Continuous-cropping systems based on no-till and crop residue retention have been widely adopted across the low-rainfall cereal belt in southern Australia in the last decade to manage climate risk and wind erosion. This paper reports on two long-term field experiments that were established in the late 1990s on texturally different soil types at a time of uncertainty about the profitability of continuous-cropping rotations in low-rainfall environments. Continuous-cereal systems significantly outyielded the traditional pasture–wheat systems in five of the 11 seasons at Waikerie (light-textured soil), resulting in a cumulative gross margin of AU$1600 ha–1 after the initial eight seasons, almost double that of the other treatments. All rotation systems at Kerribee (loam-textured soil) performed poorly, with only the 2003 season producing yields close to 3 t ha–1 and no profit achieved in the years 2004–08. For low-rainfall environments, the success of a higher input cropping system largely depends on the ability to offset the losses in poor seasons by capturing greater benefits from good seasons; therefore, strategies to manage climatic risk are paramount. Fallow efficiency, or the efficiency with which rainfall was stored during the period between crops, averaged 17% at Kerribee and 30% at Waikerie, also indicating that soil texture strongly influences soil evaporation. A ‘responsive’ strategy of continuous cereal with the occasional, high-value ‘break crop’ when seasonal conditions are optimal is considered superior to fixed or pasture–fallow rotations for controlling grass, disease or nutritional issues.
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Vol. 66 • No. 6