Yield loss due to frost is a major issue in WA, with the costs estimated at up to $400 million annually. As part of the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development’s (DPIRD) approach to frost education, a frost study tour of SA and Victoria took place in September 2022.
Originally conceptualised by DPIRD senior frost researcher Dr Ben Biddulph, the tour was led by DPIRD researchers Dr Brenton Leske and Dr Amanuel Bekuma, in collaboration with the Grower Group Alliance (GGA) and with GRDC support.
Fourteen WA growers from three grower groups located in the central wheatbelt, Great Southern and Esperance regions began their study tour in Adelaide on 6 September. With them were DPIRD’s Dr Leske and Dr Bekuma, along with two GGA staff and a member of the GRDC Western Panel.
“It is always helpful to have a look outside of your own patch to see what other growers around Australia are doing, to see if there’s any learnings or ideas there, or networks to be developed,” Dr Leske says.
From Adelaide, the study tour made its way across SA’s Mid North and Mallee, and Victoria’s Mallee and Wimmera regions, departing from Melbourne on 9 September.
They learned about the latest frost research during visits to the University of Adelaide, the Frost Learning Centre at Clare in SA and the main Birchip Cropping Group trial site. They also met Kenton Porker, formerly from Field Applied Research (FAR). FAR is the lead research organisation for the latest national frost project.
They also met fellow growers across these regions, learning how these growers manage frost risk in their business. This included the Mitchell family at Farrell Flat, SA, Jock McNeil at Paruna, SA, Wade and Chad Nicholls at Pinnaroo, SA, Mick Pole at Walpeup, Victoria, and Adam Campbell at Corack, Victoria. There were also chances to network at two formal grower dinners held during the tour.
An invaluable experience
Facey Group president Geoff Poultney, who is a grain grower and Merino farmer located 40 kilometres east of Pingelly, WA, saw the study tour as a great opportunity to visit farming areas he had not seen before.
“Even though I know there is no silver bullet to prevent frost, I saw it as a chance to see and learn what tactics our eastern cousins are using,” Mr Poultney says.
“As expected, I learned there are definitely no silver bullets, but instead that it’s important to be honest with yourself and know which areas of your farm are at the most risk of frost and manage them accordingly. The big takeaway is that there is no cure for frost in the short term, so it is up to each farmer to manage their own risk the best they can.”
Mr Poultney noted that frost tended to a bit easier to prepare for in the areas they visited, as the growers they met on the tour reported more-frequent, and therefore more-predictable, frost events.
“The thing that stuck in my mind the most is that the farmers know they are going to get frosted every year on their red zones, because on average they have two minus 4˚C frost events every year during flowering. So these areas are always cut for hay. Whereas, here, we average a minus 4˚C event every five years, so we tend to roll the dice a bit more. It can mean major financial and emotional stress.”
He also noted how the consistent domestic demand for hay provided an extra element of security. “The growers said that they know somewhere in Queensland always has a drought every second year, so they have storage sheds for hay that they know will sell. So I feel their decisions on frost management tend to be easier.”
Mr Poultney found that there were many things to enjoy and learn on the study tour.
“It was an extremely well-organised tour, and it was great to see different country. Talking to eastern state farmers was invaluable. The company was outstanding – everyone got on so well. I particularly enjoyed seeing the hyper-yielding site at Inverleigh,” he says.
Like Mr Poultney, Dr Leske feels that the biggest takeaway from the study tour is that, due to a strong domestic hay market, Victorian and SA growers have more back-up options for when a crop becomes frost-damaged.
“Frost is quite a big concern for growers in WA, and a big reason for that became apparent on the tour: the lack of salvage options,” says Dr Leske.
These alternative options mean that SA and Victorian growers have a different approach to frost risk management, the study tour showed. A lot of the growers are able to still put high inputs on crops at risk of lower levels of frosting in order to achieve greater biomass and grain yield as, if the grain falls through, there are still opportunities to earn back on those inputs by making hay instead.
While WA does have hay markets, Dr Leske says, the domestic market is small and at capacity. There is also an export market, but it also has limited capacity and frost-damaged hay rarely meets the quality standard for export.
“Unfortunately, one of the big issues is just the much-smaller population in WA compared to areas near Melbourne and Sydney. The domestic demand for things like dairy is high there, so it drives the demand for hay,” he says.
This means there is no quick fix, Dr Leske says. It will require change on an industry level to find other value-adding options that provide WA growers with a back-up plan. “One option that I have been seeing at the GRDC Updates is that there are companies who are looking into using stubble residue to produce hydrogen energy. So there could be some potential opportunities appearing already.”
The frost study tour allowed growers to learn more about frost risk, grow networks to share ideas, and provide their insights on frost research and what new areas of research should be considered.
Dr Leske feels the study tour was a valuable experience and would be worth running again if there is enough interest. “We are keen to have a reciprocal tour where SA and Victorian growers come to WA to meet our growers and learn from them.”