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Frost freezes bumper crops in West Australian Wheatbelt

Thursday September 9, 2021 - 05:37 EST
ABC image
Temperatures below zero were experienced at Miling West.  - ABC

Extensive frost damage in Western Australia's Wheatbelt has dashed some farmers' hopes of one of their best grain harvests on record. 

Temperatures dropped below freezing for several hours in grain-growing regions late last week, and damage is already evident in some crops. 

WA farmers were expected to harvest a 20 million tonne grain crop this year, the biggest in the state's history. 

Michael Lamond is a York-based agronomist and collates the state's monthly crop report. 

He said while the worst of the frost damage was in the north and east Merredin region, damage across the state had been widespread, from as far north as Yuna to south of the Great Eastern Highway. 

"In area it's large. The really severe area is not huge, but it's still probably a million hectares," he said. 

Mr Lamond said it was too early to predict how many tonnes of grain potential had been lost. 

"My first impression is it's probably not as bad as 2016 when we lost two million tonnes," he said. 

"It's hard to know. We still don't know the full extent of the frost and we won't know that for a little while yet."

The enthusiasm is gone

Bencubbin farmer Nick Gillett said on his farm the temperature dropped to ?4.2 degrees Celsius at its worst and remained below zero degrees for nine and a half hours. 

"There's definitely a lot (of damage) showing up," he said. 

"In more advanced crops it's more noticeable, but the ones that are still coming out of the boot will take a bit more time to show up.

"Some of the barley in the area it was flowering, those paddocks have gone completely white within a few days." 

Mr Gillett said it was difficult to estimate the extent of the damage, but at this stage, he estimated around half of his crops had been impacted. 

"It's a hard one to call. I know we've had visibly really knocked around crops before and sometimes you may get a surprise at harvest time, and then other crops you think might be OK might only go half a tonne," he said. 

"It's going to be a fingers-crossed approach to harvest I think and unfortunately the enthusiasm has gone. 

"The season was tapering off a little bit with lack of rainfall ... but things were looking super impressive, probably the best I'd seen it."

Mr Gillett said it was a blow for farmers in the region who had been enjoying the good season but had also spent more on crops to extend them to their grain-producing potential. 

"This year with the higher costs, three summer sprays and the effort involved and the potential high grain prices on offer, it is going to make things feel a lot worse," he said. 

"Definitely from what I've heard some of the younger guys are really struggling with it." 

Wheat a chance of recovery

Agronomist Michael Lamond said while frost-damaged barley, lupins and canola crops were unlikely to recover from frost damage, wheat could recover if there were mild temperatures and moisture available. 

"It changes its growth habit nearly overnight, its ability to recover it just incredible," he said. 

"Wheat for example that has been severely stem frosted, it's trying to accumulate all those sugars for the head and now there is no head to fill, so it cleverly changes and moves those sugars and that carbohydrate down to the root zone.

"It looks for where it can put those nutrients, so it's looking for heads that might have survived the stem frost, or late tillers, or also put up more tillers. It's got an incredible ability to adapt and compensate." 

Hay market warning

While some farmers will consider cutting frost impacted crops for hay, hay companies have warned the cost of making the hay may outweigh any return. 

Andrew Bolt from Hay Australia said while his company mainly focussed on export markets, it was clear the WA domestic hay market was soft. 

He said in previous years hay from WA had been shipped to markets in the eastern states, however, this was not an option this year. 

He encouraged farmers considering cutting a frosted crop for hay to do the numbers, and ensure they had a market for their hay before cutting. 

"If you haven't grown or made hay previously, you'll probably want to bounce that idea off a number of people," he said. 

"You've got to think about your storage and your market, there are some significant costs which are incurred once you go and make hay in the cutting the baling and the transporting," he said.  


© ABC 2021

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