Why Aussie farmers should start sowing earlier than Anzac Day

Ear of wheat

Anzac Day is a time for honouring our soldiers, eating Anzac bikkies and enjoying a couple of cold bevies while watching the Footy. For Australian wheat farmers, Anzac Day also marks the important start to the sowing season, with late April through to May having long been accepted as the optimal time for sowing wheat in Australia.

But now our research is questioning this common logic. In fact, a team of our scientists in the Agriculture team are now recommending sowing earlier; any time from early April onward.

They’ve been trialling early sowing around southern Australia, and the results were staggering. By including early sown wheat in cropping programs, yield was increased by an average 13-47 per cent across all regions.

Traditionally Anzac Day is seen as the first day of the sowing season, our researchers are recommending farmer's get a earlier start for bigger yields

Traditionally Anzac Day is seen as the first day of the sowing season, our researchers are recommending farmer’s get a earlier start for bigger yields

Why would sowing earlier lead to higher yields?

Rainfall is critical for the establishment of the mid to fast growing wheat varieties currently popular with Australian farmers and autumn’s historically good sowing rainfall allows the flowering of cereal crops to occur at the best possible time. This is vital to yield and, subsequently, a farmer’s profit.

But a changing climate, declining autumn rains and more extreme spring weather means that conventional sowing times are no longer ideal. Farmers waiting until Anzac Day to sow may miss the best opportunity to get the highest yield.

So we’ve been looking at ways to do things differently.

While our grain researchers were pondering the challenge of maximising farm water efficiency, (research that won them a Eureka prize in 2014) they began considering crop-sowing strategies that would use the increasing summer and early autumn rainfall to establish wheat crops earlier. After all, the idea is to get as much of the wheat crop as possible to flower during the optimal period.

And it’s not enough for farmers to just start sowing their crops earlier because the early sowing of currently popular varieties of fast-maturing wheat presents a different problem: fast maturing wheat, matures, well… fast. This makes the risk of frost damage occurring during flowering stage likely, as fast maturing wheat sown in early autumn will flower right about the time night air starts dropping below a frosty two degrees Celsius.

Winter wheats have an in-built cold requirement that stops them from developing to earlier - perfect for earlier sowing

Winter wheats have an in-built cold requirement that stops them from developing too early – perfect for earlier sowing

Frost damage reduces grain quality and yield, so to navigate this challenge the team of researchers needed a solution. The answer is the rarely used, slow-maturing ‘winter wheat’ which can account for this issue.

Farming is an art and knowing the optimal flowering window is key to getting the best yield. So it isn’t enough for farmers to start sowing in early April, for the best results we recommend combining crops – beginning with winter wheat sowing in early April, and then staggering regularly used mid to fast maturing crops at ten day intervals.

This is great news for farmers: not only do they produce a bigger yield of wheat and improve their farm’s sustainability and profitability, but with the pressure off to sow their entire allocation around April 25, they may even find time to take part in the dawn service and watch the Anzac day clash!

You can read more about Dr Hunt’s research here: Optimising grain yield and grazing potential of crops across Australia’s high rainfall zone: a simulation analysis

This research is funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC)

How we’re using science to turn wastewater into wine

It's a grape day for wine

It’s a ‘grape’ day for turning wastewater into wine.

Bill Gates caused a stir recently by drinking a glass of water that had, only five minutes earlier, been human waste.

No, Billionaire Bill hadn’t lost a dare. He was actually showcasing his faith in the latest wastewater processing technology – technology that could, if utilised properly, go a long way towards solving the global issue of access to clean drinking water.

Though, it’s not just drinking water that’s in the picture. Imagine, that instead of sipping from a glass of water, Bill was instead quaffing a Barossa Valley red, produced from a vineyard that uses wastewater to irrigate vineyards. It’s an entirely possible scenario (although we’re not sure how often Bill visits Tanunda).

For many, reconditioned wastewater is taboo for consumption, but as Bill so prominently demonstrated, wastewater processing technology is a viable way of both hydrating our planet AND reducing waste.

When affluence meets effluence. Photo credit: Screenshot via thegatesnotes

When affluence meets effluence. Photo credit: Screenshot via thegatesnotes

Which is why we’ve been working with some of Australia’s leading wineries to prove that wastewater can play an important role in wine production.

In a recently released report – Sustainable recycled winery water irrigation – we demonstrate how wineries could reuse their wastewater to safely irrigate their crops. Not only would the reuse of wastewater result in cost savings and better environmental practices, but it could even improve the quality and yield of the crops themselves.

The (Adelaide) hills are alive with sound of wine growing. Photo credit: CSIRO

The (Adelaide) hills are alive with sound of wine growing.

Our lead scientist on the report, Dr Anu Kumar, and her team developed the guidelines after rigorous field, laboratory and glass house trials with participating wineries in the Barossa Valley, Riverina and McLaren Vale regions.

Anu and her team looked at the options for the reuse of wastewater on the vineyards – irrigation, evaporation and disposal – and found that, on the whole, irrigation was the most sustainable.

The study found that wastewater containing less than 60 mg per litre of sodium, 1250 mg per litre of potassium and 625+1084 mg per litre of sodium plus potassium (in combination) was safe for application on grapevines. Of particular interest, the nutrients and organic matter in winery wastewater can even enhance soil productivity, increasing crop growth and yield.

In fact, some of the participating wineries were so satisfied with the results that they have begun implementing our guidelines themselves.

But Anu and her team have been upfront in explaining this isn’t a one size fits all solution. For instance, wastewater can also increase soil salinity, which is bad news for healthy soil.

“It really isn’t a one-approach method,” said Anu. “Individual wineries need to discuss how they use wastewater with experts to ensure that guidelines are being adhered too, as well as the strict regulatory conditions.”

When it comes to waste water, there is much to consider. Photo Credit:

When it comes to wastewater, there is much to consider.

Dr. Kumar and her research team will continue to work with their partners at the University of Adelaide and the Australian Grape and Wine Authority (AGWA) to share these findings with other wineries around Australia.

In a country like Australia that is so susceptible to drought conditions and water shortages, it’s important that we find more efficient and sustainable ways to use what can be such a scarce resource.

Now, to get Bill down to the Barossa for that glass of red…

In conjunction with Dr Kumar and her team, the Australian Grape and Wine Authority has published a useful resource kit which includes more information about winery wastewater management and recycling.

Cattle industry swings behind safety gate

Cattle yards play a huge part in our local farming industry. In fact, with over 28 million head of cattle grazing on our big brown land, there are more cows in Australia than people.

Not only are our cows big in numbers, they are also big in size. Weighing in at up to 450kg, the risk of our bovine friends causing serious injury, and even death, is very real – to the point where cattle handling is one of the most hazardous jobs in the livestock industry.

That’s why this National Farm Safety Week, we’re revisiting a cattle gate which was purpose built to keep our farmers safe.

Designed by NSW farmer Edward Evans, SaferGate swings away from the operator when an animal charges it. This time two years ago we put the gate through rigorous testing. How did we do this? We thought we’d use our very own ‘crash test cow’. See how it went down:

Since our bovine testing rook place in 2012, SaferGate has hit the market and been installed in over 100 cattle fences around the country.

Australian Agricultural Co’s chief operating officer Troy Setter, said his company had installed some SaferGate units last year, which had already prevented potential injury to one of his livestock staff when a beast struck the gate she was attempting to close.

“If it was a normal gate, she would have been hit and possibly seriously injured, however the SaferGate simply folded away,” Mr Setter said. “Stopping just one injury makes the investment worthwhile,” he said.

Read more about the development of SaferGate or get involved in National Farm Safety Week.

Explainer: Varroa mite, the tiny killer threatening Australia’s bees

A busy bee, giving free horticultural help by collecting pollen. But a tiny mite has devastated bee populations around the world – and it’s now on Australia’s doorstep.

A busy bee, giving free horticultural help by collecting pollen. But a tiny mite has devastated bee populations around the world – and it’s now on Australia’s doorstep.

By Saul Cunningham, Researcher and Paul De Barro, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Ecosystem Sciences

A tiny mite has been killing honey bees all around the world, and will inevitably reach Australian shores. So what is this destructive mite, and what we can do to protect Australian honey bees?

The Varroa mite, also known as Varroa destructor, is only the size of a pin head but it is the most serious threat to the viability of the Australian honey bee industry.

The mite is parasitic and feeds on the blood of adult and larval honey bees. It also transmits viral and other pathogens, which kill entire bee colonies. Varroa mite is part of the syndrome leading to honey bee declines in many places around the world.

The global invasion heading our way

Varroa mite has been highly invasive. It originated in north Asia in the 1950s and spread to Europe in the 1970s. It then spread to the USA, southeast Asia, South America and Africa. In 2000 it turned up in New Zealand.

Varroa kills honey bees that are managed by beekeepers as well as honey bees living in the wild (known as “feral” bees). Beekeepers need to use chemicals to protect their bees, which increases their costs and yet offers only a partial solution.

Honey bees living in the wild are even more vulnerable, and widespread declines occur. Within four years of the invasion of New Zealand’s North Island, feral bee populations plummeted to about 10% of what they had been.

Australia is one of the last remaining regions in the world still free of Varroa. But it is closer to coming here than ever, having now spread to our neighbours in New Zealand and Indonesia.

Just to complicate matters further, a new Varroa mite has emerged in Papua New Guinea, where a near relative of Varroa destructor has made a similar behavioural jump from the Asian Honey Bee, and now also attacks the European Honey Bee.

Why bees are so crucial to farming

Varroa mite threatens one of our key crop pollinators, just as we have begun to realise that improved pollination is part of the secret to raising agricultural productivity.

Australian agriculture is vulnerable to honey bee declines because a number of our most significant horticultural crops rely on honey bee pollination, and many growers have been accustomed to a high level of free service from feral honey bees.

When free pollination from feral bees declines, horticultural industries will look to managed bees to fill the gap. Unfortunately, beekeepers and their managed bees will be dealing with the same crisis.

Nowhere is this shown better than in the USA, where the mite entered in 1987. After its arrival, the feral honey bee population crashed, managed hives were reduced by about 30% and many beekeepers left the industry.

The decline in managed hives, along with increasing demand from crop growers, has seen a four-fold increase in the cost of hives. Each year, there has been a growing gap between demand for hives and the capacity to supply them.

Better border protection and beyond

Here in Australia, that gap between the supply and demand – the number of bees that beekeepers could supply and how many bees are needed – is where we are most vulnerable.

Our heavy reliance on feral honey bees means there has been a relatively low demand for managed hives. As a consequence, our managed pollination industry is only in the early stages of development.

Given that beekeepers in the USA and NZ have failed to keep pace with demand for crop pollination, Australia may experience an even greater shock to our horticultural industries in future.

The threat of Varroa mite incursion into Australia is real. Any European honey bee swarm arriving on a vessel at an Australian port could be carrying Varroa.

The arrival of Asian honey bees by ship at Australian ports, as occurred at Cairns in North Queensland, provides another pathway for the mite’s incursion.

And it should be noted that the mite managed to slip through New Zealand’s quarantine defences, which are similar to Australia.

In 2007, bio-economic modelling by CSIRO examined the risk to Australian plant industries. It was estimated that the economic risk from Varroa incursion was great enough to justify spending between A$21 million and A$50 million annually over the next thirty years to delay incursion.

Reducing the risk of incursion is sensible, but there must also be a strategy to combat the pest in the likely event that it eventually establishes. This conclusion was reported in the 2008 House of Representatives “More than Honey” inquiry.

A Varroa mite on a bee pupae.

A Varroa mite on a bee pupae.

Finding local solutions to help the world

Threats to the European honey bee should remind us that reliance on a single species for crop pollination is a risky strategy. There are thousands of other insect species that contribute to crop pollination, and there are strategies available to better support them, and keep them in our production landscapes.

Nevertheless, we still need managed pollinators that can be supplied on demand to supplement wild pollinators. And the European honey bee will continue to be the most important managed pollinator.

Australia is uniquely placed to contribute to the global effort to deal with Varroa mite impacts on honey bees. As long as we keep Varroa out, we can provide the “Varroa free” comparison needed to understand management options for honey bee health.

Further, because the Varroa mite-honey bee relationship evolved in our region (Asia), we are well placed to contribute to the genetic and evolutionary studies that will underpin options for Varroa control.

The Varroa mite has caused problems worldwide, and there is worldwide interest in finding solutions. We need to mobilise the Australian scientists to collaborate globally, in the interests of healthy bees and productive crops.


This article is based on the CSIRO submission to a Senate inquiry into the Future of the beekeeping and pollination service industries in Australia. The Senate committee is holding a public hearing in Brisbane on May 20), and is due to complete its report by June 19.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s farming future: doing more with less water

Before the 1980s, farmers thought lack of water limited their yield. New crops and sowing methods are breaking yield barriers. Image: Michael Middleton.

Before the 1980s, farmers thought lack of water limited their yield. New crops and sowing methods are breaking yield barriers. Image: Michael Middleton.

By John Passioura, Honorary Research Fellow, Plant Industry.

Changing climate, drought and urban expansion threaten the yield of Australia’s wheat. But changes in cropping methods could address reduced water and lead to a jump in yield not seen since the late 1980s.

A history of innovation

The average yield of Australia’s dominant grain crop, wheat, changed little during the 1960s and 1970s. Then, from the mid-1980s to the turn of the century, three changes almost doubled the average wheat yield in south-eastern Australia.

The first of these was the idea of “water-limited yield potential”. A benchmark was set: a crop should produce about 20kg of grain per hectare for every millimetre of water that it used. This idea was rapidly embraced by the farming community for it provided an easily understood benchmark against which farmers could compare the performance of their crops. Average yields were less than half of that and there was much enthusiasm for finding out why.

The second change was canola’s introduction into the cropping system. Farmers soon noticed that the yield of wheat was substantially greater if it was grown after canola, rather than after other crops. The presence of canola roots in the soil greatly diminished the vigour of previously unrecognised root diseases. These root diseases had resulted in unreliable responses to nitrogen fertiliser, which farmers had therefore been loath to apply.

The third change was the increasingly rapid uptake of conservation farming techniques. Thanks to new and effective herbicides, tillage was no longer required to kill weeds. Farmers could sow crops without cultivating the soil, and this meant that sowing could be much more timely. It also left the soil much softer.

These three changes gave farmers a deeper practical insight (backed up by agronomic research) into what was limiting the yield of their wheat crops. This gave them the confidence to aim for higher yields by adding more fertiliser.

Drought a setback, but early sowing stepped in

This period of rapid growth came to an abrupt end during the millennium drought. Nevertheless, the farmers managed to maintain remarkably good yields during this time, except for two very tough years. How did they do it? By innovative management.

Farmers traditionally relied on autumn rainfall; thanks to the drought, there was much less of this. But there was more summer rainfall. Guided by agronomists, farmers conserved as much summer rain in the subsoil as they could.

Plants with longer coleoptiles – the tube that grows from the seed towards the surface – can be sown in deeper, moister soils. Image: Greg Rebetzke, CSIRO Plant Industry.

Plants with longer coleoptiles – the tube that grows from the seed towards the surface – can be sown in deeper, moister soils. Image: Greg Rebetzke, CSIRO Plant Industry.

They did so by meticulously controlling weeds and by retaining the stubble of the previous year’s crop as surface mulch. Controlling the weeds also made sure nitrates – mineralised from soil organic matter during wet periods – stayed in the soil to benefit future crops.

So, when autumn came around farmers had a guaranteed supply of water in the subsoil. But there was still the problem of getting the wheat to germinate and reach the moist subsoil. Farmers were anxious that the sparse autumn rain would provide few opportunities to sow.

Many sowed into dry soil, which, thanks to abandoning frequent cultivation, was now soft. In this they were largely successful.

Early sowing requires wheat varieties that develop slowly, for they must not flower before about late September, after the risk of frost damage has largely abated. Fortunately such varieties were available.

Making more use of less water

The general success of early sowing may benefit farmers as much as the changes of the late 1980s. Farmers might now hope for a much higher water-limited potential yield than in the 1990s, thanks to the capture of summer rainfall (and released nitrate) for use by the following crops, the greater potential yield resulting from the longer period available for developing floral structures that produce grain, and the time available to develop deeper roots for capturing valuable water from deep in the subsoil during grain-filling.

If the crops can use more of the annual rainfall (not just that in the growing season), and get a greater grain yield per millimetre of that extra water, yield could go up by 25%.

This prospect may be reinforced by new cultivars that will let farmers sow seeds much more deeply, deep enough for them to be sown directly into the moist subsoil. The problem with the current cultivars is their short coleoptiles. A coleoptile is the strong tube that emerges from a germinating grass seed and grows towards the soil surface while protecting the soft first leaf within it.

Coleoptiles of current wheat cultivars usually do not grow longer than about 5cm, so the seeds must be sown no deeper than this. New breeding lines have coleoptiles that can grow as long as 15cm.

Other options showing promise are dual purpose cultivars (they can be productively grazed during the winter as well as producing good grain yields); the use of “controlled traffic” so that any soil compaction is restricted to a small area because all machinery uses the same tracks; and precise GPS-guided sowing which lets crop seedlings get better established.

The near doubling of wheat yield during the late 1980s and 1990s was unpredicted, and perhaps unpredictable. But the omens are good for another period of substantial increases in wheat yield despite (and even because of) the recent volatility of weather patterns.

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Moo-thane emissions

By Adam Harper

You might have heard the song ‘cows with guns’ in the noughties, but that’s old news. These days its cows with lasers! That’s right, lasers.

It might sound like science fiction, but don’t be fooled, it is scientific fact; although the researchers are the ones wielding the weapons this time. Okay so the lasers aren’t really weapons, but they are cutting edge in terms of their ability to measure methane emissions belched out by livestock in the open field.

Cow with device around its neck

Methane from the cattle is measured while eating on an individual basis, as well as at the whole herd level.

You see, livestock are responsible for up to 12% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, and contrary to popular belief, that largely comes out of the front end, not the rear. Per day, per cow, that’s about 200-litres of methane. Nobody light a match!

A collaboration of six universities, CSIRO and researchers from Canada is now looking at how to help put a cork in it. The collaboration is called the Livestock Methane Research Cluster (LMRC) and it brings together some of the world’s leading scientific experts to develop accurate and practical methods to measure and reduce livestock methane emissions in northern Australia.

Why just measure the emissions? Well, in order to reduce, minimise and mitigate, you first have to measure. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now at a CSIRO owned test site near Armidale.

Open-path lasers are used to measure the amount of methane being emitted from herds of cows.

Open-path lasers are used to measure the amount of methane being emitted from herds of cows.

Members from all six universities, CSIRO and Canada are testing different types of lasers as well as GPS collars on an unsuspecting herd of 32 beasts. The lasers and measurement equipment is detecting methane emitted from each animal as well as from the entire herd. This information is then used by the Federal Government to help develop a methodology for the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) where farmers can earn carbon credits if they show (using an approved methodology) reduced emissions from their herds – cash cows.

In order to earn credits though, farmers can’t just reduce the number of livestock on their farm, so reducing the amount of methane each animal produces is critical. The process of producing methane in livestock also consumes energy. By reducing that methane production, more energy can be directed to producing meat, milk and wool.

It’s a win-win.

What the crash test cow saw

It’s not often our videos go viral but this week our Crash Test Cow clip was watched by over 3,000 people and posted on news sites around the world.

Our 60kg bovine, which was designed to test a new cattle gate called SaferGate, was even deemed more popular than Kylie by the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Forget Kylie, forget Cate, Australia’s newest international superstar is far more impressive – it’s a Crash Test Cow’.

It seems our cow is becoming quite the celebrity so we thought we’d share some behind the scenes footage taken from the perspective of our cow.


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