The high-rainfall zone (HRZ) of southern Australia is the arable areas where annual rainfall is between 450 and 800 mm in Western Australia and between 500 and 900 mm in south-eastern Australia, resulting in a growing-season length of 7–10 months. In the last decade, there has been a growing recognition of the potential to increase crop production in the HRZ. We combined (1) a survey of 15 agricultural consultants, each of whom have ∼40–50 farmer clients across the HRZ, (2) 28 farm records of crop yields and area for 2000–2010, (3) 86 wheat and 54 canola yield observations from well managed experiments, and (4) long-term simulated crop yields at 13 HRZ locations, to investigate recent trends in crop production, quantify the gap between potential and actual crop yields, and consider the factors thought to limit on-farm crop yields in the HRZ. We found in the past 10 years a trend towards more cropping, particularly in WA, an increased use of canola, and advances in the adaptation of germplasm to HRZ environments using winter and longer-season spring types. Consultants and the farm survey data confirmed that the rate of future expansion of cropping in the HRZ will slow, especially when compared with the rapid changes seen in the 1990s.
In Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia the long-term water-limited potential yield in HRZ areas, as measured by experimental yields, consultant estimates and simulations for slow developing spring cultivars of wheat and canola was 5–6 and 2–3 t/ha for a decile 5 season. For Western Australia it was 4–5 and 2–3 t/ha, where yields were less responsive to good seasons than in the other states. The top performing farmers were achieving close to the water-limited potential yield. There are yield advantages of ∼2 t/ha for ‘winter’ over ‘spring’ types of both wheat and canola, and there is scope for better adapted germplasm to further raise potential yield in the HRZ.
Consultants stated that there is scope for large gains in yield and productivity by encouraging the below-average cropping farmers to adopt the practices and behaviours of the above-average farmers. The scope for improvement between the below- and above-average farmers was 1–3 t/ha for wheat and 0.5–1.5 t/ha for canola in a decile 5 season. They also stated that a lack of up-to-date infrastructure (e.g. farm grain storage) and services is constraining the industry’s ability to adopt new technology. Priorities for future research, development and extension among consultants included: overcoming yield constraints where growing-season rainfall exceeds 350 mm; adaptation of winter and long-season spring types of cereals and canola and management of inputs required to express their superior yield potential; and overcoming barriers to improved planning and timeliness for crop operations and adoption of technology.