Not wet for everyone

Jo FulwoodCountryman
Yuna farmer Kim Batten in a crop of Magenta wheat sown in late April.
Camera IconYuna farmer Kim Batten in a crop of Magenta wheat sown in late April. Credit: Countryman

While early season conditions across much of the central Wheatbelt have been next to perfect this year, not all farmers are jumping for joy, particularly those in the far north-east of the grain-growing areas.

Kim Batten, who farms 35km north-east of Yuna, has received only 21mm in May and 31mm in April on the back on very little summer rainfall.

This is in stark contrast to the exceptionally wet start across much of the Wheatbelt, Great Southern and south coastal areas.

Mr Batten, who farms with his wife Jasmine, and brother and sister-in-law Jason and Nicole, said the business had reduced its cropping program for the year as a result of the drier start to the season.

Batten Farms usually plants around 5000ha of wheat, with canola and lupins planted opportunistically, but Mr Batten said with just 14mm of summer rainfall, compared to 270mm last year, the sub soil was too dry to put in this year’s total program.

“At the end of April parts of the farm received enough rainfall to begin planting a few paddocks of lupins which then flowed through to seeding of Magenta and Mace wheat,” he said.

“We were able to get about half the program into wet soil before a 22-day dry spell held us up, and the germinated crops went into survival mode with very little growth.”

But he said a wet week in mid-May put the season back on track, and the business finished up with 80 per cent of the planned program in the ground.

“The crops have now all germinated with those early plantings looking good and recovering really well,” he said.

“But with very little stored moisture we are in need of a large rainfall event to make this season anything near average or better.

“Hopefully that will be the only dry spell we see in 2016 and this far northern area can consolidate on the back of a good 2015 harvest.”

Brendan and Hugh Rowe, who farm at Wongoondy, between Mingenew and Mullewa, have experienced a similar start to the season, with only 15.5mm received in May and 35mm for April.

According to Brendon Rowe, despite the lack of opening season rain, most of this year’s crop had already germinated, and the canola and lupins crop were looking good.

“We cut back about 600ha on wheat because of the lack of summer rain and lack of opening season rain,” he said.

The Rowes have planted 1600ha canola, 360ha lupins, and 8500ha wheat. They will now spray the remaining 600ha to fallow.

“The crops still look really good after the 12-25mm we received last week, but it’s the lack of summer rain, and the lack of sub soil moisture that’s the problem and it won’t be long before the crops are looking for another drink,” Mr Rowe said.

“I think we would be about 50mm down on average for this time of year.”

But Mr Rowe said he was not overly concerned about the season at this stage.

“There is still plenty of opportunity to get a rain yet, and once the crop is out of the ground up here, we are half way there,” he said.

“Most of the crop went into moisture, it was just the last 3000ha that went in dry, which was all wheat, and all of this has germinated.”

Farmanco consultant Bill Campbell, who is based in Geraldton, said although some areas around the Geraldton zone had received rainfall in the past 10 days, others were still waiting for decent opening falls.

“The big difference with the northern areas is that many farms there didn’t receive any summer rainfall at all, meaning there was no subsoil moisture at the start of seeding,” he said.

“The immediate area around Geraldton isn’t too bad, but when you go north, up towards Northampton, east to Yuna and north of Mullewa, they have only had between 20-30mm in the last month or so.”

Mr Campbell said many farmers like the Battens in these north-eastern parts had reduced their cropping programs as a result of the lack of good opening season rains.

“Last season we started well up here, with good early rains, but then had a dry period in the middle of the year, and really didn’t end up with enough finishing rains,” he said.

“We were probably 20-40mm off having a good season.”

But he said it was still too early in the season to be concerned.

“Most farmers in these dryer areas have at least put some crops into moisture, from rain received in isolated thunderstorms, and the rest of the programs have gone in dry.

“The crops that are established are looking fantastic at this stage but they do need a good rain on them soon.

“There is definitely more country in fallow this year in this areas, but this isn’t uncommon. Farmers in these areas have very good risk management tools in place simply because of where they farm.”

Meanwhile, farmers south of Kojonup are booking aerial spray contractors because the paddocks are too wet to get onto with tractors.

Evergreen Grazing Company cropping manager Will Robinson said the property had received 210mm since Easter.

“We can’t get on the paddocks at the moment, so we have booked a helicopter to do about 500ha of the canola spraying,” he said.

“Hopefully with the predicted fine week ahead it will give the paddocks time to dry out so I can do the rest myself.”

Mr Robinson said he had only been in Kojonup for seven months, and prior to his move, was managing the cropping program for a farming enterprise at Lake King.

“It’s been a massive change in terms of rainfall. I remember we did receive 200mm at harvest one time while I was in Lake King, which wasn’t helpful either, but certainly not this amount of rain at the start of the season,” he said.

Mr Robinson said he was concerned about water logging in numerous patches across the farm.

“We put the last of the wheat in just before the big rain two weekends ago, and so we’ll wait to see if we have any problems with that germinating,” he said.

“I can’t remember how many times we’ve been bogged so far this seeding, it’s very very wet.”

In Hopetoun, Stott Redman said despite a difficult and very wet start to seeding after receiving more than 130mm in March and April, the crops were well established and looking good.

Mr Redman said a wet finish to 2015, followed by rain in January and February, had meant a full sub soil moisture profile, and areas of ponding in the paddocks.

“Since we are tramline farmers, we were having to turn in the middle of paddocks to get around ponds of water that hadn’t drained, so we had a lot of trouble early on with bogged seeders and sprayers,” he said.

“It was generally very difficult to put the crop in the ground this year, but on the flip side, it’s now out of the ground and looking fantastic, which is unusual given the water that has accumulated into ponds in the paddocks.”

Mr Redman said the promise of a fine windy week ahead would be good drying weather for the crops.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails