The improvement in grain yield of wheat throughout Australia through both breeding and management has been impressive. Averaged across all farms, there has been an approximate doubling of yield per unit area since ∼1940. This has occurred across a broad range of environments with different rainfall patterns. Interestingly, the gain in the driest years (9 kg ha–1 year–1 or 0.81% year–1) has been proportionally greater than in the most favourable years (13.2 kg ha–1 year–1 or 0.61% per year) when expressed as yield relative to 2012. These data from all farms suggest that further yield progress is likely, and evidence is presented that improved management practices alone could double this rate of progress. The yield increases achieved have been without any known compromise in grain quality or disease resistance.
As expected, improvements have come from both changed management and from better genetics, as well as from the synergy between them. Yield improvements due to changed management have been dramatic and are easiest to quantify, whereas those from breeding have been important but more subtle. The management practices responsible have largely been driven by advances in mechanisation that enable direct seeding, more timely and flexible sowing and nutrient management, and improved weed and pest control, many of which have been facilitated by improved crop sequences with grain legumes and oilseeds that improve water- and nutrient-use efficiency. Most of the yield improvements from breeding in Australia have come from conventional breeding approaches where selection is almost solely for grain yield (together with grain quality and disease resistance). Improvements have primarily been through increased harvest index (HI), although aboveground biomass has also been important.
We discuss future opportunities to further increase Australian rainfed wheat yields. An important one is earlier planting, which increases resource capture. This will require knowledge of the genes regulating phenological development so that flowering still occurs at the optimum time; appropriate modifications to sowing arrangements and nutrient management will also be required. To improve yield potential, we propose a focus on physiological traits that increase biomass and HI and suggest that there may be more scope to improve biomass than HI. In addition, there are likely to be important opportunities to combine novel management practices with new breeding traits to capture the synergy possible from variety × management interactions. Finally, we comment on research aimed at adapting agriculture to climate change.