Harvest record hope in billion-dollar rain

Brad Thompson, Jenne Brammer, Jo Fulwood and Claire TyrellThe West Australian

Farmers are calling it a billion-dollar boost to the WA economy after weekend rain came at a crucial time for crops throughout grain growing regions.

Falls of more than 25mm — or an inch — covered farms that needed it most after long dry spells and put WA on target for a third consecutive bumper harvest.

Few of the more than 4200 grain growers in WA missed out on the rain which started late last week. It fell from the northern tip of the Wheatbelt around Northampton out to Southern Cross in the east and Esperance on the south coast.

“The crop was well set up but badly in need of rain and it has come,” farm consultant David Falconer said.

“It is a billion-dollar boost if the benefit of this rain continues through to harvest. The whole State needed rain, some districts more than others and this has been extensive.”

Wheat prices have held at more than $300 a tonne and canola near $560 a tonne. The rain gives WA a realistic chance of nearing its record 17-million-tonne harvest.

Mr Falconer said the rain had value beyond crop yields because it flowed through to small rural businesses and affected mental and physical wellbeing.

John Nicoletti, one of WA’s biggest grain growers, said it was “a very happy day” as he reflected on heavy falls on his farms in the eastern Wheatbelt and at Mullewa in the north.

“We’ve been waiting for this rain for a long time,” he said. “It came in the nick of time.”

Maya grower Brian McAlpine said he had puddles on his farm after 40mm fell in the past two days, just as optimism from a good start to the season was fading, as it had in the past two years.

“It is good to see some of the driest areas have had the best rain,” he said.

Brad Nottle, who grows barley, hay and lupins at Kweda, between Brookton and Corrigin, said the 22mm before noon yesterday broke a dry spell going back to mid-May. “It has certainly taken the pressure off,” he said. “If it hadn’t rained, it would have been quite dire.”

Scott and Hayley Watson, who farm at Bonnie Rock with Scott’s brother and sister-in-law Trevor and Peta, received a welcome 25mm across the four days from Thursday to Sunday.

Mr Watson said although he had received between 80mm and 120 mm of summer rainfall, there were many places across the farm where the moisture had been too low to germinate the crops.

“This rain has certainly been positive and may even allow us now to have an average season, given the summer rainfall we received,” he said.

“But since we hadn’t had a double-figure rainfall event since the last summer rain in early April, the crops were very stressed and, in fact, most of the paddocks were dry sown.

“Another week or two and the season would have been just about finished, before it even started.”

The Watsons plant 6000ha of wheat and 1000ha of barley on their property, 60km north-east of Mukinbudin.

“Before this rain we only had about 60 per cent germination,” he said.

But Mr Watson said the brothers did not reduce their cropping program during seeding, despite the dry conditions. “We stuck to our plan, which we do every year. We find that if we pull up during seeding we regret it in hindsight,” he said.

“This rain will now join up with the subsoil moisture. I’m certainly more positive about the season ahead than this time last week.”

Beaumont farmer Lyndon Mickel said the 25mm received on the weekend was a lifeline for his business, particularly given the area had only received only 50mm for the year to date.

He said the rain would allow him  to finish his seeding program and would give his early sown crops a boost.

“It has been our driest start on record, which is why our seeding program has been so delayed this year,” he said.

Mr Mickel said as a result of the dry start he had cut back on some of his seeding program.

“We dropped out a total of 500ha of canola and peas as a result of the dry start,” he said.

“The germination of the early sown crops was patchy, but since the weekend’s rain it’s all started to get away now.

“This is the latest we have seeded at Beaumont, so it will be interesting to see how this impacts on yields at the end of the season.”

John and Emma Scotney, of Badgingarra, received 51mm in the past week.

It was the first rain since receiving 15mm-17mm in mid-May, after opening rains of 33mm in April.

The soaking means the Scotneys are now back on track for a reasonable year.

“Most of the crops were hanging in there, but we were seeing the potential disappear with every dry day,” Mr Scotney said.

He said canola in particular was looking patchy, but he was now confident there would be a full emergence.

“The rains mean we will have the chance to get on with our spraying programs,” Mr Scotney said. “Prior to these rains we didn’t have enough of an emergence of weeds.” he said.

The rains would meant he was now confident enough to spread nitrogen.

He said the rain had also delivered the much-needed boost for pastures, with sheep feed looking particularly scarce last week.

“You can already see the difference to crops and pastures. This rain has been terrific,” Mr Scotney said.

At Lake Varley, Lynette and Peter Gittos, who farm with son Dennis and his wife Sandy, received 28mm on their property, which grows wheat, lupins, canola, barley and oats.

“This is not as much as many areas, but we were very happy,” Mrs Gittos said.

“Our crops were holding up well due to good early rains, but they were getting thirsty and this drink was very welcome.”

She said the season so far had been reminiscent of 2014. Although they had lower than average rainfall, its arrival was always timely and so the end result was good.

“This rain has put us back on track for an average year,” she said.

Mrs Gittos said as a result of these latest rains, the family planned to spread some more nitrogen on crops, although would take a cautious approach to application rates.

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