Rice is one of Australia’s thirstiest crops, but the industry has now set itself the ambitious target of improving water efficiency by 75 per cent by 2026.
- Australian rice production is reliant on general security water allocations which have become increasingly unreliable.
- Water efficiency target looks at growing more rice with less water to future-proof the industry.
- The delayed application of permanent water, irrigation automation and new varieties are key to achieving the target
AgriFutures managing director John Harvey says the target – 1.5 tonnes of rice grown for each megalitre of water used – is part of a roadmap to "transform" the industry to ensure its survival.
“Our end goal is to ensure rice remains a competitive and profitable option for all rice growers,” Mr Harvey said.
Australian rice growers already use 50 per cent less water than the global average, but the recent drought proved water availability will continue to be the largest challenge facing the industry.
The 2019–20 rice crop was one of the smallest ever recorded with growers only able to access zero to 6 per cent of their water allocation.
“We grow a lot of rice when there’s lots of water like there is this year. We’ll probably grow over 600,000 paddy tonnes. But then we have years where we only grow 45,000 paddy tonnes,” Mr Harvey said.
How will the target be achieved?
The 2021 SunRice Grower of the Year, Darrell Fiddler, manages De Bortoli Wine's broadacre operations at Griffith.
He is already “knocking on the door” of achieving the target having improved his water efficiency by around 40 per cent.
“When we first started growing rice we were at that 12.5 to 13 megalitres [of water used per hectare]. This year’s crop will come in at about 7.5ML/ha,” Mr Fiddler said.
Traditionally rice is grown partially submerged in water throughout the season, however a technique that delays the application of permanent water has gained traction in the industry.
Mr Fiddler was an early adopter of “delayed ponding” and credits it as having one of the biggest impacts on his water efficiency.
Aerobic-grown rice the next step
He is now looking at the next step, growing rice aerobically, without any water ponding, as part of a trial with Deakin University.
A crucial component of the trial is using automation to control irrigation flushes.
Cold-tolerant varieties that survive without the water ‘blanket’
New rice varieties are also key to achieving the water efficiency target.
NSW Department of Primary Industries rice breeder Peter Snell said permanent water provided a type of blanket for rice, protecting it from damaging cold weather.
Therefore, a focus has been on breeding cold-tolerant rice varieties, which can handle the delayed or absent application of permanent water.
This includes a new variety, V071, which is being grown throughout the Riverina for the first time this year.
“We’re very reliant on deep water to protect developing panicles and one of the big things for aerobic or growing rice on beds is getting cold tolerance.”
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