Skip to main content Accessibility help

Innovation and productivity in dryland agriculture: a return-risk analysis for Australia

  • P. S. CARBERRY (a1), S. E. BRUCE (a2), J. J. WALCOTT (a2) and B. A. KEATING (a1)


Despite a highly variable climate and fragile soils, dryland farming systems in Australia continue to be productive and viable. This review nominates the farming practices, and their development through investment in science and technology, that have helped sustain dryland farming systems in Australia. It sets the context for dryland agriculture in Australia and specifically examines the risks and returns from technological innovations over the past 30 years. It then examines possible sources of productivity gains in the next 20 years.

Australian dryland farming systems have performed favourably compared to the agricultural sectors in most other countries over the past 30 years. Australian Research, Development and Extension (RD&E) has been a significant contributor to the realized agricultural productivity growth over this period. However, growth in the productivity of agriculture appears to have slowed down in the last 10 years: this is partly a result of extended dry conditions and declining growth in public investment in RD&E. It is reflected in slowing rates of technology adoption on broadacre farms and changes in investment confidence of farm owners.

Future productivity gains will require continued strong investment in RD&E to meet current and emerging challenges. Future technologies and policies will help improve productivity by removing inefficiencies, increasing the efficiency of resource use and developing breakthrough innovations.

As evidenced by Australia's success in productivity growth, meeting the global challenge to produce more food in the future will depend partly on investments in RD&E, risk management systems, farmer skill and human capital and policies that encourage efficiency gains.


Corresponding author

*To whom all correspondence should be addressed. Email:


Hide All
Abadi Ghadim, A. K., Pannell, D. J. & Burton, M. P. (2005). Risk, uncertainty, and learning in adoption of a crop innovation. Agricultural Economics 33(1), 19.
ABARE (2009 a). Australian Commodity Statistics 2009. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
ABARE (2009 b). Australian Grains 09·1. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics.
Alston, J. M., Beddow, J. M. & Pardey, P. G. (2009). Agricultural research, productivity, and food prices in the long run. Science 325, 12091210.
Anderson, J. R., Dillon, J. L. & Hardaker, J. B. (1977). Agricultural Decision Analysis. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.
Anderson, W. K. (2010). Closing the gap between actual and potential yield of rainfed wheat. The impacts of environment, management and cultivar. Field Crops Research 116(1), 1422.
Angus, J. F. (2001). Nitrogen supply and demand in Australian agriculture. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 41, 277288.
Angus, J. & van Herwaarden, A. F. (2001). Increasing water use and water use efficiency in dryland wheat. Agronomy Journal 93, 290298.
Asner, G. P., Elmore, A. J., Olander, L. P., Martin, R. E. & Harris, A. T. (2004). Grazing systems, ecosystem responses, and global change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 29, 261299.
Bariana, H. S., Brown, G. N., Bansal, U. K., Miah, H., Standen, G. E. & Lu, M. (2007). Breeding triple rust resistant wheat cultivars for Australia using conventional and marker-assisted selection technologies. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 58, 576587.
Bell, L. W., Robertson, M. J., Revell, D. K., Lilley, J. M. & Moore, A. D. (2008). Approaches for assessing some attributes of feed-base systems in mixed farming enterprises. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 48, 789798.
Bell, L. W., Wade, L. J. & Ewing, M. A. (2010). Perennial wheat: a review of environmental and agronomic prospects for development in Australia. Crop and Pasture Science 61, 679690.
Bolger, T. P. & Turner, N. C. (1999). Water use efficiency and water use of Mediterranean annual pastures in southern Australia. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 50, 10351046.
Bramley, R. G. V. (2009). Lessons from nearly 20 years of precision agriculture research. Crop and Pasture Science 60, 197217.
Brookes, G. & Barfoot, P. (2005). GM crops: the global economic and environmental impact – the first nine years 1996–2004. AgBioForum 8, 187196.
BRS (2001). 1996/97 Land Use of Australia, version 2. Digital map, ArcInfo grid format. Canberra: Bureau of Rural Sciences.
BRS (2006). Land Use of Australia, version 3, 2001/02. Digital map, ArcInfo grid format. Canberra: Bureau of Rural Sciences.
BRS (2010). Land use of Australia, version 4, 2005–06. Digital map, ArcInfo grid format. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics – Bureau of Rural Sciences.
Bruce, S., Sims, J., Walcott, J., White, S., Baldock, J., Grace, P. & Wicks, S. (2010). Soil Carbon Management and Carbon Trading. Canberra: Bureau of Rural Sciences, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
Carberry, P. (2001). Are science rigour and industry relevance both acheivable in participatory action research? Agricultural Science 14, 2228.
Carberry, P. S., Chapman, A. L., Anderson, C. M. & Muir, L. L. (1996). Conservation tillage and ley farming systems in the Australian semi-arid tropics. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 36, 9151089.
Carberry, P. S., Hammer, G. L., Meinke, H. & Bange, M. (2000). The potential value of seasonal forecasting in managing cropping systems. In Application of Seasonal Climate Forecasting in Agricultural and Natural Systems – the Australian Experience (Eds Hammer, G. L., Nicholls, N. & Mitchell, C.), pp. 167181. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Carberry, P. S., Hochman, Z., Hunt, J. R., Dalgliesh, N. P., McCown, R. L., Whish, J. P. M., Robertson, M. J., Foale, M. A., Poulton, P. L. & van Rees, H. (2009). Re-inventing model-based decision support with Australian dryland farmers: 3. Relevance of APSIM to commercial crops. Crop and Pasture Science 60, 10441056.
Carberry, P. S., Hochman, Z., McCown, R. L., Dalgliesh, N. P., Foale, M. A., Poulton, P. L., Hargreaves, J. N. G., Hargreaves, D. M. G., Cawthrey, S., Hillcoat, N. & Robertson, M. J. (2002). The FARMSCAPE approach to decision support: farmers’, advisers’, researchers’ monitoring, simulation, communication, and performance evaluation. Agricultural Systems 74, 141177.
Christopher, J. T., Manschadi, A. M., Hammer, G. L. & Borrell, A. K. (2008). Developmental and physiological traits associated with high yield and stay-green phenotype in wheat. Australian Journal Agricultural Research 59, 354364.
Conner, D. J. (2004). Designing cropping systems for efficient use of limited water in southern Australia. European Journal of Agronomy 21, 419431.
CSIRO (2008). Water Availability in the Murray-Darling Basin. A report from CSIRO to the Australian Government. Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: CSIRO.
D'Emden, F. H., Llewellyn, R. S. & Burton, M. P. (2006). Adoption of conservation tillage in Australian cropping regions: an application of duration analysis. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 73, 630647.
Descheemaeker, K., Amede, T. & Haileslassie, A. (2009). Livestock and Water Interactions in Mixed Crop-Livestock Farming Systems of Sub-Saharan Africa: Interventions for Improved Productivity. IWMI Working Paper 133. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute.
Dillon, J. L. (1977). An Analysis of Response in Crop and Livestock Production (2nd edn). Oxford, UK: Pergamon.
Doherty, A., Sadras, V. O., Rodriguez, D. & Potgieter, A. (2010). Quantification of wheat water-use efficiency at the shire-level in Australia. Crop and Pasture Science 61(1), 111.
Eagles, H. A., Cane, K., Kuchef, H., Hollamby, G. J., Vallance, N., Eastwood, R. F., Gororo, N. N. & Martin, P. J. (2010). Photoperiod and vernalization gene effects in southern Australian wheat. Crop and Pasture Science 61, 721730.
FAO (2009). Global Agriculture Towards 2050. Rome: FAO.
Fischer, R. A. (2009). Farming systems of Australia: exploiting the synergy between genetic improvement and agronomy. In Crop Physiology: Applications for Genetic Improvement and Agronomy (Eds Sadras, V. O. & Calderini, D. F.), pp. 2354. New York: Academic Press.
Fischer, R. A., Byerlee, D. & Edmeades, G. O. (2009). Can Technology Deliver on the Yield Challenge to 2050? Paper presented as part of the Expert Meeting on How to Feed the World in 2050. Rome: FAO.
Fischer, R. A. & Edmeades, G. O. (2010). Breeding and cereal yield progress. Crop Science 50 (Suppl. 1), S85S98.
Freebairn, D. M., Cornish, P. S., Anderson, W. K., Walker, S. R., Robinson, J. B. & Beswick, A. R. (2006). Management systems in climate regions of the world-Australia. In Dryland Agriculture. 2nd edn (Eds Peterson, G. A., Unger, P. W. & Payne, W. A.), pp. 837878. Madison, WI: ASA, CSSA, SSSA.
French, R. J. (1991). Monitoring the functioning of dryland farming systems. In Dryland Farming: a Systems Approach (Eds Squires, V. & Tow, P. G.), pp. 222228. North Melbourne: Sydney University Press.
French, R. J. & Schultz, J. E. (1984). Water use efficiency of wheat in a Mediterranean-type environment. II some limitations to efficiency. Australian Journal Agricultural Research 35, 765775.
Furbank, R. T., von Caemmerer, S., Sheehy, J. & Edwards, G. (2009). C4 rice: a challenge for plant phenomics. Functional Plant Biology 36, 845856.
Hajkowicz, S. (2009). The evolution of Australia's natural resource management programs: towards improving targeting and evaluation of investments. Land Use Policy 26, 471478.
Hamblin, A. (2009). Policy directions for agricultural land use in Australia and other post-industrial economies. Land Use Policy 26, 11951204.
Hamblin, A. & Kyneur, G. (1993). Trends in Wheat Yields and Soil Fertility in Australia. Canberra: Bureau of Resource Sciences, Australian Government Publishing Service.
Hammer, G., Cooper, M., Tardieu, F., Welch, S., Walsh, B., van Eeuwijk, F., Chapman, S. & Podlich, D. (2006). Models for navigating biological complexity in breeding improved crop plants. Trends in Plant Science 11(12), 587593.
Hammer, G. L. & Jordan, D. R. (2007). An integrated systems approach to crop improvement. In Scale and Complexity in Plant Systems Research: Gene-Plant-Crop Relations (Eds Spiertz, J. H. J., Struik, P. C. & van Laar, H. H.), pp. 4561. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.
Hammer, G. L., Nicholls, N. & Mitchell, C. (Eds) (2000). Application of Seasonal Climate Forecasting in Agricultural and Natural Ecosystems – the Australian Experience. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Hattersley, P., Johnson, H., Glover, J., Foster, M., Wesley, V. & Mewwett, O. (2009). Plant gene technology: improving the productivity of Australian agriculture. In Science for Decision Makers. Canberra: Bureau of Rural Sciences.
Higgins, A., Thorburn, P., Archer, A. & Jakku, E. (2007). Opportunities for value chain research in sugar industries. Agricultural Systems 94, 611621.
Hochman, Z., Holzworth, D. & Hunt, J. R. (2009 a). Potential to improve on-farm wheat yield and WUE in Australia. Crop and Pasture Science 60, 708716.
Hochman, Z., Van Rees, H., Carberry, P. S., Hunt, J. R., McCown, R. L., Gartman, A., Holzworth, D., van Rees, S., Dalgliesh, N. P., Long, W., Peake, A. S., Poulton, P. L. & McClelland, T. (2009 b). Re-inventing model-based decision support with Australian dryland farmers:4. Yield Prophet® helps farmers monitor and manage crops in a variable climate. Crop and Pasture Science 60, 10571070.
Hubert, B., Rosegrant, M. W., van Boekel, M. A. J. S. & Ortiz, R. (2010). The future of food: scenarios for 2050. Crop Science 50, S-33–S-50.
Hutchinson, M. F., Nix, H. A. & McMahon, J. P. (1992). Climate constraints on cropping systems. In Ecosystems of the World: Field Crop Ecosystems, vol. 18 (Eds Pearson, C. J. & Goodall, D. W.), pp. 3758. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Keating, B. A. & Carberry, P. S. (2010). Emerging opportunities and challenges for Australian broadacre agriculture. Crop and Pasture Science 61, 269278.
Keating, B. A., Godwin, D. C. & Watiki, J. M. (1991). Optimising nitrogen inputs in response to climate. In Climatic Risk in Crop Production: Models and Management for the Semiarid Tropics and Subtropics (Eds Muchow, R. C. & Bellamy, J. A.), pp. 329358. Wallingford, UK: CAB International.
Keating, B. A., Carberry, P. S., Bindraban, P. S., Asseng, S., Meinke, H. & Dixon, J. (2010). Eco-efficient agriculture:concepts, challenges and opportunities. Crop Science 50 (Suppl. 1), S109S119.
Kingwell, R. & Pannell, D. (2005). Economic trends and drivers affecting the wheatbelt for Western Australia to 2030. Australian Journal Agricultural Research 59, 553561.
Kirkegaard, J. A., Peoples, M. B., Angus, J. F. & Unkovich, M. J. (in press). Diversity and evolution of rainfed farming systems in southern Australia. In Rainfed Farming Systems (Eds Tow, P. G., Cooper, I., Partridge, I. & Birch, C.). Dordrecht: Springer.
Kirkegaard, J. A., Sprague, S. J., Dove, H., Kelman, W. M., Marcroft, S. J., Lieschke, A., Howe, G. N. & Graham, J. M. (2008). Dual-purpose canola – a new opportunity in mixed farming systems. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 59, 291302.
Laughlin, G. P., Zuo, H., Walcott, J. & Bugg, A. L. (2003). The rainfall reliability wizard – a new tool to rapidly analyse spatial rainfall reliability with examples. Environmental Modelling and Software 18(1), 4957.
Lobell, D. B., Cassman, K. G. & Field, C. B. (2009). Crop yield gaps: their importance, magnitudes, and causes. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34, 179204.
Mallawaarachchi, T., Walcott, J., Hughes, N., Gooday, P., Georgeson, L. & Foster, A. (2009). Promoting Productivity in the Agriculture and Food Sector Value Chain: Issues for R&D Investment. ABARE and BRS report to the Rural R&D Council. Canberra: ABARE.
Manschadi, A. M., Hammer, G. L., Christopher, J. T. & DeVoil, P. (2008). Genotypic variation in seedling root architectural traits and implications for drought adaptation in wheat (Triticum aestivum L.). Plant and Soil 303, 115129.
Marsh, S. & Pannell, D. (1998). The changing relationship between private and public sector agricultural extension in Australia. Rural Society 8, 133151.
McKeon, G. M., Stone, G. S., Syktus, J. I., Carter, J. O., Flood, N. R., Ahrens, D. G., Bruget, D. N., Chilcott, C. R., Cobon, D. H., Cowley, R. A., Crimp, S. J., Fraser, G. W., Howden, S. M., Johnston, P. W., Ryan, J. G., Stokes, C. J. & Day, K. A. (2009). Climate change impacts on northern Australian rangeland livestock carrying capacity: a review of issues. The Rangeland Journal 31, 129.
McLaren, C. G., Metz, T., van den Berg, M., Bruskiewich, R. M., Magor, N. P. & Shires, D. (2009). Informatics in agricultural research for development. Advances in Agronomy 102, 135157.
Millar, G. D., Jones, R. E., Michalk, D. L. & Brady, S. (2009). An exploratory tool for analysis of forage and livestock production options. Animal Production Science 49, 788796.
Moore, A. D., Bell, L. W. & Revell, D. K. (2009). Feed gaps in mixed-farming systems: insights from the Grain & Graze program. Animal Production Science 49, 736748.
Morgan, J. M. (2000). Increases in grain yield of wheat by breeding for an osmoregulation gene: relationship to water supply and evaporative demand. Australian Journal Agricultural Research 51, 971978.
Mullen, J. D. (2007). Productivity growth and the returns from public investment in R&D in Australian broadacre agriculture. Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 51(4), 359384.
NLWRA (2001). Australian Agriculture Assessment 2001: a Report of the National Land and Water Resources Audit. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Nossal, K. & Sheng, Y. (2010). Productivity growth: trends, drivers and opportunities for broadacre and dairy industries. Australian Commodities 17, 216230.
OECD (2004). OECD Agricultural Policies 2004: at a Glance. Paris, France: OECD.
Owen, M. J. & Powles, S. B. (2010). Glyphosate-resistant rigid ryegrass (Lolim rigidum) populations in the Western Australian grain belt. Weed Technology 24, 4449.
Pardey, P. G. (2010). Reassessing public–private roles in agricultural R&D for economic development. In World Food Security: Can Private Sector R&D Feed the Poor? The Crawford Fund Fifteenth Annual International Conference, Parliament House, Canberra 27–28 October 2009 (Ed. Brown, A. G.), pp. 1323. Deakin, ACT, Australia: The Crawford Fund.
Passioura, J. B. (2005). Epilogue: from propaganda to practicalities – the progressive evolution of the salinity debate. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 45, 15031506.
Passioura, J. B. (2006). Increasing crop productivity when water is scarce-from breeding to field management. Agricultural Water Management 80, 176196.
Passioura, J. B. & Ridley, A. M. (1998). Managing soil water and nitrogen to minimise land degradation. In Agronomy, Growing a Greener Future? Proceedings of the 9th Australian Agronomy Conference 20–23 July 1998 (Eds Michalk, D. L. & Pratley, J. E.), pp. 99106. Wagga Wagga, Australia: Australian Society of Agronomy.
Pearson, C. J., Zuo, H., Valentine, I. & Unkovich, M. (2003). Sustainability of grazing systems: feed base, grazing pressure and variability. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 1, 95107.
Perry, M. W. (1989). Farming systems of southern Australia. In Agronomy in a Mediterranean Environment. Proceedings of the 5th Australian Agronomy Conference, 30 January – 2 February 1990. pp. 167179. Perth, Western Australia: Australian Society of Agronomy.
Pratley, J. E. & Leigh, R. (2008). Agriculture in decline at Australian universities. In Global Issues. Paddock Action. Proceedings of the 14th Australian Agronomy Conference, 21–25 September 2008 (Ed Unkovich, M.), Adelaide, South Australia: Australian Society of Agronomy. Available online at: (verified 21 October 2010).
Rebetzke, G. J., Condon, A. G., Farquhar, G. D., Appels, R. & Richards, R. A. (2008). Quantitative trait loci for carbon isotope discrimination are repeatable across environments and wheat mapping populations. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 118, 123137.
Richards, R. A. (2006). Physiological traits used in the breeding of new cultivars for water-scarce environments. Agricultural Water Management 80, 197211.
Richards, R. A., Rebetzke, G. J., Condon, A. G. & van Herwaarden, A. F. (2002). Breeding opportunities for increasing the efficiency of water use and crop yield in temperate cereals. Crop Science 42, 111121.
Roberts, A. M., Helmers, M. J. & Fillery, I. R. P. (2009). The adoptability of perennial-based farming systems for hydrologic and salinity control in dryland farming systems in Australia and the United States of America. Crop and Pasture Science 60, 8399.
Robertson, M., Carberry, P. & Brennan, L. (2009). Economic benefits of variable rate technology: case studies from Australian grain farms. Crop and Pasture Science 60, 799807.
Safriel, U., Adeel, Z., Niemeijer, D., Puigdefabregas, J., White, R., Lal, R., Winslow, M., Ziedler, J., Prince, S., Archer, E., King, C., Shapiro, B., Wessels, K., Nielsen, T., Portnov, B., Reshef, I., Thonnell, J., Lachman, E. & McNab, D. (2005). Dryland systems. In Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Current State and Trends. Findings of the Condition and Trends Working Group (Eds Hassan, R., Scholes, R. & Ash, N.), pp. 623662. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Squires, V. & Tow, P. G. (Eds) (1991). Dryland Farming: a Systems Approach (An Analysis of Dryland Agriculture in Australia). Sydney: Sydney University Press.
Steffen, W., Sims, J. & Walcott, J. (2006). Farming Profitably in a Changing Climate: A Risk-management Approach. Canberra: Bureau of Rural Sciences.
Stokes, C. J. & Howden, S. M. (2010). Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Preparing Australian Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for the Future. Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing.
Tilman, D., Cassman, K. G., Matson, P. A., Naylor, R. & Polasky, S. (2002). Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418, 671677.
Torsvik, V. & Øvreås, L. (2002). Microbial diversity and function in soil: from genes to ecosystems. Current Opinion in Microbiology 5, 240245.
Tow, P. G., Cooper, I., Partridge, I. & Birch, C. (in press). Rainfed Farming Systems. Dordrecht: Springer.
Walcott, J., Beeston, G., Stephens, D., Nunweek, M. & Ranatunga, K. (2006). Growing more grain: a first cut at estimating and locating potential gains. In Ground-Breaking Stuff: Proceedings of the 13th Australian Agronomy Conference (Eds Turner, N. C., Acuna, T. & Johnson, R. C.), Perth, Australia: The Regional Institute Ltd, for the Australian Society of Agronomy. Available online at: (verified 21 October 2010).
Wark, T., Corke, P., Sikka, P., Klingbeil, L., Guo, Y., Crossman, C., Valencia, P., Swain, D. & Bishop-Hurley, G. (2007). Transforming agriculture through pervasive wireless sensor networks. IEEE Pervasive Computing 6, 5057.
White, D. H. (1987). Stocking rate. In Managed Grasslands B. Analytical Studies (Ed. Snaydon, R. W.), pp. 227238. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Williams, R. T. & Walcott, J. J. (1998). Environmental benchmarks for agriculture? Clarifying the framework in a federal system – Australia. Land Use Policy 15, 149163.
Zhu, X.-G., Long, S. P. & Ort, D. R. (2010). Improving photosynthetic efficiency for greater yield. Annual Review of Plant Biology 61, 235261.

Innovation and productivity in dryland agriculture: a return-risk analysis for Australia

  • P. S. CARBERRY (a1), S. E. BRUCE (a2), J. J. WALCOTT (a2) and B. A. KEATING (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed