Rice is one of Australia’s thirstiest crops, and water shortages can prove to be detrimental to the production of rice grains. Rice farming in Australia is based on general security water allocations, which have grown more unpredictable. Due to this, Australia’s rice industry has set an ambitious goal of increasing water efficiency to future-proof the sector.
Australia’s rice industry’s goal is to cultivate more rice with less water. By 2026, they hope to increase water efficiency by 75%. The delayed application of permanent water, the introduction of new cultivars, and irrigation automation are critical to meeting this particular aim.
According to AgriFutures managing director John Harvey, the goal of growing 1.5 tonnes of rice for every megalitre of water consumed is part of a plan to transform the industry and secure its continued existence. Their ultimate aim is to keep rice a viable and lucrative alternative for all rice producers.
However, the recent drought has shown that water availability will continue to be the industry’s biggest concern. Australian rice producers now use 50% less water than the worldwide average, but the industry still suffers from inadequate water allocation. The 2019–20 rice crop, for example, was one of the weakest ever recorded, with producers receiving barely zero to six percent of their water allotment.
According to Mr. Harvey, when there’s plenty of water, they grow a lot of rice and they can probably grow over 600,000 paddy tonnes. However, they also have years where they only grow 45,000 paddy tonnes.
When they first started cultivating rice, they were using 12.5 to 13 megalitres of water per hectare, Mr. Fiddler stated, but this year’s crop will need approximately 7.5 milliliters per square meter.
Mr. Fiddler was an early user of a technique called “delayed ponding,” and he attributes it to being one of the most significant influences on his water efficiency. Traditionally, rice is produced partially immersed in water throughout the season, however, this technique delays the application of permanent water.
As part of a study with Deakin University, Mr. Fiddler is now considering the next step to cultivating water-efficient rice, which is growing rice aerobically without any water ponding. The use of automation to regulate irrigation flushes is a critical component of this study. According to Mr. Fiddler, it will potentially irrigate each bay 270 times without requiring him to go and change the water, resulting in a labor savings of roughly 300 hours.
New cold-tolerant cultivars that can thrive without the ‘blanket’ of water will also be critical to meeting the water efficiency aim. According to Peter Snell, a rice breeder at the NSW Department of Primary Industries, permanent water acts as a blanket for rice, and shields plants from harmful cold weather.
As a result, efforts have been focused on developing cold-tolerant rice types that can withstand the delayed or missing application of permanent water. This includes a new variety, V071, which is being farmed for the first time in the Riverina this 2022.
“We’re reliant on deep water to protect developing panicles, and having cold resistance is one of the main problems for aerobic or producing rice on beds.” Dr. Snell had explained. Rice is virtually like a mangrove due to it being grown almost entirely in water.