Fifty Years in Pursuit of Agricultural Sustainability – an ever ‘Moving Target’

  1. Professor Timothy G Reeves FTSE   Professorial Fellow, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University of Melbourne
    Chair, Agriculture Forum, Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering
    Director, Timothy G Reeves and Associates P/L, Geelong, VIC 3220



    This paper provides key insights into factors important in the development of agronomists and other agricultural scientists. These include the critical people-related roles of – establishing strong, multi-disciplinary teams to conduct rigorous and accurate field and related research; strong leadership and support from senior managers; experienced mentors and role models; and the imperative of effective farmer participation in the research-development-adoption continuum. It then tracks the ‘rise and demise’ of some major farming systems in SE Australia, providing insights into the factors influencing their initial adoption by farmers and the factors that lead to them ultimately becoming unsustainable. Lessons learned and the current relevance of these findings is described for each system, particularly in relation to sustainability factors. It concludes that ‘business as usual’ is rarely, if ever, a viable sustainability option.

    Sustainable intensification of agriculture is the last of the systems considered and its critical importance to future global food and nutritional security is described. The paper concludes by identifying five ‘Grand Challenges’ to global food and nutritional security – natural resource losses; climate change; nitrogen-use efficiency; food loss and waste; neglect of rural communities – and the measures required to successfully overcome them, including sustainable intensification. Urgent attention is recommended to better tackling nexus issues; implementing sustainable intensification in agri-food chains; establishing policies and targets for reducing food loss and waste; developing a vision and strategy for rural communities; and implementing longer-term, patient co-investment in factors critical to sustainability.

Quantifying benefits of pH mapping technology and variable rate liming versus blanket rate approaches

Olivia Campbell1 and Brendan Torpy1

1Precision Agriculture Pty Ltd, 1 University Drive, Mount Helen, VIC 3350,,


Soil acidity is a soil condition where there are excess hydrogen ions present due to the removal of alkaline nutrients in plant and animal products; addition and leaching of nitrogen from fertilisers and legumes and the build-up of organic matter. Soil pH(CaCl₂) levels of 5.2 to 8.0 provide optimum conditions for most agricultural plants. All agricultural plants are affected by the extremes of pH, however different plant species have significant variation in their acidity and alkalinity tolerance. Lime (calcium carbonate) and other liming materials (dolomite, lime sand) reduce soil acidity via neutralising the acid reaction within the soil.

Traditionally lime has been applied at standard blanket rates of between 1 – 2.5 t/ha. Grid soil pH mapping enables measurement of spatial pH variation within a paddock. Analysis of over 19,000 ha of mapping in Victoria has demonstrated that 33% of this area would not receive an optimum lime rate (outside of 1 -2.5 t/ha) for a target pH(CaCl₂) 5.2 scenario. Ten percent of this area required more lime than 2.5 t/ha to achieve the target pH level while 23% did not require any lime.

Professional agronomists helping farmers do more with less in North America and Australia

Tom Jensen1, Rob Norton2

1 International Plant Nutrition Institute, 41 Coverton Hts, NE, Calgary, AB, T3K 5B1,

2 International Plant Nutrition Institute, 54 Florence St, Horsham, Victoria, 3400.


Accreditation, training, professional development Agsafe, Fertcare, Certified Crop Advisor.

Extended Abstract

In North America and Australia over the past 30 years, there has been a trend away from government extension services supporting growers, to grower advice provided through corporate or private consultants and advisors. As a result, there are now many private industry people providing sales and technical agronomy information to growers, particularly in the grains industry, but also for other specialised crops such as horticulture, sugar and cotton.

In North America, there are close to 3600 retail crop input outlets, 22,000 retail agricultural staff who advise farmers, 13,000 Certified Crop Advisers (CCA), and 3000 Certified Professional Agronomists, and another 3000 private consulting agronomists that work independently of any specific agricultural retail outlet. Additionally, in Canada a person may need to have another professional designation depending on the province. For example, in the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia there is legislation that a person needs to be a Professional Agrologist to advise farmers. The term “Agrologist” applies to more than agronomy but also includes livestock husbandry, agricultural economics, environmental science and land reclamation. In the province of Quebec, a person needs to be a professional Agrologist and an Agronome (the French word for professional agronomist).

In Australia, there are nearly 1100 premises certified by AgSafe as places from where agricultural chemicals are sold, and so if each has 2 to 3 agronomists, then in the corporate sector there could be between 2000 and 3000 staff. Added to that are private consultants, technical staff from supplier companies, and advisors/extension personnel in the farmer groups. The GRDC mailing database has around 3500 comprising retail, commercial, government and service industry advisors. This would suggest that outside of government funded extension services there are probably around 4000 “agronomists” supporting around 86,000 farm businesses covering around 70 Mha of crop and managed pasture with a gross value of $56 billion. This is around one agronomist for each 20 business and 80 kha.

In North America, a recent survey asking farmers where they obtain agronomic advice indicated that agricultural retail staff are the most mentioned group (60%), government extension (20%), private consultants (10%), and the balance from the internet. Government extension services still have a strong role particularly through the Land Grant Colleges (LGC) and their advisory services. Extension specialists are present in every land grant college in the US, and extension agents operate at almost every county. Soil test critical values, fertiliser recommendations and crop variety evaluations are still managed largely through the LGC system. For example, the Tri-state fertiliser recommendations have been developed through collaboration among Purdue University (Indiana), Ohio State University and Michigan State University and are promoted by both public and private advisors. These represent the standard reference for nutrient management practices for the major crops in those states.

The use of precision agriculture technologies is growing rapidly and it is estimated that about 4% to 5% of cropped land is managed using some aspect of variable rate applications. Advice on this is primarily from private consultants or agricultural retail chains partnered with consulting groups. Since the agricultural retail staff are relied upon as a source of information it is important that the in-house agronomists, crop advisers and advising staff be knowledgeable and continue to learn.

One example of how the agricultural retail group along with other stakeholders, farmers among others, can work successfully together, is the 4R Certification (Right Source of nutrients at the Right Rate, Time and Placement). This voluntary program provides certification of agricultural retailers on the advice about reducing phosphorus movement off farms and into streams and rivers of the West Lake Erie Watershed, Ohio USA. Roughly half of the 1,125,000 ha of cropped land in the watershed is now being advised and managed using 4R Nutrient Management, certified through this scheme. This has been in action since 2014, so the cooperation of farmers and agricultural retail groups has been impressive. The agricultural retail agronomists and crop advisers have been key to the success of this initiative.

Similarly, California has implemented a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA) programme that can help producers implement a voluntary certification program on crop management and inputs. The CCA’s work to reduce nutrient loss from agricultural lands by developing USDA Nature Resource Conservation Services nutrient management plans with growers. In some ways, this is analogous to the role that Fertcare® accredited advisors play in developing plans for catchments at risk in Australia.

In both Australia and North America, most professional agronomists are trained at an agricultural university and have a BSc (or equivalent) degree, many now with at least two years of experience advising farmers. University degrees in other scientific disciplines may need to take some additional courses in specific areas such as crop management, pest management, nutrient management, or soil and water management. These courses can be taken through in-person courses at universities, and some on-line university courses.

Certified Crop Advisers (CCA) can have a few different combinations of education, and experience, that will be explained in the presentation. All CCAs are required to pass two certification exams, both international and regional based, and there is a need to obtain at least 50 Continuing Education Units (CEU) over each two-year period after passing the exams, to remain certified.

In Australia, several programs cover professional development and accreditation of those working in agronomy. Soil Science Australia leads the Certified Practicing Soil Scientist which has 136 members accredited. The Ag. Institute of Australia also has a professional certification program (Certified Practicing Agriculturalist). Both require an initial qualification and experience check, and annual submission of participation in approved professional development activities. The Australia Society of Agronomy has over 500 members, and Soil Science Australia has over 1000 members, many in common between the two associations. The Agricultural Chemicals industry also has an industry mandated training and professional development program focusing on safe handling and storage of farm supplies – through the AgSafe® accreditation program, and there are around 5000 currently on the database. The fertiliser industry has accredited 268 advisors through the Fertcare® program. Both programs have premises accreditation and there around 1080 Fertcare® premises and 1200 AgSafe® premises, most of which would be dual accredited. When considered against the estimated number of agronomists, the penetration of professional development is relatively poor compared to other professional organisations. As another index of engagement of the industry personnel in external training, around 1500 people attend the annual research updates, mainly advisors. Most commercial resellers have informal or formal training and development programs. For example, Landmark have a graduate agronomy program offered to universities, with trainees them domiciled at one location for 1-2 years. Each graduate agronomist has a training program developed across their internship and there is a senior agronomist in each region overseeing professional development, all co-ordinated through a head office training and development manager. Graduates attend internal and external field days and training sessions, as well as a biennial 3-day agronomy conference that brings together the whole division. Landmark also have a Diploma of Agronomy program in partnership with Longerenong College, and provide on-line resources including internal social media to all staff, including AgSafe® accreditation.

Importance of Continuing Professional Development:

In North America, the increased demands on private and commercial advisors for advice on sustainable land and water management, has played a part in the development and management of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programs. This has placed good advice at the centre of management options in fragile areas such as the Lake Erie catchment and in the irrigated horticultural valleys of California. Well crafted, and delivered, CPD is important because it delivers benefits to the individual, their profession and the public. To the individual, CPD means keeping pace with current standards, maintenance and enhancement of up-to-date knowledge and skills, keeps you interested and continues your ability to make a meaningful contribution to the industry. To the industry, CPD is a part of continuous improvement advancing the body of knowledge and providing validation of professionalism in the provision of advice. It provides the public with confidence in our profession and improved environmental protection with sustained agricultural productivity.

Staying profitable with the declining terms of trade – Can growers survive the pressures ahead in Australian mixed cropping systems?

Bill Long1

1Ag Consulting Co, Cooinda Farming, Auburn SA

Climate scientists have been warning us for over 4 decades about increased temperature and reduced rainfall in the southern cropping regions of Australia.

From 1900 to 1990, Australia’s wheat yields tripled by increasing at an average rate of 10kg/ha/year. Since 1990, despite advancements in chemical and machinery technologies such as no-till systems, management ability improvements, and continued improvements in breeding, modeled wheat yields have stagnated due to an increase in maximum temperatures of 1.05 degrees and a reduction of in crop rainfall of 71.8mm over the last 26 years. (Hochman, 2016)

Long -term trends for farm costs show that cost trends have more than doubled from 1989 to 2012. Farmers now spend twice as much to maintain the same profit margins as they did a generation ago. (O’Callaghan, 2013)

Growing more crop with less rainfall and increasing temperatures and cost base seems an impossible ask. In the face of mounting odds against us, how do farmers survive, let alone improve their position now and into the future?

This paper identifies the challenges to farming systems across the medium rainfall zones in Southern Australia as identified by a panel of farmers, researchers and advisors and discusses ways in which grain producers can maintain and improve the bottom line in the face of increasing costs and a deteriorating cropping environment – in effect using farming systems to do more with less. It uses the author’s farm as a case study to model the financial impact of implementation of the top 10 issues as identified by the industry panel.

More from Less – “The changing landscape for Australian dairy production”

Tom Acocks

Riversdale Dairy, Rochester Northern Victoria

Riversdale is a family run dairy farm located at Rochester in Northern Victoria. Established in the early 90’s by Mick and Heather Acocks, Riversdale has transitioned from a traditional pasture based system to the operation we see today. Currently milking 850 cows across a land base of 1400ha and producing 8 million litres of milk annually. In 2009 Tom and his wife Emma moved home join the business and began the process of succession to the next generation.

Dairy production in the region faces many challenges, competition for land, labour and water resources to name but a few. The changing landscape for Riversdale and others in the region is fundamentally driven by the competition and cost of irrigation water. This has seen Riversdale move toward a system that must grow more fodder per megalitre used. Changing irrigation practices and crop varieties have resulted in higher water use efficiency but are only one piece of the puzzle. To maximise value of fodder conserved there must also be significant investment in machinery, infrastructure and systems to turn feed into milk, without driving the cost of production over what is achievable in the current market place.

This has led Riversdale down the path of building facilities that allow for year-round production in a flexible fodder system. The first dry-lot was set up in 2011 and is low cost facility that offers shade, loafing and feeding areas to cows through the summer months. A transition into the second loafing barn happened in 2014 that can house cows year-round on a manure pack. This system has seen per cow production climb from 7000L per cow in 2009 to 10,700L in 2016. Like any livestock system there are specific management problems that arise from maximising output. Manure management is of particular importance at Riversdale as we try maximising the productive value of both irrigated and dryland farming assets. Emphasis has been placed on capturing nutrients from the dairy facilities and putting back onto farming land for fodder production, with the main goal of increasing soil organic carbon levels while reducing the amount of purchased fertiliser applied.

The issues that have been highlighted here are not unique to our business alone. It must be a priority of all participants in the food production chain to identify and refine cost effective practices that see us utilising available resources to their full productive capacity.

Competition, consolidation and computer algorithms: Spelling the end of agronomy as we know it?

Mick Keogh1

Commissioner, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission

The agriculture sector in Australia is about to experience some major changes, as a consequence of some global forces that are disrupting many established business models globally. Universal access to telecommunications and information is removing many of the geographic boundaries that formerly defined regional or national markets, making it possible for Australian farmers to directly compete in overseas markets, and vice versa. The ever-shrinking cost of digital technology and computing power is making it possible to remotely monitor and control agricultural production systems to a degree not even imaginable just a decade ago. The associated development of digital platforms and big data analytics has the potential to rapidly and objectively inform farmer decision-making in real time in ways that a traditional agronomist could not hope to match. When combined with the consolidation occurring in the farm input sectors (especially agrichemicals) it is possible to envisage a future where farm inputs are packaged with information and decision-support services provided by major agrichemical corporations, and independent agronomy advisors are relegated to a marginal role servicing small-scale and niche producers. Exactly what these changes will mean for future competition in the agriculture sector is a challenging question, and equally as challenging is the need to respond with policies that maintain competition in the sector, but do not inhibit technological development.

Infrared Spectroscopy – moving from the laboratory to the field

Sean Mason1, 2, Michael Zerner2, Les Janik2, Michael J. McLaughlin2, Ryan Walker3

1 Agronomy Solutions, 489 The Parade, Magill, SA, 5072,,

2 School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, The University of Adelaide, PMB 1, Waite Campus, Glen Osmond, SA 5064

3 Australian Precision Ag Laboratory, 489 The Parade, Magill, SA 5072


Infrared spectroscopy has been shown to be a powerful technique in its ability to predict a range of soil and plant properties. With the advancement of this technology, hand held versions of both NIR and MIR spectrometers are now available which can be used in the field. Two examples of where IR technology could be important in supporting agronomic decisions is the prediction of Phosphorus Buffering Index (PBI) at a paddock level and the assessment of crop nitrogen status in situ. Recent studies have shown that both parameters were adequately predicted with the use of hand held instruments in the field. MIR predicted PBI values across a small section of a paddock with an accuracy of R2 = 0.90. Portable NIR instruments were able to predict the N content of wheat at two growth stages with an accuracy of R2 = 0.94. The performance of IR in predicting PBI and crop N content in the field was less than for processed samples in the laboratory but results are promising at an agronomic level.

Doing More with Less – or More with More? The Future of Smallholder Farming in Africa

Ken E. Giller

Plant Production Systems, Wageningen University, PO Box 430, 6700AK Wageningen, The Netherlands (

Doing ‘More with Less’ is a powerful framing for agriculture. It conjures up a frugal and efficient approach to farming that makes the best of scarce resources. In a world faced with a burgeoning population, the increasing impacts of climate change and a prerogative to protect biodiversity, and other ecosystem services the earth provides, there is an urgent need for ‘More with Less’. There are certainly production systems in the world which are currently wasteful – where input use could be reduced without reducing yield substantially. Yet there are others, notably smallholder agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, where farmers are unable to exploit the genetic potential of new crop varieties due to lack of inputs (Tittonell and Giller, 2013). So when, where and how should we strive to do More with Less?

Doing more with less fertilizers, less herbicides and plant protection agents and less energy inputs is desirable. Using less of one input often leads to substitution by another – an obvious example being the use of herbicides as opposed to mechanical weed control. At the heart of Doing More with Less is striving for resource use efficiency (RUE). Yet focus solely on RUE at field scale can compromise efficiencies at farm or landscape (Van Noordwijk and Brussaard, 2014).  So how can trade-offs among inputs and compromises across scales be avoided? And how far can inputs be reduced before yields are compromised – leading to a drive for extensification of agriculture?

Intensification is a means of doing More with Less land – essential to spare land for wild nature (Baudron and Giller, 2014). Intensification also means doing More with Less time and labour – for which farmers strive across the world! Although farming is a central activity for food self-sufficiency and income of smallholders, most rural households have multiple income streams and competing demands on their labour.

Intensification also requires investment in inputs: smallholder farmers may prefer approaches that allow doing More with Less capital. In turn, less capital intensive approaches often result in less yield and the need for more land to achieve the same production. Where rural populations are dense, small farm sizes and fragmentation of land compromise opportunities for investment to intensify agriculture. Enhancing agricultural productivity to meet national goals for food security may require doing More with Less farmers! Although a challenging and perhaps unpalatable prospect, history has repeatedly seen consolidation of land to allow agricultural transformation, provide necessary economies of scale and investment in mechanisation and other technology. It seems inevitable that farms in Africa need to be larger to meet national goals for food security. Obviously any such transition to fewer, larger farms will require alternative rural or urban livelihoods for a large section of the population.

In my talk I will explore the opportunities for Doing More with Less, and the trade-offs and synergies that may occur between competing objectives and resources. The diversity of agriculture across the globe, across Africa, and within every farming system (Giller, 2013), country and continent demands differentiated and tailor-made approaches. The complexity of choices requires a reflexive, participatory and explorative approach. I will discuss emerging ideas for a ‘systems agronomy’ that allows such analysis at multiple levels from the field to the farm and farming system and beyond (Giller et al., 2015). I look forward to discussing and developing these ideas at the conference.


Baudron, F. & Giller, K.E. (2014) Agriculture and nature: Trouble and Strife? Biological Conservation, 170, 232–245.

Giller, K.E. (2013) Guest Editorial: Can we define the term ‘farming systems’? A question of scale. Outlook On Agriculture, 42, 149-153.

Giller, K.E., Andersson, J.A., Corbeels, M., Kirkegaard, J., Mortensen, D., Erenstein, O. & Vanlauwe, B. (2015) Beyond Conservation Agriculture. Frontiers in Plant Science, 6, Article 870.

Tittonell, P. & Giller, K.E. (2013) When yield gaps are poverty traps: The paradigm of ecological intensification in African smallholder agriculture. Field Crops Research, 143, 76-90.

Van Noordwijk, M. & Brussaard, L. (2014) Minimizing the ecological footprint of food: closing yield and efficiency gaps simultaneously? Current Opinion In Environmental Sustainability, 8, 62-70.


Rice stubble: Allelopathic effect on cotton

Vincent West1, Joe Moore2 and Jim Pratley3

1 Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, Charles Sturt University, North Wagga, NSW, 2650,,

2 Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, Charles Sturt University, North Wagga, NSW, 2650,,

3 Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, Charles Sturt University, North Wagga, NSW, 2650,,


Five rice variety stubbles were evaluated to assess their root length inhibition impact on two cotton varieties. It was found that all five rice stubbles, when incorporated into a pasteurised soil mix (70 % sand, 30 % loam), had a significant inhibitory effect on average root length of both cotton varieties. This has particular implications for the southern Australian cotton production region which is characterised by a short growth season and cooler establishment temperatures than the northern cotton production areas.

Stress-induced fruit abscission in cotton and role of ethylene

Ullah Najeeb1, Daniel K.Y. Tan1, Michael P. Bange2,1, Brian J. Atwell3,1

1Plant Breeding Institute, Sydney Institute of Agriculture, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Faculty of Science, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia

2CSIRO Agriculture and Food, Australian Cotton Research Institute, Narrabri, NSW 2390, Australia

3Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, Macquarie University, Sydney NSW 2109 Australia


This study explores the relationship between endogenous ethylene levels in stress-induced fruit abscission in different cotton cultivars. The plants were exposed to soil waterlogging or high temperature (45οC) stress during early reproductive phase. Ethylene synthesis was also modified using chemical ethylene regulators e.g. aminoethoxyvinylglycine (AVG) and 1-aminocyclopropane-1-carboxlic acid (ACC), and a lintless mutant line 5B (ethylene insensitive). The number of fruit produced and ethylene concentrations released from leaf tissue were estimated after one week of waterlogging and heat treatments. Both waterlogging and high temperature stress increased loss of young fruit in all the cotton cultivars studied, except 5B, which showed a degreea of tolerance to waterlogging. In contrast, ethylene production from cotton leaf tissues was increased only in response to soil waterlogging, suggesting a variable mechanism of fruit loss in waterlogged compared with heat-stressed cotton plants. This was further confirmed by no significant effect of ethylene regulators AVG and ACC on the fruit production in heat-stressed cotton plants. We concluded that endogenous ethylene plays a key role in regulating abscission of fruit mainly in waterlogged cotton but not in heat-stressed cotton crop. Thus, ethylene management techniques may not be useful for future heat-stressed cotton.



The Australian Society of Agronomy is the professional body for agronomists in Australia. It has approximately 500 active members drawn from government, universities, research organisations and the private sector.

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David Marland Photography Southern Farming Systems Agriculture Victoria

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