Frost puts dampener on record grain crop

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Frost-affected crops at Russell Inman's Manmanning property.
Camera IconFrost-affected crops at Russell Inman's Manmanning property. Credit: Russell Inman/Russell Inman

Widespread frosts have kicked WA grain farmers in the guts less than two months out from harvest, with the State’s likelihood of harvesting a record 20 million tonne grain crop now potentially at risk.

Temperatures plunged to as low as -5 near Westonia on Friday morning with crops in grain-growing areas from Yuna to Corrigin, and across to Esperance, affected.

The icy temperatures have prompted farmers throughout to check their crops for damage this week and has potentially taken the shine off what was hoped to be a bumper harvest.

Crops in a 50km radius of Westonia in the Eastern Wheatbelt were reportedly hit the hardest after being smashed by three days of sub-zero temperatures — between -5 and -1 — on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning.

Frosty pasture at Corrigin farmer Simon Wallwork.
Camera IconFrosty pasture at Corrigin farmer Simon Wallwork. Credit: Simon Wallwork

Farmers in many parts of the grain belt woke to icy conditions on Friday morning, with damage reported in areas less traditionally prone to frost including Yuna, Mullewa, and Dalwallinu, and other more frost-prone areas including Corrigin, Newdegate and Varley.

Grain Industry Association of WA forecast a 20.02 million tonne harvest last month but plans to revise its production estimates after the frost event, with the next estimate due on September 17.

GIWA’s Michael Lamond said the full extent of the damage would not be known until about two weeks — but some damage was immediately visible.

“Some damage didn’t take long to show up, which is not a good thing,” he said.

“There was a 50km radius around Westonia, which was the worst. But north and south, several hundreds of kilometres away, there was still frost.

“What is so devastating is that the crops were looking so good, and the severity in the Westonia area was quite unexpected.

“Historically, it is one of the worst events ever in that Westonia area, because you just don’t get to -5 traditionally anywhere.”

Frosted canola at Dusty Fry's Dalwallinu farm.
Camera IconFrosted canola at Dusty Fry's Dalwallinu farm. Credit: Dusty Fry

Mr Lamond said farmers — who would normally bale their worst frost-affected grain crops to sell for hay — had “limited options” this year.

Australia’s hay exports to China — which buys about a third of Australia’s 1.2 million tonnes of hay exports — have nearly ground to a halt over trade issues.

“There is limited opportunity around hay this year, so they can’t do much with frosted crops,” Mr Lamond said.

WA grain farmers were looking forward to a combination of high yields and high prices this year, with industry speculating growers could have binned a record 20 million tonne grain crop on the back of a good season.

Varley farmer Craig Newman said temperatures plunged to near zero at his farm but the full extent of damage at his property would not be evident until at least later this week.

“The seeds will stop growing and you will see the missing grains, and the top of the plant will stop growing or die,” he said.

“There were a few people affected in our area, but it was not just our area — a lot of people had issues. Our home lawn was toast.”

Frosted pasture at Newdegate farmer Graham Barrett-Lennard's farm.
Camera IconFrosted pasture at Newdegate farmer Graham Barrett-Lennard's farm. Credit: Graham Barrett-Lennard

Farmers took to Twitter to share pictures of frost-affected crops this week, with Corrigin farmer Simon Wallwork sharing his pictures of seeds in canola pods which were “showing some frost damage and pod surface”, with some frost scarring in a particularly low-lying area.

“Soil moisture is still good and still some flowers, so good opportunity for compensation,” he wrote.

Manmanning farmer Russell Inman woke to two days of -1 temperatures on Friday and Saturday, and estimates about half of his 3000ha cereal program has been damaged.

“The severity won’t be known for another week,” he said.

WAFarmers grains section president Mic Fels said farmers in CBH’s Esperance Port Zone had been affected “to a lesser extent” but most would check for damage later this week.

“I know of farmers affected from Cascade to Beaumont, so including Grass Patch, Salmon Gums and Wittenoom Hills,” he said.

“It got down to -1 on Friday and Saturday mornings. We have some frost damage here from last week and from about three weeks ago. There have been isolated frost events in recent weeks but this was the first widespread event this season.”

Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development also issued a reminder to growers, saying there were a range of tools available to help growers identify and manage frost-affected crops including its Season 2021 webpages.

DPIRD research scientist Ben Biddulph said the early season break and mild winter had brought forward crop development so crops in susceptible parts of the landscape in areas that typically experience frost may have been damaged.

He said early sown crops in low-lying areas and light-coloured soil types were most at risk and should be checked first.

“It is important for growers in affected areas to get into their crops and inspect plants for frost damage on heads, stems, flowers and developing grains over the coming weeks,” he said.

Growers are advised to wait until the full extent of frost damage is apparent before making crop management decisions.

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