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Early sowing gamble pays off

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Cally DupeThe West Australian
Zac Grima and his daughter Heidi Grima at their Mullewa property, where oats have shooted just a week after being planted.
Camera IconZac Grima and his daughter Heidi Grima at their Mullewa property, where oats have shooted just a week after being planted. Credit: Justine Rowe

Crops are off to an unexpectedly quick start in the northern grain belt, with oats out of the ground just a week after being planted.

After a soggy February but dry March and April, Mullewa farmer Zac Grima’s optimism was starting to falter when he started seeding oats on Anzac Day. It had been nine weeks since his farm’s last rain event on March 10 and the land east of Mullewa was dusty and dry.

But he was pleasantly surprised to find the plants shot out of the ground within days.

Generous summer rainfall of more than 200mm ensured there was moisture within the soil profile, Mr Grima estimated at 30mm, to help the crops along.

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“We thought we were dry seeding,” he said.

“But the amazing thing is these crops are coming up day by day ... I certainly didn’t expect to be hitting moisture.”

The Grimas will crop 5000ha this year comprising of 300ha of lupins, 200ha of oats and 4500ha of wheat.

With all of the oats now in the ground, Mr Grima was about half way through his lupins and preparing to start wheat this week.

It’s new territory for the farmer with this year’s cropping program already featuring the “driest seeding” he had ever done.

“It’s been a dry spell, if we didn’t have that 200mm in February right now I don’t think I would’ve put in anything at all,” Mr Grima said.

“I think knowing we had that summer rain is the one thing keeping farmers optimistic.

“This is our driest seeding, as far as rainfall events, I can’t remember it ever being 10 weeks and no rain in March or April.”

Across the State, Grains Industry of WA expects canola plantings to be about 20 per cent up, at the expense of wheat as global prices falter.

The Grima family took on another 1000ha this year and slashed oat plantings from 700ha to 200ha because of low prices.

They will also swing lupins into the cropping program for the second time in 10 years.

Mr Grima said over-the-fence chatter in the Geraldton Port Zone often centred around the area’s changing conditions.

“Since 2000, the seasons, according to the older blokes have just got drier and hotter,” he said. “It’s almost the norm to me, we get more summer rain and less winter rain.

“We seed almost six to seven weeks earlier now compared to six years ago.”

Back then, the Grimas’ cut-off date for seeding was June 20. It has now moved forward to May 20 to capture lingering subsoil moisture and winter rains.

“We brought everything forward to try to give the crop the best finish in wetter months ... the chance of rain in September is now pretty slim,” Mr Grima said.

“Last year we didn’t have much rain but it was much closer to seeding.

“We aren’t desperate but we would like to see some rain.”

Harvest kicks off early in November and wraps up in the middle of December.

“We don’t get affected by damp nights or mornings so we get through harvest pretty quick,” Mr Grima said.

Solid yields last harvest have left behind thick cereal stubbles and a new challenge to manage without windrow burning.

But February’s rainfall also created a new income stream for the family, which took on contract spraying for the first time.

“February was extremely hectic ... we did 4000ha of contract spraying in Mullewa which is not something we have done before,” Mr Grima said.

“At the start of February the west side of Mullewa got 50mm, so we started contracting, and suddenly we got 100mm at our place so it was very busy.”

With wheat yields of 1.8 tonnes/ha and oat yields of 2t/ha last season, the Grimas hope to harvest solid yields of 2t/ha later this year.

The family lost 500 tonnes of wheat to frost last harvest with the weather event also slashing their lupin output to 0.8t/ha.

But things were running smoothly this week, and Mr Grima was feeling optimistic about the week ahead.

“We are having a stellar run, machinery wise ... we have had no issues,” he said.

“The crop is coming up and fairly evenly ... all we really need is some rain and the wheat price to get up to over $300/kg.

“That’s what really makes the difference.”

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