Most grain growers in WA are harvesting bumper crops, but that’s not the case along WA’s south coast where farmers face drying dams, are selling off or handfeeding sheep, and are getting barely half their normal cropping yields.
Rural Financial Counselling Service of WA counsellor Andrew Grist said many growers around the Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun areas, through to Jerramungup and Albany, were reporting the driest season in more than 50 years. In some areas it was the driest on record.
At West River, near Ravensthorpe, the Duncan family received just 168mm of rain during the growing season from April to October, and 240mm for the year to date, compared with 370mm in an average year.
Twenty kilometres south of the Duncans, Peter Kuiper had 260mm this year, compared with an annual average of 420mm.
Jodi Duncan, who farms with brother Rian and his wife Karryn, said because of a lack of germinated pastures for feed, they sold 2000 sheep they would normally have kept, leaving 7500.
Ms Duncan said they also handfed remaining sheep for most of the year, so far totalling about 300 tonnes of grain, worth about $90,000 at current prices.
“Our biggest problem is that the dams are running dry — which is a major concern across the district,” Ms Duncan said.
“About 10 of our 60 dams have no water, which will have a big impact on the parts of the farm we can run sheep on.
“It may force us to sell more livestock.”
Mr Kuiper said his property had a similar problem, with the house dam being the lowest in water since it was built in the 1970s. Ms Duncan said recent thunderstorms had not been enough to fill dams, doing little other than delaying harvest and germinating summer weeds, which means costly spraying.
She said a decent rain in October was a godsend for reviving crops but yields for canola, at 0.38 tonnes a hectare, were still only 40 per cent of a normal year. Barley yields were 1.5 tonnes/ha, compared with about 2.4 tonnes/ha in other seasons.
Mr Kuiper’s yields for canola are about half the recent average of 1.5 tonnes/ha, while barley is 2.3 tonnes/ha compared with an average 3.2 tonnes/ha.
Frosts in September had also affected yields, he said.
Also affecting operations were six severe wind events of more than 80km/h in May, causing wind erosion and requiring hundreds of hectares to be reseeded.
Ms Duncan said strong wool and grain prices would help to offset the low production levels.
“We try to keep this year in perspective by reminding ourselves that 2018 followed six above-average years for our property,” she said.
“Our cropping results this year, considering these conditions, also demonstrate how far farming has come. In 2002 we also had an exceptionally dry year, with similar rainfall, but grain yields then were about half of what we are getting now.
“This shows how new grain varieties and practices such as summer weed spraying (to preserve soil moisture) and early dry sowing have really helped advance farming practices.”