Rain remains season saviour

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

The bulk of WA's grain belt is staring down the barrel of crop yields of less than 1.5 tonnes a hectare as rain continues to elude much of WA's southern agricultural region.

And the outlook for the next three months indicates drier than average conditions in many parts.

Department of Agriculture and Food WA's (DAFWA) latest growing season outlook, released this week, indicates crop prospects are below average for northern and eastern Wheatbelt shires but above average for south-western and south-eastern parts of the Wheatbelt.

Department practices and systems innovation manager David Bowran said about 60 per cent of the State's major grain producing areas would struggle to produce crop yields of 1.5 tonnes/ha this year.

"These crops were late sown, late to emerge and are growing in areas that have had winter growing season rainfall in a decile of 1-3," Dr Bowran said.

"They will really struggle to reach long-term average yields in some shires."

CBH grains operation manager Max Johnson said WA's crop harvest forecast remained unchanged at between 9 and 11 million tonnes but a continued lack of penetration of good rains into many Wheatbelt areas meant this was now likely to be at the lower end of that range and possibly about 10 million tonnes.

But he said there was a lot of potential upside, especially in areas of the Great Southern and south of Great Eastern Highway, and good finishing rains could result in an 11 million tonne harvest by WA grain producers.

"The crops are very late, with crops in most areas probably at the stage they would usually be in mid-July - but there is a long way to go," he said.

"There is a lot of potential but the calendar is against us."

Dr Bowran said the worst-affected grain producing areas of the State were in a band stretching along the eastern edge of the Yilgarn Shire to Mullewa, taking in the outer eastern regions of Mt Marshall, Dalwallinu, Perenjori and Morawa shires.

Yields along this strip were predicted to possibly be in the lowest 5 per cent of shire wheat yields and in some pockets could fail to reach 1t/ha.

DAFWA's season outlook showed that even with average rainfall for the remainder of the season, crop yields in parts of the central and north-eastern Wheatbelt - including Northampton, Mingenew, Carnamah-Coorow and Wyalkatchem-Koorda - could be in the lowest 10-30 per cent of years.

Dr Bowran said areas along the South Coast had received consistent rain during winter and grain production was likely to be higher than average due to better soil moisture reserves.

Crops in the Esperance Shire have been predicted to yield 1.5-2.5t/ha and north of Albany, through the Plantagenet, Cranbrook, Kojonup, Boyup Brook and Woodanilling shires, crops could yield 2.5-3.5t/ha. These crops were likely to be some of the highest yielding in the State, according to the DAFWA modelling.

Parts of the South West and South Coastal districts picked up more rain over the past week, with Albany receiving 30mm, Boyanup 40mm and Esperance 17mm.

Across the Mid West, Nabawa recorded 5mm in the gauge for the week to Tuesday, Mingenew 7mm, Mullewa 2mm, Carnamah 8mm and Eneabba 13mm.

Further south and into the Wheatbelt, Williams recorded 19mm for the week, Kellerberrin 13mm, Wongan Hills 11mm, Merredin 8mm, Brookton 15mm and Lake Grace 12mm.

Dr Bowran said DAFWA's seasonal forecasting indicated the chances of above-average median rainfall for August to October were low in eastern, central and northern Wheatbelt areas.

He said the chances of wetter than average conditions were higher in the south-west corner.

Climate modelling also points to higher than average temperatures across much of WA in the next three months.

Dr Bowran said growing season rainfall across a lot of the Wheatbelt had been below decile 5 for much of winter and that trend was expected to continue.

He said that unfortunately for farmers, WA's weather conditions this winter had been characterised by weaker cloud band activity, weaker than normal frontal activity and a failure for low pressure systems from Antarctica to connect with tropical cloud bands from the north over WA.

"Price is the only slight advantage we have this year compared with 2010, when prices and crop yields were low," Dr Bowran said.

Wheat prices at around $330/t are now up more than 50 per cent compared with the lows last year, driven by worsening drought conditions in the US and across the grain belts of Russia.

Canola prices are trading around $580-$590 and other grain commodity prices continue to strengthen.

Australian Association of Agricultural Consultants president Shane Sander said production outweighed price and farmers would rather sell higher tonnages.

Mr Sander said that for some parts of the Wheatbelt, 1.5t/ha crops were higher than long-term averages but on the whole, the industry was nervous about how the season would finish.

"It is a tough season and it is on a knife edge," he said.

"Farm incomes are likely to be lower this year on the whole but we won't know until the end of the season how things will go for individuals.

"But, in saying that, the season could turn around if we have a mild spring and average finishing rainfall."

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