Thirty-six years on, RD&E redefines drought

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Photo of Steve Jefferies
Steve Jefferies, managing director, GRDC

Apologies to our Western Australian growers, but in this editorial I would like to talk about drought. I have worked in the Australian grains industry for more than 30 years and the droughts of 1982 and 2018 affected me more than any others, but for very different reasons.

In the summer of 1982-83 I was picking grapes in the Riverland of South Australia to pay my way through university. I can remember driving home one weekend through the northern Mallee and the road was so covered in drift sand from adjacent failed wheat crops I was having to follow tyre tracks left on the bitumen from the previous car. Only the top few inches of fence posts protruded and farm houses sat on sand hills with no visible approach tracks or roads. The 1982 drought was devastating; most of the northern Mallee and many other areas of the country produced no crop at all.

Now, in 2018-19, farm businesses in many parts of eastern Australia have encountered a winter drought unlike any seen since 1982. I was on business in Tamworth a few weeks ago when I ran into a grain grower from Crystal Brook, South Australia, who was also visiting the country music capital on business. I asked how the season had panned out. Instead of being down and depressed he explained his situation quite pragmatically: “I plan for years like this,” he said. “We plan our farm business over a five-year timeframe and we always factor in at least one really bad year and we often scenario-plan for two bad years back-to-back.”

He went on to say: “We plan to minimise our losses in the bad years and optimise our gains in the good years using the best possible information and technology we can access.”

So how have you fared in the worst drought in 36 years? I asked. He told me that he had recently assessed his crop yields for crop insurance purposes and estimated that wheat on his heavy ground was likely to yield about one tonne per hectare, while wheat on the light ground was likely to yield about 3t/ha, with an average yield close to 2t/ha. This was well down on his 3.5t/ha long-term average, but prices were up so things weren’t too bad.

The grower then told me a story about a picture his father had shown him from 1982. It was of a truck carrying a grain bin with writing on the side marking the amount of grain harvested from an entire 200-hectare wheat crop. The grower estimated the truck was carrying about six tonnes of wheat. By my calculation this amounted to a yield of 0.03t/ha. The contrast between the wheat yields achieved in two very similar droughts – 1982 and 2018 – couldn’t be more stark. In fact there was 15 millimetres less growing season rainfall (April to October) at Crystal Brook in 2018 than in 1982 and the preceding summer rainfall was very similar. The difference in yield between these two severe drought years is almost entirely due to modern farming practices and varieties – a direct consequence of investment in grains research, development and extension.

While this is an impressive story of the impact of grains research, we can’t rest on our laurels. Doing more of the same in grains R&D is not going to cut it going forward. Growers today face more frequent environmental stresses like this season’s drought. Production costs are increasing at a rate that is far outstripping increases in grain prices.

This is a primary driver for the recent wholesale changes at GRDC. We have new systems, new processes, new business structures, new regional offices with new people and a new five-year RD&E plan.

The objective of these changes is to create a new operating environment ready for GRDC to deliver transformational impact on grain grower profitability. To deliver this we have to be smarter than ever before on how we invest the limited dollars entrusted to us through levies and matching federal government funding.

Some things will have to change and not everybody will be happy with these changes. We will, however, do our best to engage with grain growers to ensure we focus those limited dollars on investments that will affect profitability the most. The road may be rough and the view not always pleasant but the goal is clear – enduring profitability for Australian grain growers.