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Rice bowl becomes corn country as irrigators in southern New South Wales battle low water allocations

Cara Jeffery, Tuesday March 19, 2019 - 18:22 EDT
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The Andreazzas are growing maize on their property at Willbriggie in southern NSW for the fist time this year. - ABC

The Riverina rice bowl in southern New South Wales is looking more like corn country this season.

Normally at this time of year rice headers would be rigged up and raring to go for harvest, but this year first-time corn growers are looking for suitable header fronts to strip their corn crops.

The change in crop choice from rice to corn (also referred to as maize) was made by many growers this summer due to low or no general security water allocations.

NSW Farmers of the Year, Glen and Julie Andreazza, who farm at Willbriggie near Griffith, are among those growing corn for the first time.

"This is the first time in the 36 years since I left school that I haven't grown rice and it's purely because of water availability and price," Mr Andreazza said.

"I argued with my son, who is an accountant, the case to grow rice but he ran the numbers and just said 'Dad, you can't grow rice, it just doesn't stack up'.

"We tossed around whether to grow sorghum or cotton and corn came out on top; it was a very heavy-hearted decision for me not to grow rice."

The Murrumbidgee Valley, where the Andreazza family farms, has a 7 per cent general security water allocation and the temporary price for water is trading around $500 a megalitre.

"With the price of water at the moment, it's probably not feasible to grow much, and it was tough to decide whether to sell the water or use it to grow crops," Mr Andreazza said.

"But growing a crop helps with your mental stability, it's actually pleasing to walk around something that is growing, it makes you feel better. I don't like looking at bare paddocks."

To ensure they can continue to farm under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and with reduced water allocations and drought, the Andreazzas developed a water portfolio that includes a mix of bore water, high security water, and general security water.

They also recycle water in their cropping program.

"All the water that comes onto the farm stays on the farm and is reused — it's just so precious," Mr Andreazza said.

"We've had to do more with less water; we've just had to adapt."

Getting the numbers to stack up

Chris Morshead also planted corn for the first time on his property at Widgelli near Griffith.

His cropping program is based on "whatever makes the most money".

Mr Morshead will harvest the corn crop in the next week and was keen to see its value.

"Looking at it now, I don't think it will yield anything spectacular, it's just been too hot this summer with too many days above 46 degrees," he said.

"But hopefully I am pleasantly surprised when I get the header in the paddock.

"I'll need to yield 12 to 14 tonnes a hectare for the numbers to stack up."

Mr Morshead was able to plant 130 hectares of rice and 260 hectares of cotton, but was keen to trial corn and sunflowers this season.

"We are trying to get a bigger spread in our summer crop armoury," he said.

"It doesn't matter how much water it uses, it's about the return per megalitre."

Corn more water efficient, says grower

Maize Association of Australia chair Bernie Walsh from Leeton is not a newcomer to growing corn.

He swapped out rice for corn more than 30 years ago as he found it more water efficient and better suited to the soil on his property.

Mr Walsh said water use was dependent on the variety of corn but ranged from five to 10 megalitres a hectare with yields of 16 tonnes a hectare now common.

"I think more maize [corn] will be grown in Australia for its water efficiencies and high-end yields," he said.

"And the price is good at the moment at about $400 to $420 a tonne."

He was not concerned there would be an oversupply as there was strong demand domestically for corn for stockfeed and human consumption.

"If water becomes a lot cheaper and the price stays where it is there could be a glut, but I can't see that happening," he said.

Near future not looking bright for rice

In the Murray Valley region, in the southern Riverina, general security water allocation remains at 0 per cent.

Deniliquin agronomist Adam Dellwo said this season only one of his farmers had grown rice.

"Last year I had 30 growers putting in rice, so this is a monumental step backwards," Mr Dellwo said.

"Zero water allocation didn't allow for many growers to have the confidence to plant very much summer crop at all," he said.

Mr Dellwo said some growers were able to grow reduced crops of corn, cotton, sorghum and lucerne from bore water allocations.

He said it was a very difficult time for farmers in the Murray Valley as water allocations had not improved in time for their autumn planting.

"For many farmers, it's the first time in a long time they haven't planted a rice crop and now moving onto their winter cropping program is going to be very difficult as they are still sitting on zero water allocation," he said.

Last year around 600,000 tonnes of rice was grown in the Riverina, while SunRice has forecast the 2019 crop to be the second smallest recorded since the millennium drought in 2003 when 400,000 tonnes of rice was delivered.

In due to low water availability and high water prices.

The company reconfigured its milling, packaging and warehouse operations to prepare for the reduced rice crop that will be delivered in the coming weeks.

As for next summer, the Andreazza family is hopeful rice will be back on the agenda.

"I still drive past rice paddocks now and say it will be back, it will definitely be back. It's in my heart," Mr Andreazza said.


© ABC 2019

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