The Board revised the GRDC's environmental policy in February 2007, to state:
The GRDC is committed to investing in RD&E that addresses the environmental priorities of its stakeholders and underpins the sustainable development of an internationally competitive Australian grains industry.
The GRDC seeks investments that address the environmental concerns represented in the Australian Government's National Research Priorities and rural R&D priorities (as shown in Table 4), and provide both short-term and long-term economic, environmental and social benefits for the corporation's industry and community stakeholders.
Such investments have a strong focus on identifying profitable solutions to environmental challenges, because profitable solutions are likely to be adopted as long as they are compatible with existing operations and easily implemented. An assessment of the investment portfolio carried out through the Industry Working Group on Natural Resource Management during 2006-07 found that the GRDC was the leading investor in projects directed at achieving a beneficial soil and water outcome for agricultural industries.
The following sections describe some of the environmental successes arising from GRDC investments in 2006-07. Many of these successes have been achieved in collaboration with other rural R&D corporations, Australian Government and state government bodies, regional natural resource management organisations and grower groups. The energy-efficient practices the GRDC applies in its own work are discussed in Part 3.
Measuring biodiversity in mixed farming systems
Complementing the successful, regionally based mixed-farming projects of the Grain and Graze program, a national Biodiversity in Grain and Graze project has been established to study broader questions about mixed farming systems.
A research team in Tasmania has designed 47 mixed-farming case studies to examine the relationships between biodiversity and on-farm production. The case studies will assist in developing a better understanding of the range of biodiversity in the mixed farming systems, and help researchers to answer questions such as:
- Can farms be managed to improve ecosystem services and profitability?
- Does enterprise diversity on-farm lead to increased biodiversity?
- Is there is a relationship between site conditions, land use, landscape, terrain and biodiversity?
- Has rotational farming increased biodiversity, compared with monoculture farming?
The project is collecting information on soils, vegetation, invertebrates (beetles, spiders and ants) and birds. Each case study monitors four paddocks on a single farm:
- a cropping paddock that has been in a crop rotation for at least three years
- a paddock in the break crop (lucerne or annual legume) phase of a rotation
- a perennial pasture paddock that has been established for at least three years
- an area of remnant vegetation.
The data collected in 2006-07 suggests that there is a high level of diversity and functionality in all systems.
Building healthy soils for sustainable farms
The GRDC is a partner in the Healthy Soils for Sustainable Farms Program, which is working with farmers, community groups and researchers to bring together and build on existing information about soil health. The program offers the benefits of a national approach, linking industries and regions to assist the adoption of more coordinated, concerted and cost-effective approaches to improve soil health across Australia.
The GRDC has investment links to the knowledge base and education aspects of the program, and to three particular projects:
- a project to improve farmers' capacity to manage soil health issues in south-east Australia. In 2006-07, the project used 21 paired demonstration sites and involved 820 farmers in farmer workshops. Training was also provided for 70 private sector and 30 public sector advisers, through adviser workshops.
- a project to improve access to soil management information for northern broadacre cropping industries. The project aims to develop a reference manual and database; deliver training workshops, materials and extension publications; develop tools for on-farm benchmarking, assessment and monitoring of soil health; and report on participatory on-farm research.
- a project to develop a state-wide soil health monitoring program in Western Australia. Soil health indicators will be linked to profitable on-farm outcomes by the project's economic analysis of best practice management options and their impacts on soil health.
Managing climate variability in a changing environment
The GRDC is the major investor in the Managing Climate Variability Program (MCVP), which has three key objectives:
- to improve seasonal climate forecasting, in terms of accuracy, lead-time and ease of use
- to provide tools and services for managing climate risk
- to increase the adoption of climate risk management.
Through the MCVP, a forecasting tool called Yield Prophet has been developed and made available to growers to assist in risk management decisions. Yield Prophet assesses how the current season Southern Oscillation Index (SOI) is behaving in relation to similar SOI conditions in the previous 100 years, and presents yield probabilities. The forecast can be used to maximise returns from good finishes and minimise losses from poor seasons.
Another decision support tool, Whopper Cropper, is being developed for use across all Australian cropping zones. Originally released in the northern cropping region, the computer-based risk management tool is based on the Agricultural Production Simulation Model (APSIM). Compared to Yield Prophet (also based on APSIM), Whopper Cropper is useful in making strategic rather than tactical crop management decisions: for example, 'should I plant a crop this season' rather than 'should I apply a late-season nitrogen application'.
A comparative assessment of the usefulness of a range of decision support tools in making within-season management decisions was completed in 2006-07. The project compared Yield Prophet and the Potential Yield Calculator and found that, while both tools added value to growers' crop management decisions, a good knowledge of starting soil water was critical to the usefulness of Yield Prophet.
The MCVP is also supporting the development of a new approach to targeted seasonal forecasts. In 2006-07, the project identified that 51 percent of north-west Victoria's growing season rainfall over the past 35 years had been caused by 'cut-off lows', as opposed to cold fronts and other weather systems, and as much as 70 percent of the heavier rainfall events could be attributed to cut-off lows. A cut-off low is an isolated low-pressure system that has broken away from a low-pressure belt to the south, and extends vertically through much of the atmosphere. By observing the Bureau of Meteorology's four-day forecasts, growers can track the likelihood of cut-off lows occurring and more accurately anticipate rainfall.
A great strength of the GRDC's participation in the MCVP is the ability to share in much larger collaborations. For example, the MCVP is a partner in the South east Australian Climate Initiative with the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the Department of Sustainability and the Environment Victoria, the Australian Greenhouse Office, the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO.
Knowledge of soil water reaches new depths
Accurate information about soil water can improve the effectiveness of many aspects of cropping, including the choice of crop and variety, fertiliser rates, sowing time, seeding rate and row configuration. Knowing how to assess available stored water, and relate that knowledge to individual areas and particular crops, can improve management of soils and raise productivity.
In 2006-07, the GRDC supported a project with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems to train and assist growers across Australia to improve their knowledge of soil water.
One aim of the project is to ensure ready access to data about soil profiles representative of all growing areas. The database, known as APSoil, includes details such as water storage capacity at various depths, and the incidence of root constraints (such as high pH or salinity), for each soil listed. Such details can identify potential problems in sowing particular crops or varieties in particular areas.
The collection of these details is carried out with grain growers, in a training environment. More than 400 soil profiles will be included on the database by the project's completion; in 2006-07, 280 profiles were made available for downloading through www.apsru.gov.au/apsru/Products/APSoil/default.htm.
To improve methods of measuring available soil water, the project is assessing emerging technology, using existing aids such as the computer program HowWet?, and adding value to more traditional methods of monitoring soil water such as coring or push-probing techniques.
The project is also exploring ways to match soil water data with expected crop water requirements and likely rainfall scenarios, through the use of simulation tools such as APSIM, Whopper Cropper and Yield Prophet.