Frost pegs back harvest estimates

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Jenne BrammerCountryman
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Frosts at the Grylls’ property at Corrigin, as temperatures reached minus 2 degrees
Camera IconFrosts at the Grylls’ property at Corrigin, as temperatures reached minus 2 degrees Credit: Countryman

Farmers will not know the true extent of cumulative frosts throughout August and September until harvest, but the damage is likely to wipe at least 700,000 tonnes from the State’s 2016 crop.

The Grains Industry Association of WA, in its October crop report released on Tuesday, downgraded its 2016 grain harvest forecast by 4.2 per cent compared to the previous month, to 16.88 million tonnes, as a result of the widespread frosts.

Farmers will not know the true extent of cumulative frosts throughout August and September until harvest, but the damage is likely to wipe at least 700,000 tonnes from WA’s 2016 crop.

The Grains Industry Association of WA, in its October crop report released on Tuesday, downgraded its 2016 grain harvest forecast by 4.2 per cent compared to the previous month, to 16.88 million tonnes, as a result of the widespread frosts.

CBH has also revised the upper end of its harvest estimate down from 17.6 million tonnes to 17 million tonnes. The downward revised forecasts mean industry commentators are now far less certain WA will smash the previous record of 17 million tonnes, achieved during 2013-14.

ConsultAg agronomist Garren Knell said the severity of the impact frosts have had on the State had possibly been underestimated.

“The loss of grain could easily be twice or three times what is currently being forecast,” he said.

He said in the particularly hard-hit south eastern areas, many farmers had lost around 40-50 per cent of their grain, with some losing over two thirds of wheat and barley.

The frosts have dealt a major blow to farmers who were previously on track for a good season after areas throughout the WA’s wheatbelt shivered through sub zero temperatures s on several occasions throughout August and September.

Mr Knell said although there had been plenty of frost events, the most severe were on September 17, 24, 26 and 29. In the areas that I cover in the southern areas, The Lakes District, Hyden, Bruce Rock, Corrigin and Narembeen were among the areas hardest hit most recently.

Bruce Rock farmer Leigh Strange, who farms with wife Deanne and parents Stephen and Karen said frosts would have had some impact across their full 3900ha cropping program, with paddocks ranging from ten per cent to upwards of 90 per cent damage.

He estimates the cumulative effect of between 17 - 25 frosts across the Bruce Rock district during August and September would have cost his own family’s cropping program several hundred thousand dollars, but said there are farmers in his area far worse affected.

“Yesterday I was looking at a 150ha paddock, we were on track to get yields of more than three tonnes/ha. I think it will probably do 200-300kg ha now,” Mr Strange said.

Mr Strange expects the full impact of the frosts across WA have not yet been realised.

“It’s going to be nasty. There are several factors that have lined up this year, unfortunately creating a perfect storm for farmers,” he said.

“Due to generous rains, it’s been the most expensive crop to grow in terms of weed control and nutrition throughout the year.

“On top of that, grain prices are sitting around decile two, so we needed that high yield to make a profit this year. To have the frosts come in and take those yields away will really hurt.”

Mr Strange said he would not be surprised if estimates that frosts would cost the 2016 harvest 700,000 tonnes would be exceeded - even double - as the true extent of damage came to light.

“Frosts have been wide spread, from north of Geraldton down to the South Coast. But where the extra grain was coming from this year was the eastern areas, such as east of Bruce Rock, Narembeen and Southern Cross. Yields typically fluctuate in these areas, but this year those farmers were on track for a good season. Those guys have really been smoked by the frosts.”

He said frost was possibly the worst outcome for a farmer.

“In a drought, we shut our wallets and stop investing in the crop half way through the season. But frosts sneak up on you and the potential loss is huge,” he said.

The Grylls family of Corrigin, endured a series of September frosts including two minus 2 degree nights, one four weeks ago and one last week.

Braden Grylls, who farms 5000ha with father Ken and brother Ashly, estimates the cumulative effect of those frosts had damaged around 250ha of the family’s wheat crop, 150ha of barley and 600ha of lupins. Most damage was caused by flower rather than stem frost, he said.

This week the family was cutting the damaged wheat for export hay. Braden Grylls said because they owned their own hay cutting and baling equipment, this was a viable way to retrieve a reasonable return from the damaged wheat crop.

For those who did not have their own equipment and so would require contractors, the costs of cutting and baling damaged wheat for hay would not be such a viable option.

He said the damaged barley - which was previously on track to produce 4t/ha, would be harvested and could still deliver around 1t/ha. The lupins, previously expected to produce 2t/ha would likely produce closer to 0.5t/ha.

He said crops that were not frost damaged were looking excellent following generous rainfall of 400mm throughout the season.

Mr Grylls said although farmers in his region were disappointed, they had become accustomed to frost risks during September and had taken measures to minimise the impact, including variety selection and planting resistant crops such as oats on the frost-vulnerable lower-lying areas.

“We get hit every year so we go into the season expecting there will be some impact,” he said. Overall this season has been good. Prior to the frosts it was shaping up as one of our best. But the frost and weak grain prices have had a big impact on what could of been.”

GIWA Crop Report author Alan Meldrum said although the frosts would mean less grain would be delivered this season, the State was still on track for a big harvest.

“While the frosts have had a big negative impact, the cool weather will also provide some benefits to crops,” he said.

“Evaporation has been low, enabling grain yield potential to be fulfilled by the remaining levels of soil moisture. Heat shock can severely limit grain yield and quality, and this is unlikely to have an impact this year based on the current weather pattern,” he said.

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