Tough is the word Lake Cargelligo grain grower and private consultant Andrew McFadyen is using to describe the current seasonal conditions across much of New South Wales’ grain growing regions.
He said reasonable rain was needed in the next three to four weeks to give winter crops a fighting chance after a dry summer and autumn.
“Grain growers are a resilient group, but the current situation is testing everyone in the agricultural sector, including regional communities,” Mr McFadyen said.
“In seasons like this, it is really important to remember we are all in this together and it’s always rained. It will turn around this time too.
“In the meantime, I believe we have to think outside the square, find ways to keep busy, create alternative incomes and reach out for help when we need it.”
Mr McFadyen is one of the 11-member Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Northern Region Panel, which provides grassroots advice and guidance to the organisation to guide investments in research, development and extension.
While he said the organisation couldn’t make it rain, the GRDC had resources that may help growers dealing with the dry, such as farm business management information, evaluating planting pros and cons in dry times and mental health resource links.
“Most panel members are involved in the grains industry either as growers or as farm advisers or researchers, so we know firsthand the challenges that come with a season like this one," Mr McFadyen said.
"We are also conscious that for many growers this is the second or third year they’ve struggled to get winter crop in.
“In the Lake Cargelligo region, the past 18 months have been incredibly dry, and we are now at a point where we need rain in the next three to four weeks to give winter crops a chance, or in some cases to get winter crops in the ground.
“It is a critical time and we feel for and can relate to the pressure growers are facing. I think it’s important to remember the season can turn around very quickly when it does rain and it has always rained.”
Further south, GRDC Northern Panel member Roy Hamilton, who owns a 4400 hectare mixed farming operation at Rand in the southern Riverina, said heavy rain in early May caused some soil issues and hampered the emergence of canola crops.
“We had 48 millimetres in one rainfall event in May and have had none since. This brings the total rainfall for the year to just 100mm, with many growers opting for ‘safer’ cereal crops, such as wheat and barley, over canola this season,” Mr Hamilton said.
“But the fact is all these crops need rain now and we haven’t had any follow up. We are also contending with a lot of damage from wildlife."
“The situation is similarly stressful for irrigators with the Hume and Burrinjuck dams at 15 percent and 29% respectively.”
Mr Hamilton said the second dry season in a row had prompted many grain growers to consider trying to get livestock back into the system to spread risk, but this was proving difficult due to stock prices and infrastructure issues.
“In the north and west of the Riverina, which was 80-90% cropping, this is now closer to 60-70% as growers try to get livestock back in their systems, so there are some significant changes going on as producers work out the best way to adjust to the climate challenges,” he said.
“Most landholders I know are working hard to take care of the environment as the dry conditions continue. So, I think it is also timely we remind them to take care of themselves and each other."
At Forbes, GRDC Northern Panel member Tony Hamilton said the season had been “very patchy” with reduced canola plantings, very little chickpea planted and some irrigation water available to carry over.
“Irrigators are definitely disillusioned. But the planting decision window could extend from mid-June to July if the price outlook is good and we get some rain,” Mr Hamilton said.
At Wyalong, grower and GRDC Northern Panel member Roger Bolte said it was a similar situation despite 70mm in late March giving growers hope for a great autumn start to the season.
“We had another 50mm in early May and that helped set up some growers across this area, but the conditions vary significantly through this region,” he said.
“The south-eastern area has fared well and most of the crop is in the ground and range from just planted to established, again into variable moisture levels.
“Wheat and barley are the main crops this season at the expense of canola and legumes. Canola could be back as much as 90% this year across this district. A small area of chickpeas and lupins will really round out what’s in the ground here.”
He said the northern eastern part of the Wyalong region had largely missed out on falls and was ‘patchy at best’, while in the south east towards Barellan growers had planted opportunistically where rain had fallen but other areas remained unsown.
Deja Vu feeling
In central western NSW, grain grower and GRDC Northern Panel member Bruce Watson has a “déjà vu” feeling that 2019 in the Parkes area could be a repeat of the 2018 season.
“We have missed out on most of the rainfall that was received in the Riverina and North West Slopes and planting here ranges from finished to not even started depending on who got under storms,” Mr Watson said.
“Subsoil moisture is generally less than it was this time last year and we have seen a strong emphasis on cereals with very little canola or grain legumes going in.
“Without significant rainfall in the next two to three weeks, there will probably be a significant proportion of long fallow through this region, especially west and north into the Trangie and Nyngan areas.
“There is also a trend of moving back into sheep with a renewed focus on grazing crops.”
Mr Watson said some growers in his region were entering their second year without a winter crop, which was virtually unheard of in country generally viewed as “safe”.
“Others have been dry sowing and the dust has been unbelievable. This is very hard on discs/tynes, bearings, seals, staff and emotions,” he said.
Limited subsoil moisture
Further north on the Liverpool Plains, agronomist Pete McKenzie said there was limited subsoil moisture and minimal winter planting.
“Some crops have been planted and emerged south of Coonamble and down to Gulargambone, which really is the best area west of the Newell to date,” he said.
“There has been some light rain of 25-50mm in the Walgett area, but these were pretty patchy and not enough to make much difference. West of Moree and Rowena, growers have been using planters to create ridges to stop wind blowing topsoil and they have added some seed.
“But the ‘golden triangle’ is only 10-20% planted and this has been on very long fallow paddocks or into recent fallows for ground cover only or really as a huge punt.”
Mr McKenzie said further cuts to groundwater allocations were also a risk, as water table levels dropped.
“This is the first time this has ever happened so these are challenging times and the planting window in this region is rapidly closing, so we need rain.
“I would say, at a conservative estimate just 15-20% of the region has been planted. This is a major concern after a disappointing summer crop. But I think the message I keep telling my growers and the wider industry is that we are all in this together, and if we look out for ourselves and each other we can get through this.”
GRDC will also be running a series of Drought Management Workshops throughout NSW in July and August.