Australia has a role to play in future global food security as it contributes 0·12 of global wheat exports. How much more can it contribute with current technology and varieties? The present paper seeks to quantify the gap between water-limited yield potential (Yw) and farmer yields (Ya) for wheat in Australia by implementing a new protocol developed by the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas (GYGA) project. Results of past Australian yield gap studies are difficult to compare with studies in other countries because they were conducted using a variety of methods and at a range of scales. The GYGA project protocols were designed to facilitate comparisons among countries through the application of a consistent yet flexible methodology. This is the first implementation of GYGA protocols in a country with the high spatial and temporal climatic variability that exists in Australia.
The present paper describes the application of the GYGA protocol to the whole Australian grain zone to derive estimates of rainfed wheat yield gap. The Australian grain zone was partitioned into six key agro-climatic zones (CZs) defined by the GYGA Extrapolation Domain (GYGA-ED) zonation scheme. A total of 22 Reference Weather Stations (RWS) were selected, distributed among the CZs to represent the entire Australian grain zone. The Agricultural Production Systems sIMulator (APSIM) Wheat crop model was used to simulate Yw of wheat crops for major soil types at each RWS from 1996 to 2010. Wheat varieties, agronomy and distribution of wheat cropping were held constant over the 15-year period. Locally representative dominant soils were selected for each RWS and generic sowing rules were specified based on local expertise. Actual yield (Ya) data were sourced from national agricultural data sets. To upscale Ya and Yw values from RWS to CZs and then to national scale, values were weighted according to the area of winter cereal cropping within RWS buffer zones. The national yield gap (Yg = Yw–Ya) and relative yield (Y% = 100 × Ya/Yw) were then calculated from the weighted values.
The present study found that the national Yg was 2·0 tonnes (t)/ha and Y% was 47%. The analysis was extended to consider factors contributing to the yield gap. It was revealed that the RWS 15-year average Ya and Yw were strongly correlated (R
2 = 0·76) and that RWS with higher Yw had higher Yg. Despite variable seasonal conditions, Y% was relatively stable over the 15 years. For the 22 RWS, average Yg correlated positively and strongly with average annual rainfall amount, but surprisingly it correlated poorly with RWS rainfall variability. Similarly, Y% correlated negatively but less strongly (R
2 = 0·33) with RWS average annual rainfall, and correlated poorly with RWS rainfall variability, which raises questions about how Australian farmers manage climate risk. Interestingly a negative relationship was found between Yg and variability of Yw for the 22 RWS (R
2 = 0·66), and a positive relationship between Y% and Yw variability (R
2 = 0·23), which suggests that farmers in lower yielding, more variable sites are achieving yields closer to Yw. The Yg estimates appear to be quite robust in the context of estimates from other Australian studies, adding confidence to the validity of the GYGA protocol. Closing the national yield gap so that Ya is 0·80 of Yw, which is the level of Yg closure achieved consistently by the most progressive Australian farmers, would increase the average annual wheat production (20·9 million t in 1996/07 to 2010/11) by an estimated 15·3 million t, which is a 72% increase. This indicates substantial potential for Australia to increase wheat production on existing farmland areas using currently available crop varieties and farming practices and thus make a substantial contribution to achieving future global food security.