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Changed farming practice in central Queensland grain farming systems.

Anne Shepherd and Richard Routley

Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, LMB 6 Emerald Q 4720. www.dpi.qld.gov.au
Email anne.shepherd@dpi.qld.gov.au

Abstract

An evaluation of the impact of the Central Queensland Sustainable Farming Systems project, which included a detailed grower survey in 2007, has revealed significant changes in many farm management practices over the last five years and intentions to further modify practices in the future.

Key practice changes with positive economic and environmental outcomes include: a trend towards applying nitrogen fertiliser at planting rather than pre-plant; adoption of zero and minimum tillage over 95% of the cropping area; a substantial increase in the area managed under controlled traffic farming; changes in row configuration and target plant populations; a two-fold increase in the number of growers with the capacity to deep-plant chickpea; and a substantial increase in the use of pre-harvest spray-out of sorghum crops.

The project has also delivered social outcomes through grower group activities, building networks and providing opportunities for social interaction; and has increased the capacity of growers to make better farm management decisions through increased knowledge and skills development. The focus of this paper will be on the key practice changes that have contributed to significant improvements in the profitability and sustainability of central Queensland grain farming systems.

Keywords

Farming systems research, participatory, practice change, evaluation, central Queensland.

Introduction

The Central Queensland Sustainable Farming Systems Project (CQSFSP) has conducted participatory RD&E in the central Queensland (CQ) grains industry since 1997. The project objective is to improve the economic, environmental, and social performance of the grains industry, with a focus on practice change at the paddock and farm scale. The participatory approach used by the project involves researchers, extension officers and farmers working together and involves cycles of observation, diagnosis, planning, action and evaluation (Petheram & Clark, 1998).

The project has implemented a five step process in order to achieve the project objectives, and at all steps, a participatory approach involving project staff, farmers, advisors and other stakeholders is used.

  • Priority issues that are impacting on the economic and environmental sustainability of the system are identified and prioritised through widespread consultation with producers and other industry stakeholders.
  • New research is conducted where required to generate new knowledge about the issues identified.
  • New and existing knowledge is used to develop and validate new technologies and practices that can be utilised by producers.
  • A variety of extension, learning and communication products and activities are developed and delivered to help producers integrate these new technologies and practices into their farming system.
  • An ongoing evaluation program is implemented to measure the impact of the project and to continually improve project processes and activities.

The project implements a number of research, development & extension (RD&E) activities in order to meet the project objectives. These include trials on research stations and on farms, two long term on-farm development sites, simulation modelling studies, field days, bus tours, action learning workshops, grower group meetings (8 established groups), a quarterly newsletter, crop notes, conference publications, media releases and radio interviews. The grower groups are the main focus for participatory and action learning activities (McGill & Beatty, 1992), providing the opportunity to share ideas and discuss issues and trial results.

This paper reports producer reactions to the CQSFS project and key areas of farm practice change occurring between 2002 and 2007 as revealed through project evaluation conducted in 2007.

Methods

A self-administered mail questionnaire was sent to all grain farmers in central Qld (328) whose contact details were available on a contacts database maintained by CQSFS. This database is considered to cover the vast majority of commercial sized central Qld graingrowers, with the 2001 ABS Agricultural Census indicating that there were 363 grain producers in central Qld with an annual turnover from grain production of greater than $150 000. Eighty two valid responses were received, representing a response rate of 25%.

The survey was designed to collect data on farmers perceptions of the CQSFSP, changes in their knowledge and farming practices, and their assessment of the project’s contribution to these changes, and consisted of two sections. Part A dealt with individual perceptions and all individuals involved in managing a farm business were encouraged to complete it. Part B dealt with attributes of the farm business and was completed once for each farm business that was managed as a single unit. Many questions asked about what farmers did 5 years ago, what they do now and what they might do in 5 years time. This was to help measure change over time and determine future trends and needs.

The questionnaire contained a mix of closed-ended, categorical questions and scaled questions to facilitate pre-coding and to ensure ease of answering. Some empirical questions were included for farming practice, as exact answers were considered easier to provide than listing numerous categories. Response categories and measurement scales were developed to ensure they covered the expected range of responses. Five and four point Likert scales (Trochim, 2006) were used for ease of answering and analysis.

Results and Discussion

Participation of respondents in project activities: Between 82% and 87% of respondents sometimes or usually participated in project activities such as bus trips, field days, workshops and grower group meetings. 99% of respondents sometimes or usually read the project newsletter ‘Cropping Central’.

Grower Perception of project benefits: 88% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the project had been a good investment of funds and resources. 73% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the project had improved the sustainability of their farm, while 63% agreed or strongly agreed that the project had improved their farm profitability.

86% of respondents agreed that the project had helped develop improved farming systems for central Queensland and 74% agreed that the project had improved their ability to make sound management decisions.

83% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the project has helped them interact and learn from other farmers, 79% agreed or strongly agreed the project provided access to specialist researchers and 79% agreed or strongly agreed the project provided opportunities to discuss experiences. These results reflect favourably on the participatory action learning model used by the project for extension and other group activities.

Practice change: Key practices in use in central Qld grain growing enterprises as revealed by the survey are outlined in Table 1 and are briefly discussed below.

Table 1. Key practices of central Qld graingrowers demonstrating change over time

Practice

5 years ago

Current (Jun 2007)

5 Years time

Respondents who apply N to wheat at or after planting (%)

36

54

75

Respondents who apply N to sorghum at or after planting (%)

54

77

87

Cropping area managed as minimum tillage (%)

33

28

19

Cropping area managed as zero tillage (%)

50

67

63

Cropping area under CTF (non-fully matched) (%)

37

45

38

Cropping area under CTF (fully matched) (%)

3

10

19

Respondents with capability to deep-plant chickpea (%)

41

80

82

Respondents who sometimes or always spray out sorghum (%)

57

85

92

Median sorghum row spacing (cm)

100

124

126

Median sorghum target population (plants/ha)

45 000

35 000

33 000

Median wheat row spacing (cm)

37

42

42

Median wheat target population (plants/ha)

860 000

830 000

777 000

(N = nitrogen; CTF = controlled traffic farming)

A trend towards applying Nitrogen fertiliser at planting rather than pre-plant

For both wheat and sorghum, more growers are now applying nitrogen (N) fertiliser at or after planting rather than prior to planting. Aspirations for 5 years time indicate this trend will continue. This practice gives producers the ability to better match N inputs to seasonal conditions, and reduces the risks associated with applying N before planting and not receiving planting rain.

Adoption of zero and minimum tillage over 95% of the cropping area

The proportion of the cropping area managed under either a zero till (ZT) or minimum till (MT) system has increased from 83% 5 years ago to 95% currently. A slight decline was indicated for 5 years time, which we suggest is due to an intention to make greater use of strategic tillage as a herbicide resistance management tool and to assist with the integrated management of difficult to control weeds.

Changes in tillage practice over the last decade have been critical in improving the profitability

and sustainability of farming enterprises in CQ. Adoption of ZT and MT practices instead of conventional full disturbance tillage results in greater levels of groundcover, which leads to greater water infiltration, less erosion, improved soil condition and consequently higher yields and more planting opportunities (Carroll et al., 1997, Tullberg et al., 2001).

A substantial increase in the area managed under controlled traffic farming

The percentage of the cropping area managed under non-fully matched CTF systems has increased slightly over the last 5 years and is expected to decline slightly over the next 5 years as growers move towards fully matched systems. The area of cropping under fully matched CTF systems has increased threefold over the last 3 years and is expected to double again in 5 years time. A fully matched controlled traffic farming (CTF) system incorporates all machinery on the same wheel tracks. Many growers in CQ implementing CTF are yet to incorporate the header and chaser bin into the system.

A two-fold increase in the number of growers with the capacity to deep-plant chickpea

It is widely recognised that delaying the planting of chickpea beyond the optimum planting time is associated with a significant yield penalty. Having the machinery capability to deep plant chickpea increases planting opportunities in the absence of timely planting rainfall and allows the crop to be planted within the ideal planting window. Chickpeas are more commonly grown with deep planting techniques than wheat because they have proven to establish well when sown at depth. The proportion of producers who have the capability to deep plant chickpea has doubled over the last 5 years.

A substantial increase in the use of pre-harvest spray-out of sorghum crops.

Work within the CQSFSP has shown that spraying out sorghum plants with glyphosate products soon after physiological maturity reduces soil water losses and improved crop harvestability. The proportion of producers who sometimes or always spray out sorghum crops has increased substantially over the last 5 years and is expected to increase to 92% over the next 5 years.

Changes in row configuration and target plant populations

Research conducted by CQSFS and other projects has demonstrated the risk-management benefits of wide row sorghum systems in dry times. Farmers have adapted to climate variability by adjusting row spacing and plant populations over the last 5 years. To be compatible with wide row sorghum, farmers also started to grow wheat on wider rows. The project has helped quantify the yield impacts of wider wheat row spacing, demonstrating that if yield potential is less than 2t/ha, row spacing will not have an impact on yield; but at higher yield levels, there will be a yield penalty with wide rows. The median row spacing values are given in Table 1. For wheat the median row spacing has increased from 37 cm 5 years ago to 42 cm presently, with the median expected to stay at 42 cm in 5 years time. For sorghum the median row spacing has increased from 100 cm 5 years ago to 124 cm presently, with the median in 5 years time expected to be slightly wider at 137 cm.

Median target population for wheat has decreased slightly over the last 5 years and is expected to decrease further. Median target population for sorghum has declined even further with the target population 5 years ago being 45 000 plants/ha, whilst presently the median target population is 35 000 plants/ha. This trend towards lower populations in sorghum is expected to continue over the next 5 years.

Conclusion

Practice change has occurred in CQ grain farming systems over the last ten years in a number of key areas. The Central Queensland Sustainable Farming Systems Project has contributed to this through its participatory approach to RD&E. The success of the project is a result of the participatory approaches it uses enhancing producer’s knowledge, attitudes, skills and aspirations and subsequently resulting in practice change (Bennett 1975). Lawrence et al (2006) and Carberry (2001) both agree that participatory approaches can increase adoption and support people to improve farming practices by targeting research questions that are meaningful to the end users, whilst simultaneously conducting research of interest to the scientific community using statistically rigorous methods.

A multidisciplinary team addressing issues of concern to local farmers, with ongoing evaluation activities to measure the impact of the project and to continually improve project processes have also been important in achieving the project goals of improving the economic, environmental, and social performance of the grains industry in CQ.

References

Bennett, C. (1975). Up the hierarchy. Journal of Extension, 13(2), pp 7-12.

Carberry, P.S. (2001). Are science rigour and industry relevance both achievable in participatory action research? Proceedings of the 10th Australian agronomy conference: www.regional.org.au/au/asa/2001/plenary/5/carberry.htm

Carroll, C., Halpin, M., Burger, P., Bell, K., Sallaway, M. and Yule, D. (1997). The effect of crop type, crop rotation, and tillage practice on runoff and soil loss on a vertisol in central Queensland. Aust J. Soil Res., 35, 925 – 39.

Lawrence, D., Dey, P., Karmakar, D. and Cornish, P.S. (2006). Participation - for improved adoption, research, or both: two case studies. Proceedings of the 13th Australian Agronomy Conference: www.regional.org.au/au/asa/2006/poster/adoption/4849_lawrence.htm

McGill, I., and Beatty, E. (1992). What is action learning and how does it work? Action Learning – A practitioner’s guide, Kogan Page, London, UK, pp 8-15.

Petheram, R.J. and Clark, R.A. (1998). Farming Systems research: relevance to Australia. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 38, pp 101-15.

Trochim, W. (2006). Likert Scaling. Web centre for social research methods: www.socialresearchmethods.net/kb/scallik.php

Tullberg, J.N., Ziebarth, P.J., Li Y. (2001). Traffic and tillage effects on runoff. Aust J. Soil Res., 39, 249-257.

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