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News from the Conference

By Claire Braund

Science and technology deliver results to producers

More than 400 agronomists from around Australia came together at the 10th Australian Agronomy Conference in Hobart recently to discuss how science and technology were delivering results for agriculture.

President of the Australian Society of Agronomy, Dr Neville Mendham, said that the emphasis of the conference was on querying what benefit technology was to agriculture.

This included assessing to what extent technology is driven by its developers or those with a financial interest in seeing it adopted.

“Agronomy, like most agricultural research, is coming to grips with changing methods, driven by advances such as GPS systems and biotechnology. Markets and operating conditions are also changing, as consumers become very vocal about their food supply and environment in which their food is produced,” Dr Mendham said.

He cited the improvements in computing power as one of the major advances in technology since the first conference was held in 1980, saying the conference committee had sought to use the electronic environment as much as possible to distribute proceedings of the conference.

“We are collaborating with The Regional Institute to put proceedings of all past Agronomy Conferences on their web site, to be freely available and searchable. This will help to make an invaluable resource available to researchers, advisers, farmers and students,” Dr Mendham said.

Official Opening by The Governor of Tasmania

The Governor of Tasmania, Sir Guy Green, started the ball rolling on the discussion, with some well-chosen and insightful opening remarks about the agronomy profession and its contribution to Australian society.

He compared advances in agronomy to those in other fields of endeavour, communication and aviation, saying that if we lost all our computers, phones and planes it would have less impact than if we lost the advances made by the science of agronomy over the years.

However, Sir Guy cautioned that research is only relevant if it is transferred to the farm and incorporated into the decision-making process.”

“New ways of transmitting information to growers must be realised and better modes of communication utilised in order to give full effect to research,” Sir Guy said.

Benefits of research from a farmer’s perspective

Tasmanian farmer and Chair of the Grains Research and Development Corporation Southern Regional Panel, Mr Ian McKinnon, went on to look at the benefits to farmers in his region delivered by the following four research outcomes:

1. Development of the Canola crop.
From 170,000 tonnes in 1969 to more than two million tonnes today.

2. Adoption of minimum zero tillage
Mapping the shift in farmer attitudes from “if it doesn’t burn and blow it won’t grow” to retaining crop stubble to increase organic matter and moisture in the soil, thereby reducing degradation and erosion. Flagged the emergence of a shift back towards traditional methods to control diseases that build up in un-tilled soil and high use of herbicides and pesticides.

3. The rediscovery of lucerne and its contribution to the pasture phase.
Use of pasture legumes to help counter declining soil fertility, soil structural problems, and herbicide resistant weeds.

4. The role of benchmarking and Risk management and profitability.
Outlined the FAST (Farming And Sustainable Technology) project, designed to highlight an understanding of the risks and opportunities that farmers need to be aware of and monitor, including how to maintain a profitable farming system and the ability to measure the performance of their own farming business. The project has enabled farmers to measure, monitor and analyse their business.

Mr McKinnon concluded that farmers in south eastern Australia had benefited widely from research, with significant gains in farm production, profitability and competitiveness. However he stressed that the gains in profitability had not been made solely through driving productivity and inputs, but through an integrated approach to farming


US agronomy - from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico

Visiting agronomist rom the United States Department of Agriculture in Iowa, Mr Gerry Hatfield, leant an international flavour to the conference with his paper on the renewed interest in agronomic management in the US to balance the needs of the environment with the requirement for improved production.

He described how corn and soybean farmers in the mid-west, Illinois, Idaho and Iowa, continued to rely on artificial inputs, such as nitrogen fertiliser, to ensure high crop yields.

This meant they spent little time looking at the interactions between indicators such water, nitrogen and radiation to assess their efficiency of their production system.

“The focus on yield rather than efficiency of production has created a situation in which we regard the soil within the farming system as a medium in which we place seed, fertilizer, and chemicals,” Mr Hatfield said.

“It is currently estimated that around the world over 70% of the agricultural lands have reduced production capability because of erosion and decrease in soil organic matter content.”

Soil with higher organic matter is more able to hold water and less likely to require high fertiliser inputs. Degraded soils cannot hold water so well and the use of both water and chemical inputs, such as nitrogen, is reduced.

Mr Hatfield reported that farmers in the mid-west dig sub-surface drains to take water off their crops. At the same time they are oversupplying nitrogen to their crops, causing the chemical to leach through the drainage system and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico, causing some major environmental problems.

“These challenges offer us an opportunity to begin to address the needs of society that include more efficient food, feed, and fibre production and to develop farming systems for crop production that are more sustainable,” Mr Hatfield said.

“We have an obligation to use our scientific talents to develop solutions that producers can use readily adopt into their current enterprises.”


Research driving the Tasmanian poppy industry

Heavy investment in research from pharmaceutical companies is driving the successful Tasmanian poppy industry, according to Development Manager with Tasmanian Alkaloids, Mr Tony Fist.

In his keynote address to the conference, Mr Fist said that government-backed research in the industry was largely being replaced by the private sector as the world market became more competitive.

Tasmania is the only place in Australia where the intensive alkaloid crop is commercially produced, with more than 1000 farmers sowing 20,000ha of poppies annually.

The industry is highly efficient, producing 45.8% of the world’s Concentrate of Poppy Straw (CPS), from 10.7% of the area under poppies. CPS can be sold as a narcotic raw material, or utilised in the manufacture of active pharmaceutical ingredients.

Mr Fist reported that the application of science and technology has been critical to the development of the poppy industry, with high yielding varieties and efficient production methods allowing the Tasmanian industry to compete successfully on the world market.

Australia produced 51% of the world's morphine CPS in 1998, compared with Turkey (23%), France (21%) and Spain 4%. The other major producer is India, which manufactures the traditional product opium.

The UK and USA are the largest markets for CPS, importing 49 and 38 tonnes respectively in 1998. The USA is the largest importer of opium; 541 tonnes in 1998. The USA has a policy of sourcing 80% of its narcotic raw materials from the traditional producers, India and Turkey.

Mr Fist said that the Tasmanian poppy industry needs a competitive advantage in order to compete against other countries that receive extensive government assistance through protected monopolies and subsidies

“The high alkaloid content of the Tasmanian crop is our most important competitive advantage. Science and technology have been critical in providing this edge.”

“The industry has a strong commitment to research, and growers are very supportive of the research effort and readily accept new technology.”

Mr Fist said that while most of the current research and development is lead by the processing companies, poppy growers, government research agencies, and agribusiness have all been partners in the success enjoyed by the industry.


Moree farmer and researcher awarded agronomy’s top honour

Mr Esdale accepting the Donald Medal from Kirsten Bacon

Mr Jeffrey Esdale, who recently retired as Managing Director of Livingstone Farms at Moree, was awarded this year’s C.M Donald Medal for his contribution to the development of sustainable production systems in agriculture in Australia.

Kirsten Bacon, a grand-daughter of Prof. Donald, presented the medal to Mr Esdale at the Agronomy Conference in Hobart.

Mr Esdale graduated from the University of Sydney in 1960 and then spent seven years as a research agronomist with the NSW Department of Agriculture. In 1967 he became farm manager at the University of Sydney’s Plant Breeding Institute at Narrabri and, in 1976, Manager of the university-owned Livingstone Farm at Moree.

Livingstone Farm was left to the university on the condition that it demonstrated the economic value of conservation farming techniques to the agricultural industry.

In an entertaining presentation to the conference, Mr Esdale described how he set about re-organising the farm around a no-tillage system, including the use of a ‘secret weapon’ (sheep) for weed control.

“They are the best weed sensors around and have a big impact on herbicide resistance – there aren’t many weed resistant sheep,” Mr Esdale said in one of the many colourful anecdotes with which he punctuated his lecture.

He urged agriculturalists to “take their blinkers off” and use the services of aeronautical and mechanical engineers to assist with better machinery design. His interest in this subject was evident in the collection of slides on seeders he presented to the conference with an analysis on the benefits and drawbacks of each and how it had been used on Livingstone Farm.

In summary, Mr Esdale said he envisaged a future where no-tillage systems will dominate most of our broad scale farming operations and that no-tillage will be combined with a diversity of cropping and livestock production enterprises.

He paid homage to his peers and to the farmers, consultants and researchers from universities, government departments of agriculture, research centres and CSIRO whose “brains he had picked” during his career.

Jeff Esdale and colleagues Frank Crofts and Reg French


The C.M. Donald Medal

The Australian Society instituted the C.M. Donald Medal for Agronomy in 1984 to honour the contribution of Professor C.M. Donald to agricultural science. The medal is awarded to an eminent agriculturalist at each national conference of the Society.

Outline of Professor Donald’s career

Previous recipients

1982 (retrospectively)

Dr P.G. Ozanne


Prof. F.C. Crofts


Mr R.J. French


Dr R.C. Rossiter


Prof. G.L. Wilson


Prof. J.R McWilliam


Dr A.B. Hearn


Dr J.L. Davidson


Mr R.J. Esdaile

Who was there

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