Ginninderra’s part in record-breaking canola crop

A recent world record-breaking canola crop was born out of CSIRO experiments in the back paddocks of Ginninderra, and the persistence of those who took-up and ran with our research.

When a mixed farming business at Oberon, NSW tipped the scales with a world  record 7.16 tonnes per hectare for a canola harvest, the farm manager was quick to acknowledge the role of CSIRO science, Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) funding and the joint work to develop dual-purpose canola cropping.

Peter Brooks who manages the Mayfield farm at Oberon said, “We’ve had great conditions in 2020, but achieving this yield didn’t happen overnight – it was a culmination of 15 years of working with CSIRO to improve our systems.”

One of the key research collaborators, CSIRO farming systems researcher Dr John Kirkegaard, recalls the role CSIRO played through the Ginninderra Experiment Station (GES) and the cropping and livestock staff based on and off the property.

“My first exploratory experiments with grazed winter canola were “unfunded” work carried out in the back paddock at Ginninderra between 2004-2006,” says John. “I sowed an old French variety of winter canola and grazed it in the winter of 2004, and to my surprise it went on to yield 3 tonnes per hectare after grazing. We tested whether sheep would eat canola or if they preferred the standard forage brassicas, and found they liked both.”

After bringing in some local agronomists to witness the crop after grazing and again at harvest in 2005 and 2006, John and the CSIRO team applied for and received GRDC funding from 2007-2009. This led to the first successful commercial trial of grazing canola in a paddock near Galong, NSW in 2007.

Three consecutive GRDC-funded projects carried out at Ginninderra tested factors such as disease management (Dr Susie Sprague), crop recovery and animal nutrition (Dr Hugh Dove) while CSIRO modeller (Dr Julianne Lilley) assessed the potential for dual purpose cropping of canola throughout Australia’s high rainfall zone.

“We graduated later to try to understand how to best fit dual-purpose wheat and canola into the farming system. To do that we used the large ‘Stockade’ research area developed at GES, where we provided controlled access for sheep to graze on 0.2 ha blocks. “

“This grazing systems work continued through to 2017 with Meat and Livestock Australia funding and included how best to manage the animals to capitalise on the new forage source.  During this period several breeding companies released winter varieties for grazing commercially, allowing more farmers to take it up.”

It was during a field day at Goulburn in 2010 that farm manager Peter Brooks saw the potential of having a grazing canola as a rotation crop in a dual-purpose farming system. He sowed 200ha of grazing canola the following year at a farm near Goulburn and has never looked back.

The collaboration with Peter continued for more than a decade and long after the formal funding stopped, according to John.

“Dual-purpose canola has transformed farming in that valley and Peter has refined the system and moved it into new areas including Berrima, and then Oberon in 2020, producing this record crop.”

From humble beginnings at Ginninderra, the concept has spread into all of the southern states and grazing canola is now an established part of the feed-base on mixed farms.

With the opening of CSIRO Boorowa Agricultural Research Station in 2019, key cropping, grazing and agricultural research is now carried out at that location. After 60 years of operation, the final agricultural research activities conclude at Ginninderra in June 2021.

A predominately green field with some yellow on the right hand side and a brown patch of dirt in front of it. A white car is driving past the field at the back of the field.

The first dual purpose canola experiment at Ginninderra in 2004 shows un-grazed canola flowering on the right, the heavily grazed and lightly grazed strips to the left, and a forage brassica in the foreground.

Green canola crop growing in a field.

This world record-breaking canola crop at Oberon NSW was grazed by sheep in winter 2020 and then windrowed (see next photo).

Three men standing in a field of brown canola crop. The sky is blue.

CSIRO’s Dr John Kirkegaard, Mr James Cheetham (Agronomist), Mr Peter Brooks (Grower) standing next to the windrowed canola crop at Oberon.

To burn or not to burn – that’s the question for scientists

Our scientists and the Ginninderra Catchment Group are one step closer to answering the question of ‘how can we best restore our native grasslands?’ after recent autumn ecological burns at CSIRO Ginninderra.

On first impression, burning of the native grasslands seems like a destructive process, as the visible grass is rapidly reduced to black ash and stubble beneath the flames and smoke.

However, the latest science, and evidence of past Indigenous land practice, point to quite the opposite, according to Ginninderra Catchment Group (GCG) Acting Chairman and CSIRO Honorary Fellow, Ken Hodgkinson.

“Our science confirms that burning, particularly in the cooler autumn months is having a regenerative effect on the native species in the grasslands,” says Ken.  “There are native species being stimulated by heat and or smoke to germinate from seed in the soil, that are not found in mown or control treatments.”

The recent autumn burns are the third undertaken since 2016, across 13 sites in the Ginninderra catchment including five at CSIRO Ginninderra. Other sites are on private and ACT  land. The Ginninderra Catchment Group is leading the project, working closely with CSIRO scientists, and engaging ACT Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteer crews to carry out the burns.

Across the trial sites there are grasslands of varying qualities including in the richness of native species and the encroachment of introduced species, according to Ken. “There are some grasslands that won’t respond to fire and there are others that respond very positively. So we’re very interested in that critical threshold: when is it worthwhile burning and when is it not?”

To help answer these questions, each site is testing the relative contribution to grassland restoration of four treatments:  burnt every two years, burnt every four years, mown six times per year and ‘a do nothing’ or control approach.

“We’re halfway through this project, so it’s an important stage,” says Ken. “We’ll come back next year  and measure the response of the plant species that are in each of the plots”.

One thing that Ken and the team will be measuring this year is the response of species like Yam Daisy (Microseris lanceolata), Nodding Chocolate Lily (Dichopogon fimbriatus), Bulbine Lily (Bulbine bulbosa), Billy Buttons (Craspedia globosa)and Common Everlasting Yellow Buttons (Chrysocephalum apiculatum). A volunteer team led by Ken and the GCG planted a total of 2600 of these five native species in a grid pattern across each of the trial sites and treatments in 2016, including 1000 plants at the CSIRO sites.

CSIRO ecologist Jacqui Stol who was overseeing the burns at the CSIRO plots, recognised the great results through collaboration.

“It’s fantastic to get the right conditions for a successful burn after recent dry years and it has gone tremendously well,” Jacqui says.  “A big thanks to the ACT RFS crews, especially the Hall crew at Ginninderra, who ensured each plot was burnt just as we needed even though two non-native grass plots were still relatively green”.

“Thanks to the great collaboration with the GCG and the RFS we expect to be able to come back in Spring and see some more of those beautiful native wildflowers and grasses coming through and helping to restore these grasslands that are a part of a critically endangered ecological community.”

A fire fighter standing with three others in conversation in a field. The fire trucks are behind them.

At the briefing for the 2021 autumn burns are CSIRO’s Jacqui Stol and Ken Hodgkinson with ACT Rural Fire Service officer and John Fitzgerald of Ginninderra Catchment group

A fire fighter wearing yellow burning a field of grass.

ACT Rural Fire Service volunteers carried out the burns

Fire fighters standing in a field watching it burn.

Five plots at Ginninderra were burnt as part of the trials across the Ginninderra catchment

Four people standing in a field with focus on a fire fighter in yellow.

Jacqui Stol overseeing the burns with the Hall ACT Rural Fire Service Captain and Ginninderra field staff