of China Australia Food Security Cooperation Initiative (CAFSCI)

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Sustainable mechanised dryland grain production

Overview of Project

The project aimed to determine the full impact of mechanised conservation tillage on crop production, so as to combine the practices of conservation tillage and controlled traffic. Water availability is the main factor limiting crop production in large areas of northwest China and in most of the Australian wheat belt. Grain production in the 300-600 mm rainfall zone in China is described as dryland. It occurs in seven provinces, much of it in the Loess Plateau area, with wheat and maize being the main crops.

Agriculture in this part of China has mechanised faster than the rest of the country. Use of buffaloes has declined and the traditional methods of tilling are not compatible with the new mechanised farming. In addition, with less human labour available for working the land the labour-intensive practices of the past may no longer be possible. Mechanisation is therefore essential, but vehicles can compact the soil in the crop zone, making it harder for water to soak in - a major problem in these areas that receive relatively little rainfall.

Controlled traffic, a system in which permanent compacted laneways are used for all heavy field traffic, is seen as a possible solution. Some of its advantages were demonstrated in ACIAR project 1992/009. As well as this, soil treatments and selected ways of tilling the ground can also help maintain good soil structure, reduce runoff and soil erosion, and promote water infiltration. The net result is an increase in productivity.

This project sought to evaluate wheel traffic effects further, in a range of diverse sites, as well as test the hypothesis that conservation tillage - where crop residues are left as mulch on the soil - would reduce soil disturbance and lower the energy requirements of the farm system. Because the wheat-growing areas of China and Australia share common problems, much of this research is relevant to dryland production in Australia.

Key Outcomes of Project

This project generated convincing evidence that this technology can provide significant improvements in productivity and economics. Its effectiveness is evident in the rate of adoption of reduced tillage in China, where 60 conservation cropping demonstration areas now cover more than 100,000 ha in 13 northwest provinces, and farm-scale adoption is evident in many areas.

Because the scale of field operations is usually small in China, project work there focused on the development and assessment of low-powered equipment and systems of reduced tillage. In Australia field equipment is heavier, so work focused on the impact of wheel traffic.

In China, over 10 years of continuous winter wheat cropping at Linfen, and spring maize cropping at Shouyang, conservation tillage led to yield increases of 18% and 15% respectively in the plots established in 1993, compared with traditional practice. Treatment effects on yield were greater in dry years, and water availability at planting had a major effect on wheat yields in this summer-dominant rainfall environment.

This project has shown that in Shanxi Province through the development of sustainable mechanised crop production systems, conservation tillage can increase maize and wheat yields by more than 10% - by greatly boosting soil moisture retention and reducing land preparation costs. Advances in machinery, together with strong promotion by the Shanxi Agricultural Machinery Bureau and the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, have encouraged rapid adoption. The project has been heavily profiled, both on provincial and national television.

The Chinese Ministry of Agriculture, Bureau of Mechanization is keen to invest heavily in a conservation tillage initiative for China, targeting 180 million mu (12 million ha) of the Loess Plateau and adjacent regions. This appears to be a direct result of the work conducted in this project. The Chinese project leader Professor Gao (Centre for Conservation Tillage, China Agricultural University) is an official adviser for the initiative.

The adoption has spread to other provinces. In Gansu Province the Ministry of Agriculture recently chose Xifeng as a pilot area for conservation tillage. Currently, 10,000 mu of farmland in the Qingyang County have been contracted to trial conservation tillage for winter wheat and maize as a demonstration site for other provinces. The contract for machinery is held by the Agriculture Machinery Research Institute (AMRI) in Xifeng, and it has based the design of its machines on work done by Prof. Gao. AMRI has conducted an experiment in conservation tillage for the past year near Xifeng City on a 42 mu plot of land, and claims to show an increase in winter wheat yields of 19%. Some 50 small zero-till drills (tractor drawn) for either wheat or maize are now available, with their design attributed to the ACIAR project.

In Australia controlled traffic conservation tillage methods are revolutionising management of more than 1million hectares of grain farming. Over a five-year period (three summer and four winter crops) controlled traffic zero tillage with stubble retention reduced cumulative runoff by 46% and increased rainfall infiltration by 18%. Mean yield of winter and summer crops improved by 15 and 12% respectively, compared with stubble mulch wheeled treatments. Some farmers also claim that gains from the 2-4 day relaxation in timeliness constraints on spraying, planting and harvesting are as much benefit as direct yield increase.

High-precision GPS guidance was available only in the last few months of the project, and it showed a linear accuracy of equipment to within 25 mm at 95% probability. This technology opens up significant new crop management possibilities, such as interrow planting and spraying, together with better matching of nutrient supply to crop demand. Options such as relay intercropping could facilitate the development of cropping programs that more closely mimic natural vegetation, and enhance the sustainability of cropping.

The scientists undertook preliminary calibration of the PERFECTsimulation model. Running the model over 44 years of Gatton weather data for wheat/sorghum opportunity cropping illustrated treatment effects on cropping frequency, and predicted an overall mean yield increase of 36%, and a reduction in soil loss by 95% when controlled traffic zero tillage replaced random traffic stubble mulch tillage. Validation ofPERFECT in China and Australia is continuing.

Project Dates

01 Jul 1997 - 31 Dec 2003


University of Queensland - Australia
Department of Natural Resources and Mines - Queensland - Natural Resource Sciences - Australia
China Agricultural University - Eastern (Engineering) Campus - China


Dr Jeff Tullberg



07 3378 5249

Launch Website