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Robert Nixon

Managing risk when constrained by climate


The need for techniques to improve grain yields and manage costs in the face of a drying climate is common to many areas around the world, but in the Eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia it is even more critical with its comparably low rainfall and yields. 2014 Nuffield Scholar Bob Nixon has looked into ways of reducing risk in the cropping system focusing on adding low risk crop diversity, as well as techniques to manage costs and lower the break-even yield.

“A 10-15 per cent decline in winter rainfall and an increase in seasonal variability has created serious challenges for farm businesses in the Eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia (WA). On many Eastern Wheatbelt farms, the ten-year wheat average has dropped 250kg/ha since the end of the 1990’s. Crop rotation and diversity are powerful tools in managing cereal production costs because they lower disease and weed burdens in a paddock whilst enhancing cereal yields. In the Eastern Wheatbelt, canola has replaced legumes as the main rotation crop due to factors like the soils high salinity, acidity, sodicity and the current dry and variable climate.”

Mr Nixon and his family operate a 18,500 ha broadacre cropping and sheep property near Kalannie, in the Central Wheatbelt. The operation consists of wheat, barley and canola and are currently selling their Merino sheep enterprise. Mr Nixon’s scholarship was supported by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

For his studies, Mr Nixon travelled to Canada, USA, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Kenya and Italy and he has concluded that crop rotation is essential to maintaining crop yields. Mr Nixon recommends growers in the Eastern Wheatbelt adopt several strategies in their farm management plans.

“Break crop strategies where growers are combining a chemical fallow and improved oilseed traits will underpin ongoing success in the Eastern Wheatbelt. Lighter soil types play a larger role in generating profit in drier years. It is important to cost-effectively fix soil constraints like pH to maximise their production. There is also a need to retain ground cover to protect soil and keep it soft and friable to support dry seeding, so the use of livestock should be evaluated. Dry seeding is the main driver of improved machinery and water use efficiency in the Eastern Wheatbelt.”

“The agricultural industry needs to focus on up-skilling management and employee capacity to manage economies of scale. As farm size increases, so must the capability to pay attention to detail with management becoming the limiting factor. Without significant government subsidisation, multi-peril crop insurance will struggle to gain widespread grower adoption, so growers should focus on other ways to manage risk.”

Mr Nixon says that business diversification and value adding are difficult to achieve in the Eastern Wheatbelt due to lack of water, high labour costs and limited product range for value adding.

“We have no choice but to rise to the challenge to be the most efficient, lowest cost producers in the world with the flexibility to adapt to change. High input costs will most likely be here to stay so the goal is to achieve the same yield with more efficient use of inputs.”

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