIRO in August to try to identify the Australian wheat record, after he tracked down reports of a CSIRO-led, GRDC-funded project (CSA00039) that set a Queensland-record irrigated wheat yield of 8.2t/ha in 2011. To set that benchmark, we contacted numerous agronomists and crop competition judges across Queensland before being satisfied that the 8.2t/ha test-strip yield was the highest ever verified by weigh bin in the state.

So now, with the help of researchers and agronomists from across the country, I have attempted to locate the best wheat crops from across Australia. But we are not sure if these are the biggest wheat yields that have been recorded in each state – so we would like your help to find out. If you are aware of bigger ‘paddock average’ yields (weigh-bridge verified), please email me (allan.peake@csiro.au).

While 2017 was a tough year for most rain-fed crops across the country, these bad years make it all the more important to capitalise on the good years. For growers who think they have a potential benchmark yield in the future, some guidelines are suggested in the accompanying story for how we should verify these crops. Of course, achieving maximum yield does not always give the highest gross margin, so any special attempt to set benchmarks should not be at the expense of good business decisions.

Good agronomy

Achieving high yields requires very good agronomy. While full agronomic details are not being presented for these crops, a common theme is effective weed and disease control, the use of plant growth regulators to control lodging, and adequate nutrition.

Tasmania

Irrigated

12.46t/ha, Michael and Fiona Chilvers, ‘Winburn’, Evandale; 11.8 per cent moisture, 10.5 per cent protein: Was this the highest-yielding wheat crop ever grown in Australia? In 2015 the Chilvers grew a crop of Einstein (an ultra-long-season winter wheat variety), which won the local SFS yield competition. Sown in the first week of April, the 24ha crop received 225 millimetres of irrigation and five applications of in-crop nitrogen totalling 124 kilograms per hectare throughout the season. Grain yield was verified at an independent, certified weighbridge on the day of harvest. The Chilvers acknowledge the expertise of agronomist Terry Horan and Josh McKinnell as crucial to the crop’s success.

Irrigated – honourable mention

Figure 1 This yield map shows the Nichols family may have achieved 14 to 16t/ha, but the record books require weighbridge verification.

SOURCE: Michael Nichols

12.36t/ha, Nichols family, ‘Redbanks’, Sisters Creek; 13 per cent moisture, 11.4 per cent protein: Also from the 2015 SFS crop-yield competition was this 17ha paddock of Einstein, sown on Anzac Day. About 90kg/ha of nitrogen was in the soil at sowing and 340kg/ha was applied in-crop, along with three irrigations of 25mm. Yield was verified by an independent, certified weighbridge on the day of harvest. The Nichols were grateful to Phil Medwin for providing agronomic advice. Interestingly, their yield monitor (calibrated the same day in the same paddock) showed large patches of between 14 and 16t/ha (Figure 1).

Could these patches have been the highest-yielding wheat ever grown in Australia?

Rain-fed

10t/ha, Alex Clarke, ‘Quorn Hall’, Campbell Town: The wet spring and early summer period of 2013 delivered Alex Clarke a significant bonus. This 38ha crop of Revenue was sown into the stubble of a high-input poppy crop and had a total of 150kg/ha of nitrogen applied. The grain was isolated in on-farm storage and sold later over a weighbridge.

Victoria

Irrigated

Agronomist Charles Edmonston has seen whole-paddock yields of 12.5 to 13t/ha in the Waubra district harvested with a well-calibrated yield monitor. However, we have not yet located a weighbridge-verified irrigated crop of more than 10t/ha in Victoria. Rain-fed: 10t/ha Agronomist Ben Dumesny is aware of 100ha paddocks in the Geelong district that yielded 10t/ha in 2016, however the grower would prefer to remain anonymous. We can reveal that the variety was LongReach Trojan, sown in late April, and 150kg/ha of nitrogen was applied in-crop.

New South Wales

Rain-fed: 8.3t/ha, Don and Tammy Hubbard, ‘Cooininee’, Spring Ridge; 10 per cent moisture, 14 per cent protein In 2016 Don and his staff sowed EGA Bellaroi (durum) into a long-fallowed, 270ha paddock on 15 May: They felt this earlier-than-normal sowing time for the variety was warranted due to the low frost risk of this elevated, north-east facing field. In consultation with agronomist Jim Hunt, 100kg/ha of nitrogen was applied prior to sowing, in addition to the estimated 90kg/ha of soil nitrogen. Two applications of 46kg/ha were applied in-crop. The crop was mostly accepted as DR1, with some downgraded due to black tip. An application of Prosaro® was made at flowering to prevent Fusarium head blight, a high risk for durum crops particularly in wet weather.

Rain-fed – honourable mention

7.5t/ha, Bob and John Scott, ‘Hillview’, Cootamundra: This 26ha paddock of BeckomA wheat was sown on 10 May 2016 into a highly fertile paddock with a history of lucerne and clover pasture. In consultation with their agronomist, Greg Hunt, they applied 100kg/ha of nitrogen during the growing season. Theoretically, growers in southern NSW have a longer growing season that should give them an advantage over northern NSW when it comes to setting yield benchmarks. However, this paddock yielded less than the 8.3t/ha paddock from Spring Ridge. Perhaps the soils at Spring Ridge will be hard to beat for the NSW rain-fed record?

Irrigated

Unconfirmed reports of 11 to 12t/ha in southern NSW Unfortunately, we have not identified any growers with weighbridge-verified, whole-paddock yields of this magnitude. Retired CSIRO chief research scientist John Angus is aware of a paddock yield of 11.5t/ha near Yanco, but we have been unable to locate the specific crop details.

South Australia

Rain-fed

Photo of Tasmania grower Michael Chilvers

Tasmanian grower Michael Chilvers

PHOTO: Catherine Norwood

11.5t/ha, Gilbertson family, ‘Gilbrae’, Millicent; 13 per cent moisture, 11.5 per cent protein: Is this Australia’s highest-ever yield from a rain-fed wheat crop? In 2016, the Gilbertsons sowed their 40ha paddock of LongReach Trojan on 1 June into broad bean stubble. Yield was verified using a calibrated, on-farm weighbridge. Their unique peat-flat soil gives them an advantage over most rain-fed growers, as the shallow watertable allows the crop access to water during dry periods. However, the unique soil is a challenge for nitrogen budgeting due to uncertainty over how to interpret soil tests, although their 165kg/ha of in-crop nitrogen looks to have done the job. The Gilbertsons acknowledge the assistance of their agronomist, John Henderson.

Rain-fed – honourable mention

9.52t/ha, Ashby family, ‘Brookes’, North Booborowie; 9.7 per cent moisture, 10.8 per cent protein: 2016 was obviously a terrific year for winter crops across the country. The Ashby family sowed this crop of Corack wheat at the end of April into a 40ha paddock with a strong history of lucerne and clover. In consultation with agronomist Steve Richmond, they added 50kg/ha of nitrogen to the fertile soil. The 380t crop was verified at an independent weighbridge, except for 31t weighed on-farm that was kept for seed. What a festive gift that was, harvested four days before Christmas!

Irrigated

None identified for South Australia. Can you help?

Queensland

Irrigated

7.8t/ha (paddock yield), 8.2t/ha (competition test strip*), Hamish and Fraser Bligh, Condamine Plains (Brookstead); 12 per cent moisture, 12.9 per cent protein: In 2011, the Bligh brothers sowed LongReach Crusader on 60ha around 24 June. In consultation with their agronomist, Matthew Holding, they applied just 90mm of irrigation, thanks to the favourable season. The crop was entered in the local crop competition with a test strip weighing 8.2t/ha removed from one of the better zones of the paddock. The grain was isolated in on-farm storage and sold later over a weighbridge. No nitrogen was applied to this field as soil tests prior to sowing showed 400kg/ha of nitrogen to a depth of 180 centimetres.

Rain-fed

7.18t/ha (competition test strip*), Peter, Pene and William Hood, ‘Plainview’, North Branch (Pittsworth); 12 per cent moisture, 11.4 per cent protein: In 2016 the Hoods sowed their 40ha crop of EGA Gregory in the first week of June, following chickpeas in 2015. With sowing soil nitrogen estimated at 70kg/ha, they applied another 90kg/ha before sowing. Persistent rain meant they could not access their heavy black soil in time to apply their final planned application of 50kg/ha of nitrogen, leading to lower protein than they had planned. Yield was determined from a 0.4ha area weighed in a portable weigh bin as per the Royal Agricultural Society (RAS) competition rules.

* RAS crop competitions in southern Queensland have traditionally required test-strips to be weighed in small 1t weigh bins, which are impractical for harvesting larger areas.

Western Australia

Rain-fed

6.2t/ha Agronomist Chris Robinson from Kojonup has frequently seen paddock-average yields in the order of 6.2t/ha among his clients, which is a considerable achievement for the variable soil types in the region. He is confident that someone in WA will have managed a higher yield, so we have not presented details for a specific paddock. Unfortunately, at the time of publication we have not yet managed to verify a better paddock yield. Can you help?

Irrigated

None identified as yet for WA.

There are rumours of long-season feed wheat being produced on a small scale in south-west WA possibly yielding close to 10t/ha.

Other crops?

While this article has focused on wheat, obviously there are other crops of national interest. 2016 was such a good year that Michael Nichols also grew a 9.13t/ha crop of barley and 6.18t/ha crop of canola in northern Tasmania. If you have grown a spectacularly good crop that is better than anything you have heard of for your state and you have weighbridge records to prove it, it would be great to hear from you.

Email Dr Allan Peake to help him in his quest

See also: How should we set benchmark yields in the future?