AUSTRALIA'S cropping industry is confident it can continue to push up total annual grain production in spite of a likely plateauing of planted area.
An ANZ report issued last week found that with a lack of suitable, easily convertible new land to switch into cropping national plantings, a touch over 23 million hectares this year, were unlikely to grow significantly.
However, report co-author Michael Whitehead, ANZ head of food, beverage and agribusiness insights, said he did not see 'peak area' for cropping constraining further gains in total grain production, saying yield gains were likely to continue.
"Importantly, in contrast to the plateauing of Australian crop acreage, crop production levels show little signs of slowing in their overall growth," Mr Whitehead said.
CSIRO chief research scientist Zvi Hochman was project leader on the Yield Gap Australia project, which looks at the gap between actual and potential crop yield.
Prof Hochman said he agreed the area planted to winter crop was likely to level out but said there was scope for narrowing the yield gap.
"At present, as a rule Australian farmers are producing around 55 per cent of the potential yield, some progressive farmers we are working with in Victoria have this up at around 75-80pc," Dr Hochman said.
"You're never going to get that figure up to near 100pc in the long-term, there are always unexpected things that occur, whether its frost or waterlogging or disease, but this would be a good figure to aim for."
However, he said while Australian farmers were steadily improving as a percentage of maximum yield there were many parts of the country where that top yield was coming down due to the changing climate.
"We've been making improvements in percentage terms of around 1pc a year, but given seasonal rain is declining and temperatures are warming through much of our cropping belt in low and medium rainfall zones that top potential yield is coming back."
James Hunt, professor at the department of animal, plant and soil science at La Trobe University agreed.
"Climate change has eroded yield gains since the 1990s, the yields have stagnated over that period, dragged down by the big droughts," Prof Hunt said.
"What we have seen, however, is that when we get the right conditions we can do a great job, especially compared with what used to be grown with equivalent rainfall."
"Based on a water use efficiency basis we are doing better than ever."
Dr Hochman said there were two main methods to close the yield gap, exploiting existing technologies and research that had already been interpreted and then using new research breakthroughs that lead to new varieties and new techniques.
In terms of whether area could be retained in more marginal regions Dr Hochman said concepts such as dual purpose cultivars could help with risk management.
"Having a crop that can also be cut for hay if the season comes in dry is a great way to manage production risk.
"Croppers have already adapted more drought tolerant varieties such as barley and in the summer cropping regions sorghum, so they are actively managing that risk."
He also said if grain prices remained high that the definition of risk would change as less grain per hectare would have to be grown to make a profit.
This has been the case in canola this season with prices more than double the old benchmark of $400 a tonne, meaning the breakeven yield is halved.