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Sowing nears finish as need for rain becomes urgent

Liz Wells, May 20, 2024

Dry sowing this season has been an unusually dusty affair for many southern Australian growers, including the Schuster family at Freeling in SA’s Barossa Valley. Photo: Corbin Schuster

THE planting of Australia’s winter crop is racing towards an early finish, with prevailing dry conditions across much of southern Australia a major concern.

Sparking hope for the long-awaited break in the season are widespread falls of 5-25mm, and more in places, starting to pop on the forecast for the week to June 4, close to the outer limit of the ideal planting window.

While Queensland and central and northern New South Wales growers have generally had good rain in recent weeks to get their crops off to a flying start, much of South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia has been sown dry in the hope of the usual seasonal break arriving this month.

If soaking rain falls by the first week in June, above average yields will still be possible for the currently dry areas, but only if frost damage is minimal and spring conditions are favourable.

“Right now, the country is trapped in an extremely unusual and unpredictable weather system, with different states experiencing drastically different amounts of rainfall,” StoneX cash grain broker Stefan Meyer said in a statement.

“The persistent high-pressure system over the Great Australian Bight is pushing rain into northern NSW, meaning that no rain is falling in South Australia.

“At the same time, Western Australia is undergoing what I would characterise as a heatwave.

“As a result, we’ve seen a lot of dry sowing as farmers move ahead with planting winter crops despite a lack of moisture in the ground, and in the wetter regions, we’ve seen a bumper start for winter croppers and a challenging harvest for the summer croppers.”

Mr Meyer said WA, which normally produces around 10 million tonnes of wheat, is on track for a 4.5Mt harvest, while SA, which should produce around 5.5Mt, is currently looking like it will produce 4Mt.

“Kangaroo Island, which is normally an important grain exporter, is dry.”

Mr Meyer cited Narrogin in WA’s Wheatbelt as one location where the average maximum temperatures of the past week at 25 degrees Celsius are around 10 degrees above normal for this time of year.

“Victoria is hanging in the balance and needs (25-50mm) of rain within the next three weeks to be able to meet production needs.”

Australia’s dry conditions are starting to attract global attention as a follow-on from Russia’s..

“In terms of pricing, the wheat markets are rallying, mostly driven by dry conditions in Russia, which is a critical global supplier.

“Estimates for Russia’s wheat crops have been cut back to 88Mt, with some analysts predicting as low as 85Mt, driving up grain prices globally.

“Australia has followed suit, with global demand supporting an upward push of around $65/t over the last eight weeks, which is fairly well in line with Chicago wheat prices.”

2024-25 estimates Wheat Barley Canola
ACF 29.52 11.06 5.31
Lachstock 32.35 12.50 5.61
USDA 29.0 10.90 6.50

Table 1: Forecasts in million tonnes for Australia’s three major winter crops for the growing season now under way. The Australian Crop Forecasters estimate was issued May 14; Lachstock Consulting’s is current May 20, and USDA figures were released in its May WASDE.

In releasing its figures  today, Lachstock has said the wheat number is still on the higher side.

“We are waiting to see the rainfall totals between now and early June before re assessing if further cuts are required,” Lachstock stated.

A dry season in WA and northern NSW and southern Qld last year pulled down the national figure for all three major crops, which ABARE put at 25.95Mt for wheat, 10.8Mt for barley and 5.68Mt for wheat.

Planting of chickpeas in Qld and northern NSW will take place over the next two weeks in their ideal planting window, and in ideal conditions, and will complete the planting program for Australia’s northern winter crop.

Close to 90pc of southern Australia’s winter crop is now in the ground, but perhaps only one third to one half has had enough rain to allow it to germinate.

GPSA outlines state’s situation

Results released today by Grain Producers SA from its Seeding and Season Outlook Survey indicate more than 60 percent of SA growers started seeding in April or earlier, dry sowing before the season’s break.

Undertaken in April and May, the survey of almost 120 grain producers showed almost 30pc were still waiting for rain before starting their seeding program.

GPSA chief executive officer Brad Perry said the lack of rain to kick-start the season has meant tough decisions on cropping programs have already been made by some grain producers.

“With 83pc of grain producers indicating they were seeding into dry soil and only 3pc sowing into wet soil, growers need a saturating rain to get germination under way in most cropping regions,” Mr Perry said.

“From the feedback in the survey, it appears that in many rotations plans to plant canola have been scaled back due to the lack of starting rain and the late timing of the season.”

Seeding on the weekend at Freeling in the Barossa Valley. Photo: Corbin Schuster

Mr Perry said the past decade has seen late breaks arrive in June.

“Grain producers are optimistic about that much needed moisture coming soon.”

The survey also found:

  • 61pc of producers started seeding in April or earlier;
  • Grower confidence in the season ahead averages six out of 10;
  • 73pc of grain producers are changing crop rotations this year, predominantly due to the dry conditions, and are putting in more crop because they have less livestock;
  • 77pc of growers are not planting more barley, despite the removal of China tariffs, while 18pc are planting more, and 2pc indicated they will increase barley area next season;
  • 16pc of growers are planting GM canola in 2024 and have previously, 11pc are planting GM canola for the first time this season, and 24pc are interested in doing so in future.

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