THE southern NSW rice industry is hoping to lift its water use efficiency by tapping into achievements being made by the fledgling North Queensland sector where it grows as a row crop.

Unlike the traditional paddy rice crop, the current 350 hectares planted in raised bed rows in the sub-tropical north represent a groundbreaking shift into commercial “aerobic” rice cropping.

About 12 farms, mostly in the Burdekin Valley, now grow rice as a break crop on sugar cane country, supplementing the region’s 900-plus millimetre annual rainfall with irrigation waterings in much the same way cotton, maize or soybeans are grown.

While weed management is still being refined and yields vary widely from five tonnes to 10t/ha, more farmers are keen get involved. Some as far north as Tully or in Central Queensland at Emerald have already given it a try.

National rice marketer SunRice is encouraging research efforts which could use northern crop experience, combined with breeding for better plant root development and cold tolerance traits, to make Australia’s 800,000t-plus rice industry more water efficient.

Via its subsidiary Rice Research Australia, SunRice also hopes to enhance characteristics found in temperate climate varieties grown in NSW Murrumbidgee and Murray valley’s to lift Queensland yields.

Researchers are also working hard to breed for improved resistance to the internationally prevalent tropical fungus, rice blast.

Rice blast has been a major impediment to expanding the crop into northern Australia, particularly in the Ord irrigation areas.

For the time being, however, SunRice chief executive officer Rob Gordon regarded the Burdekin Valley as opening up an exciting new chapter for his industry.

He said the Burdekin region, which previously grew ponded rice in the 1980s and ’90s, had potential to expand the 80-year-old industry’s production footprint and help boost rice exports at a time when Australian production was lagging well behind export needs.

Although there may be many early-stage uncertainties, SunRice tips yields in the north are capable of expanding 10-fold in the next few years and within a decade may exceed 100,000t.

“There’s great enthusiasm for rice as a rotation option with cane – we had about 90 people at a field day in November,” Mr Gordon said.

“We have no specific expectations of how our investment will pan out, but even though its very much a fledgling industry – about 3000t at the moment – we’ll take all the rice we can get.

“If that grows into 10,000t or 20,000t in the next season or so, we’ll be delighted.”

He said SunRice’s “seed capital” in the Burdekin gave the company the chance to promote production in an area which offered plentiful irrigation water, access to a nearby port (Townsville), and a new production base to help buffer the business from supply setbacks during dry seasons in the south.

Sub-tropical crops offered opportunities to bolster the local SunRice product range, particularly with Indica (tropical-style) varieties, fragrant lines and the popular long grain, low glycemic index variety, Doongara.

Refining furrow irrigation techniques and varieties with better water use traits could also, eventually, translate to southern NSW where row crops can grow, but unlike the north, need better tolerance to cool temperatures at critical stages of the plant’s development.

SunRice has marketed the equivalent of more than a million tonnes of paddy rice annually for the past three seasons, but Australian production has only peaked above 1m tonnes once in seven years and only occasionally in the six years prior to that.

As part of a strategy to diversify its production base and take advantage of northern Australian agronomic conditions SunRice paid about $5m last July to buy the rice assets of specialty grain business Blue Ribbon Group at Brandon, including a small processing mill.

Blue Ribbon started milling and packaging rice six years ago and began promoting the aerobic row crop system as a sideline to its pulse, dahl and tropical grass seed business.

It now works with SunRice to promote rice as an income alternative and rotation option in cane country, alongside mungbeans, soybeans, chickpeas and other pulses.

A Burdekin grower workshop this month noted how typical 60 per cent cane yield declines were reversed by growing up to 18-months of break crops, rather than simply fallowing land for six months or more as has been the strategy for generations.

Cane yields have tended to slide from around 170 tonnes/ha to just 80 or 90t/ha after a third or fourth consecutive crop, but by breaking the monoculture cycle with rice, then a legume and possibly another rice crop, yields rebound up to previous highs.

Mr Gordon said unlike the Riverina’s ponded systems, growing opportunity rice or pulse crops in furrow-irrigated paddocks did not require special infrastructure, laser levelling or earthworks.

Row cropping also avoided the aquatic weed and pest problems common to Riverina farms and had limited bird damage risk.

Water birds, particularly magpie geese, were a big cost problem when rice was previously grown in flooded bays in Queensland.

Northern trialsFURROW-irrigated rice farming trials began in Central and North Queensland eight years ago when water availability and rice production in southern NSW were slashed by the millennium drought.

Similar initiatives kicked off on NSW’s Far North Coast where about 300 hectares annually continues to grow the purpose-bred “highland” Japanese variety Tachiminori.

About four growers rely entirely on the region’s summer rainfall after sowing conventionally in late spring on cropping country otherwise used for soybeans or maize.

On a global scale furrow-irrigated or aerobic production is not common compared to ponded paddy rice systems which produce up to three crops a year in parts of Asia.

However the comparatively low-input system is found in China, sub-tropical India and in rain-fed uplands in Thailand and Laos.

SunRice is promoting rice in North Queensland as an income-earning break crop which can help reduce disease build up in cane (or other irrigated crops).

Rice also leaves a useful silica residue which helps sugar cane.

Burdekin farmers harvest two rice crops within a 12 month period using about 10 to 12 megalitres/ha during the summer wet season, and up to 13 or 14Ml in the dry.

In a typical wet season more than half the crop’s water needs are delivered as rainfall.

This compares with Murray Valley ponded crops in heavy clay-based soils which require 11Ml to 13Ml, almost all supplied from irrigation channels.

Northern crops need two to three waterings to establish after seed is drilled into bed rows up to 25 centimetres apart.

Irrigating eases back after 20 days to encourage deep root development to 30cms or more, but the soil profile is kept saturated in the final two months of the crop’s 140-day life.

Some Burdekin families attracted to the new generation industry in the region had experience with flooded bay rice farming systems established after Burdekin Dam was built in the mid 1980s.

Today irrigation water is flushed through the crop rows from flume pipes positioned at the end of each field.

Further north in Papua New Guinea, SunRice has been working in partnership with the University of PNG and a private agronomy service since 2013 to explore rice production initiatives, including rain-grown and aerobic trials.

Its joint venture Trukai business is one of the best known food brands in PNG, but its rice is almost entirely sourced from Australia.

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