Western Australian Farming Systems project

Page last updated: Tuesday, 26 September 2023 - 2:34pm

The Western Australian Farming Systems project is a five-year co-investment by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), undertaking farming systems research and development (R&D) in the medium and low rainfall regions of WA.

The project aims to increase adoption and integration of agronomic and systems innovations which support increased whole farm profitability through managing enterprise mix and rotations.


WA farming systems have evolved over the last 20 years with increases in both the area cropped, and yields achieved. Growers continuously adapt to strategic risks through effective management decisions and innovative production approaches. Much of the system innovation that occurs is underpinned by research and development.   

Growers must continue to adapt to strategic risks such as climate change and a shift in production systems towards carbon neutrality, to remain internationally competitive, sustainable, profitable and build the climate resilience of their production systems. 

Farming systems research and development

Using a multi-disciplinary farming systems research approach, this project will address three main farming systems considerations:  

  • system break options that deliver improved profit and acceptable risk
  • a thorough analysis on the opportunities and risk of changing the timing of seeding
  • analysis of management options for maintaining profitability under low greenhouse gas (GHG) emission scenarios.

The approach includes field trials, on-farm research and monitoring, grower and industry participation, and whole farm economic and biometric modelling.

Research trial activities are being conducted at three regions representing different production environments across the WA grainbelt:

  • medium rainfall, north – led from Geraldton
  • low rainfall – led from Merredin
  • medium rainfall, south – led from Katanning.
Research trial activities are being conducted across three regions
Research trial activities are being conducted across three regions – Medium rainfall north, low rainfall and medium rainfall, south

Project opportunities

The WA Farming Systems project provides the opportunity for some key outcomes:

  • direct grower and industry involvement (participatory R&D) in developing farming systems relevant to the local production environment and designed to meet future challenges and opportunities.
  • systems trials generating data to confirm impact of current and future rotation practices on key climate and farm business resilience drivers and understand the within and between season implications of management decisions.
  • estimation of GHG emissions to establish baseline data, modelling and analysis of existing and transformative farming systems.
  • multidisciplinary, cross-organisational and industry collaboration to build knowledge on underlying dynamics of current and new farming systems .
  • enhanced understanding of approaches to enhance system-based nutrient and water use efficiencies, whole farm profitability, and extrapolation of learnings to other localities and scenarios through modelling and data analysis. 
  • DPIRD research capacity increased through recruitment of five new early career scientists and two technical officers, including regional appointments.
  • leverage off investment - additional program-level activities with the Grains Transformation and Climate Resilience Programs in the WA Agricultural Research Collaboration and link closely to the development of the Agriculture Sectorial Emissions Reduction Scheme (AgSERS).
  • support adoption of new practices through partnerships with grower groups, the Grower Group Alliance and the South-West WA Drought Hub.

Grower and industry consultation

Underpinning the participatory R&D approach of the project, is the grower and industry consultation, which was conducted during July-September 2022 to identify and confirm research themes aligned to project outputs.

The stakeholder engagement process asked growers and advisors to consider: 
1.    key decisions around early sowing opportunities 
2.    system break options in the farming/cropping system for increased diversity, profitability, and productivity and 
3.    their understanding of greenhouse gas emissions in their current farming systems. 

Approximately 150 growers and advisers provided input into the consultation which was designed, facilitated, and delivered by AgInnovate and DPIRD and included: (i) three face-to-face workshops (at Geraldton, Lake Grace, Merredin,) (ii) an on-line survey, (iii) idea capture session at the final GRDC Grower Network meeting (August 2022), (iv) individual discussions with aligned research programs/groups, growers, and agribusiness. 

Consultation outcomes

While there were regional differences in core farming system drivers, risks, and management considerations (e.g. variety choices, weeds, diseases and pests, soil constraints, rotations and seasonal considerations), the engagement process highlighted themes, knowledge gaps and research areas that were consistent across regions, aligned to the three project outputs including: 

  • recognition by growers and advisors that they need to upskill their understanding of greenhouse gas emissions, potential on-farm mitigation strategies and the whole farm and profitability implications of lower target emission scenarios 
  • an acknowledgement that management of greenhouse gas emissions may require changes to current practice 
  • a need to quantify GHG emissions from ‘standard’ systems with robust research, coupled with concern that emissions assumptions for Western Australian broadacre systems may not be based on current or contextually relevant WA derived data 
  • the current importance of continuous cereal and cereal dominant rotations as a driver of farm profitability 
  • concern about the sustainability of continuous cereal or cereal dominant rotations 
  • a desire to incorporate more diversity through growth of profitable break crops and/or pastures within farming systems 
  • desire to ‘push the boundaries’ within the research undertaken and investigate transformative system changes not just tweaks to existing practices 
  • a demand for testing of agronomic based management options including disease, weed and nutrition strategies that will enable system change 
  • importance of assessing the profitability implication of change on a whole farm, net profit basis, not just a paddock or gross margin basis. 

Outcomes of this consultation  provided solid insight into current practice, risks and constraints to system change in each of the three regions to inform research, analysis, and extension activities undertaken within the project, ensuring that activities are locally relevant and addressing priority questions.

Regional Innovation Groups

Stakeholders from each of the three regions have indicated a strong willingness and commitment to continue engaging with the research team through their participation in Regional Innovation Groups. 

These groups are providing critical, ongoing input into prioritisation, refinement and confirmation of research questions and system trial treatments in each region and guide the further development of the research project. 

Merredin trial site characterisation by DPIRD soil scientists
Merredin trial site characterisation by DPIRD soil scientists 

Project activities

Autumn 2023 has seen four-year systems trials sown at three large scale trial sites. Each  represents a different production environment across the WA grainbelt. These are:

  • medium rainfall, north – led from Geraldton with trial site located at Northampton
  • medium rainfall, south – led from Katanning with trial site located at Lake Grace
  • low rainfall - led from Merredin with trial site at the Merredin Research Station.

Trial sites include over 40 treatments to compare different rotations (including wheat/barley, lupins, canola, pasture, vetch, serradella and fallow), sowing times (dry vs wet) and nitrogen rates.

Yield, soil nutrients, water use, weeds, disease and greenhouse gas emissions will be considered to compare the different rotations. Results will combine with whole farm economic modelling to address the following:

  • Are financial risks and/or greenhouse gas emissions reduced with in WA cropping systems by reducing nitrogen inputs and diversifying rotations?
  • How does water use efficiency (WUE) and nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) of cereals change relative to each other due to altered rotations, reduced fertiliser nitrogen and their interactions?
  • What strategies can be used to increase profit across the rotation while managing weeds, diseases, soil fertility and risk?

The project complements its long term trials with additional relevant trials in the region. In 2023 these include:

  • time of sowing by species  – Chapman Valley
  • vetch (different varieties and treatments) – Northampton, Merredin and Lake Grace (cereal to be oversown in 2024 to observe effect of carryover nitrogen) 
  • break crop effect of safflower vs chickpea – Merredin. 

Modelling and analysis will play an important role in extrapolating the findings of the trials to a greater number of locations, soil types, more treatments and long term climate records. 

Extension activities

People walking alongside a cropping trial in paddock
Grower field walk at time of sowing x species satellite trial

Further information from the project can be found below.


The WA Farming Systems project is a five-year co-investment by DPIRD and GRDC.

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Contact information

Megan Abrahams