Scientists Have Figured Out How To Grow 50% More Wheat Without Adding Extra Water

Photo: Getty/ David McNew

Australian grain farmers are growing 50% more wheat thanks to new farming methods designed to solve water deficiencies.

Recently awarded the Department of Agriculture Landcare Eureka Prize for Sustainable Agriculture, The Water Use Efficiency team made up of CSIRO scientists has developed three ways to help farmers better utilise natural water resources.

Business Insider spoke to Dr Julianne Lilley from CSIRO, who said the research which focuses on dry land farming, where water in the environment comes from the sky only, exceeded expectations.

The five-year project, funded by The Grains Research and Development Corporation, initially aimed to increase productivity by 10%. Using three new methods designed by The Water Use Efficiency team, growers in some cases achieved yield increases of more than 50%.

Lilley explained the three methods they used on farms across Victoria, SA, NSW and WA during the testing.

While many farmers leave weeds in the crops for the cattle to feed on before crops are sown, Lilley said the weeds actually soaked up the little water available. So “by controlling summer weeds it improved water held in the soil by more than 30%,” she said.

Rotating the crops, and not growing the same plant over and over again, reduced disease and improved the root systems for the following crops to be sown.

Finally, “sowing crops two to three weeks earlier than traditionally” was important, Lilley said, because “the Australian climate has changed over the past 15 years”.

With less rain in autumn, farmers have to take advantage of earlier sowing to benefit from changing rain patterns. As farmers couldn’t predict what the year will be like when they sowed a crop, Lilley said The Water Use Efficiency team’s strategies helped manage that risk.

The team has increased participating farms’ returns by $250 per hectare, with the average winter yield increased across all regions by 25%.

In 2008-09, Australia exported 12.3 million tonnes of bulk wheat. In 2011-12, bulk wheat exports had grown to a record 22 million tonnes. New markets have opened, with the number of consignees for bulk wheat exports growing from 168 in 2008-09 to 263 in 2011-12.

While wheat production in Australia continues to grow, the industry traditionally is hampered by a 27% decline during the strong El Niño years.

And with and El Niño weather event predicted to return this year these methods could be the saving grace for Aussie farmers.

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