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Australian Crop Residues: Asset or Liability?

10 January 2012

AUSTRALIA - As better crop production practices boost yields in Australia's high rainfall zones (HRZ), stubble management has emerged as a double-edged sword for the region's growers.

Former Southern Farming Systems (SFS) researcher Rohan Wardle says attitudes are changing as growers switch from looking at crop residue as a liability to be managed, to an asset worth exploiting.

Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC)-funded research is making significant gains in effectively handling crop residue.

"Yield has improved in a relatively short time period since cropping in Australia's HRZ expanded in the early 1990s," Mr Wardle said.

"Along with this yield response has come an increased level of crop residue left in paddocks.

"This was typically considered a waste and came with additional costs, despite the relative ease of burning."

Mr Wardle says crop residues are now being considered an asset in the whole farming management system, with dramatic changes in the landscape and a better understanding of opportunities and processes in a drying farming environment.

"Stubble retention is now a serious consideration in any machinery purchase, nitrogen input system or harvest process," he said.

"Farmers who have implemented alternatives to burning have done so not to take on another challenge, but with the realisation that sustainable farming systems work more naturally, than destructively, allowing for less stress on all aspects of the farming system."

Mr Wardle says the myth that stubble retention increases the level of pests has now been quashed, allowing farmers to use integrated pest management (IPM) to undertake more strategic monitoring and less application of non-required pesticides.

"The key outcomes of the GRDC-funded SFS research is proof stubble retention can be achieved in the HRZ without a yield penalty and with improved water use efficiency," he said.

"This has led to a greater uptake of sustainable farming system practices that only several years ago seemed unlikely."

Mr Wardle estimates more than 80 per cent of growers are considering stubble retention and that many are already practicing various methods for the benefits of the social, economic and environmental outcomes on offer.

The GRDC-funded research promotes a move away from stubble burning. It has focused on stubble retention, inter-row seeding and row spacing trials, incorporating variable seeding and nutrient management inputs.

"Precision Agriculture, including Variable Rate Application through disc seeding in a reduced carbon emission climate would answer the next phase of forward thinking applicable in a rising input cost market," Mr Wardle said.

TheCropSite News Desk

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