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Making every drop count

Australian rice growers are among some of the world’s most efficient producers. As an industry, it grows more top-quality rice with less water than anywhere else in the world but a Nuffield Scholar is calling for even greater change.

That’s a key research finding of NSW rice grower and 2017 Nuffield Scholar, Mark Groat, who with support from AgriFutures Australia, travelled across the world to the United States, South America, China and India drawing comparisons and insights for rice production back in Australia.

The Nuffield Scholar said although Australia is a small market “at the bottom of the world”, its world reputation is much bigger than its market size.

“This opportunity provided by AgriFutures Australia to meet some of the industry leaders in the world of rice research enhances that reputation,” said Mr Groat.

“Rice has an underserved reputation of high-water use and comparatively low water use efficiency, or the amount of product produced per unit of water. Regardless, rice is just another crop competing within a common water market. Therefore, profitability per megalitre is paramount and increasing water use efficiency is they key driver to sustained production of Australian rice.”

The report, ‘The Future of Australian Rice Production‘ examined increasing water use efficiency through the twin lens of production per megalitre and return per megalitre at a time when producers are facing lower water allocations and higher water prices.

“It’s about gaining a greater return for the water used, whether that’s in terms of yield, quality, consumer demand, or company reputation,” said Mr Groat.

The report also investigated the role of genetic enhancement of rice by looking at the successes of short-season rice varieties and stubble management in North-West India.

“Winter crop rotation and stubble management dramatically increased water use efficiency while enhancing soil characteristics in that region. It’s a focus on the system as a whole
rather than the individual crop that is the key learning here.”

The report featured a series of comparative case studies from international rice growing regions
with similar geographic and climatic traits as Australia, such as the USA’s Mississippi Delta, Uruguay, North-East China and North-West India.

As a rice grower with an agronomic/extension background and experience in irrigation layout and design, Mr Groat wanted to explore how we compare to other rice growing areas of the world by investigating:

  What is their attitude to water and what can we learn from each other?

  What opportunities exist not only at the farm level but also at industry level?

  How does an emphasis on water use efficiency give the industry a marketing edge and enhance
the reputation of the Australian rice industry on a world stage?

The report found in the Mississippi Delta, the majority of water is pumped from the Mississippi
River Valley alluvial aquifer with no regulation on extraction, and no charge for water.

This has led to largely inefficient water usage and aquifer depletion by between 0.15 and 0.45 metres per year.

Mr Groat said benchmarking of Australian data shows an identifiable yield gap of two tonnes per hectare between the average and top twenty per cent of growers.

“Identifying and addressing causes of this gap, decreasing evaporation and increasing marketability are key components to increasing water use efficiency in terms of dollars per megalitre.”

One of the report’s key recommendations is industry refocuses on benchmarking, extension and research into in-situ management.

“The combination of technology, irrigation design, crop protection products and rice genetics has
opened the door to maximising water use efficiency like never before,” said Mr Groat.

“If as an industry we can focus on effective in-situ stubble management, identify and prioritise
extension services on yield gaps, re-evaluate our research priorities and better tell our story, then we will be better placed to seize the opportunities before us.

“Decisions made today will decide if the industry over the next decade is surviving from one year
to the next or is an example and inspiration of what Australian producers and an Australian
commodity industry, can achieve.”