Winner Dr John Kirkegaard and Dr James Hunt, CSIRO and Stuart Kearns, Grains Research and Development Corporation

More wheat without adding water

Australian grain farmers are boosting yield by more than 50 per cent without using any extra water.

The Water Use Efficiency team has discovered a few deceivingly simple changes in farming practice that can make staggering differences to water-yield efficiencies.

For their game-changing success developing more water-efficient grain-farming methods, the Water Use Efficiency Initiative team consisting of CSIRO’s John Kirkegaard and James Hunt, and Stuart Kearns of the Grains Research and Development Corporation, have been awarded the Department of Agriculture Landcare Eureka Prize for Sustainable Agriculture.

The gains are not just theoretical. On farms across Victoria, NSW and WA, grains farmers are seeing the light, sometimes after initial reluctance, and are adjusting time-honoured practices to switch to the new Water Use Efficiency principles.

“The Water Use Efficiency team has certainly overachieved,” Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay said. “From an initial aim of increasing yield by 10 per cent, they are helping growers achieve yield increases of well over 50 per cent. The implications for farming in a country with periodic water shortages are obvious”. 

And it’s the numbers that really tell the story:

  • The team has increased participating farms’ returns by $250 per hectare
  • On some farms weed control and maintaining ground cover over summer increased yield by 60 per cent and earlier sowing of slow-maturing grain added another 22 per cent
  • Sowing a legume ‘break crop’ between crops could increase yield by up to 83 per cent
  • Average winter yield was increased across all regions by 25 per cent.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes are the country’s most comprehensive national science awards. The Eureka Prizes have been rewarding science since 1990—celebrating 25 years in 2014.

The other finalists were:

  • EverGraze team from Future Farm Industries CRC, which has increased profits on livestock farms alongside improvements in surface water and soil retention.
  • Professor Richard Oliver’s wheat disease team from Curtin University, which has drastically sped up the process of developing disease-resistant wheat.

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