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Top honour for leading CSIRO researcher

CSIRO’s Dr John Kirkegaard is pictured with Delta Ag’s Chris Duff and Tim Condon

Dr John Kirkegaard’s research approach always starts with a conversation. He meets with growers, talks about his ideas, listens to their comments and then kicks off his research based on their feedback. This works particularly well in farming systems because of the many interacting factors and ensures he is looking at the problems or opportunities growers want investigated. “Farming systems agronomy can be complex because it relies on many factors, like tillage, sowing dates, soil fertility and crop rotations. In science we like to look at one thing, tweak and test it and provide advice - but in a farming system the challenge is finding out what is working because there are so many interactions,” John says. This approach has created grower and industry demand-driven research, rather than scientists pushing research onto the grower. John says this grower demand is increasing in the face of changes to terms of trade and climate. “The best part of my job is responding to grower demand for research, and then bringing them the science they need and can be a part of too ultimately achieve adoption of better systems,” he says. It was in April last year that he hung up the phone, slightly surprised and a little embarrassed after being told he had won the 2017 Farrer Memorial Medal. Whilst the prestigious award comes on the back of 28 years researching farming systems and a career with the CSIRO, recipients are most often retired, so it was a shock for him to have received the honour. John was awarded the Farrer Memorial Medal in recognition of his ‘distinguished service focussed on understanding soil-plant interactions to improve productivity, efficiency and sustainability of dryland farming systems’.

Being a researcher, John’s curiosity caused him to look into the work of William Farrer, who the award commemorates, and he soon realised they both had an interest in learning about the intricate interactions at play in a farming system.

The award was created to keep the memory of William Farrer alive to acknowledge the plant breeding pioneer’s work in developing wheat varieties suited to the Australian climate. His famous variety “Federation”, released in 1900, opened up much of Australia’s wheat belt. John was quick to add that he shares the honour of the Farrer Memorial Medal with a large team because of the collaborative nature of his research.

“Research into farming systems requires working in large teams. Over the years I have worked with many farm consultants, mentors, students, collaborators, growers and agronomists, including Delta’s Chris Duff and Tim Condon.”

Over his career, John has built a strong reputation for working with industry, which he says led to the more rapid adoption of his science into commercial farming.

“That industry involvement was a big part of why the research had an impact because right from the start growers and consultants were talking, advising, asking questions and making the research relevant to them,” John says.

Traditionally, a scientist with some good ideas may first test them in a lab or glasshouse, move to the field on a research farm and then after thinking it was ready, try to pass the idea to the growers. But, John concedes, the main flaw with this method is that growers didn’t have a sense of ownership, and the science is not done in context, which he believes is crucial for adoption.

“We also miss the input from some of the best innovative and independent thinkers – the farmers themselves. This resulted in the new science often not being adopted,” he explains. Talking about his focus on canola and farming systems, John says it was an opportunity he saw early on in his career. “Many of the CSIRO crop science group focused nitrogen fertilizer and on legumes, so with canola as a new crop, I saw a window where I could make a difference,” John says. By the time of the millennium drought, during the 2000s, canola was in danger of disappearing from cropping in southern NSW due to a lack of early sowing opportunities and the hot, dry spring weather. John looked at ways to reduce the riskiness of canola by working on an idea that livestock could graze on canola during its vegetative growth stage, as a way for growers to make money up front. John ran trials to find out at when and how long canola could be grazed, and also the type of livestock to strike the balance between feed supply and achieving the grain yield needed to remain profitable. “In fact, the first on-farm trials were conducted in conjunction with Chris Duff, Tim Condon and Rob McColl at “Bobbara Station” near Harden in 2007.” Increasingly, John sees great potential for growers to improve productivity by understanding what yield is possible and benchmarking their own crops against the potential. By having this understanding growers can begin to look at what’s working and what is holding them back from optimum crop performance. Using the increasing number of tools available, like Yield Prophet, growers can record simple data they have available like rainfall, soil moisture, yield (farm, paddock, sub-paddock), and soil nutrition to calculate the potential yield that is checked against yield data taken from headers. “By recording rainfall, paddock yields over time and using simple kilogram of grain per millimetre of grain season rainfall for wheat and canola, estimates are already available to help a grower quickly see how they are tracking,” John says. He points out that while big data can provide useful analysis, this “small data” recording and analysis can go a long way to lift productivity. On a research level, John says good opportunities are found at this farm level to look for ways to improve farming systems. “Why are we only achieving 60 percent – are growers making sensible decisions or is there room for change?” he questions. John highlights challenges for the industry that he says aren’t insurmountable. “Herbicide resistant weeds have been one area that has received a lot of attention and research, but the issues arising from declining soil nitrogen fertility, and a changing climate will also need to be managed,” he believes. John explains growers in southern NSW have been experiencing drier autumns and hotter spring conditions that have cut down the sub-soil moisture available at sowing and shifted optimal flowering times for crops. According to John, changes like these will make it difficult to farm profitability unless modifications to agronomy and farming systems are made.

“By getting on the front foot and having a strategy in place to manage change and make the modifications, however, growers can maintain profitability,” he says. John is optimistic about the future, saying agriculture has always been an industry that has to adapt to change and manage variability.

CSIRO’s new research farm steps into digital age The CSIRO Ginninderra Experiment Station has a long farming history, but as urban sprawl slowly surrounds the farm, and as research focus shifts, the decision was taken to head north. Aside from the shifted focus, moving the research operations to the 290-hectare farm near Boorowa in southern NSW will bring researchers closer to growers and industry. CSIRO Chief Research Scientist John Kirkegaard explains the farm gives CSIRO a new opportunity to connect with growers and industry and to transform research, so it takes advantage of digital agriculture technology. “Across the farm, drones, sensors and ‘phenomobiles” that can rove through paddocks and research plots will be monitoring and recording everything from soil temperature, yield, and rainfall to get an accurate picture of the way crops and pastures grow and yield,” John says. Tractors operating on the site will also collect data via GPS, giving researchers a wealth of data to analyse performance across the farm and factor these variables into their individual research experiments. The main administration building on site will be plugged into the digital age with the ability to live-stream video to schools, and grower groups so they will be able to see how experiments work on the farm. Important too is the work with industry and Delta Ag Director and Farm Consultant Tim Condon is working with CSIRO to assist in setting up the new site. “Delta Ag has helped manage the paddocks and farm, so we can see what weed issues were there, what the soil was like and to find local contractors who’ve got the paddocks into shape for us,” John says. When the organisation developed Ginninderra, there was a much stronger research focus on pasture research, the grazing industry and sheep. While this research continues, he says there is a much larger focus on crops and mixed farming. “Ginninderra is in Tableland country that is more suited to grazing than cropping, so we began a search for a site that was reasonably close to CSIRO’s Canberra operation, had access to water for irrigation and was suited to mixed cropping,” John says.

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