HOPING FOR GREENER PADDOCKS: With last season’s grain crop being poor in the northern Mallee and Millewa, farmers are praying for good rainfall this year in the hope that they will see a return to greener paddocks and decent yields.

By JOHN DOOLEY

TO describe last year’s grain season as ‘challenging’ would be an understatement for most farmers in the northern Mallee and Millewa who have suffered a prolonged drought, patchy crops and, in some instances, successive season failures.

However, despite that bad news, there have been some brighter patches where Mallee growers had exceptional results the further south you went – all-in-all it was a mixed bag.

Mallee Sustainable Farming (MSF) chairman and grain grower Daniel Linklater said areas in the southern Mallee had crops which ranged from excellent to best-ever in places.

“Whereas the northern Mallee pretty much north of Ouyen the situation became worse and worse and the same applied in northern Mallee in South Australia,” he said.

“For farmers in that region it was an extremely poor season. However, in the context of how much rain people actually got, there were some surprisingly good results, where people actually did grow some grain – so that was good.”

Mr Linklater related his personal experience of the season’s outcome on his family’s grain property, situated at the back of Trentham Cliffs, which produced mixed results.

“We had a poor season, but again, in the context of 75mm of rain, we’ve got no complaints, because we probably harvested 90 percent of what we sowed, which was a big improvement on the previous year,” he said.

“The yields were a mixed-bag and some individual paddocks produced some exceptional results, because they may have received an extra shower of rain, which made a difference. Nonetheless, what we measured in rain gauges was only 75mm for the growing season. (The average for the region is in excess of 250mm).

“One of the standout results was probably the oat and hay crops for whatever reason they seemed to have had a better germination and were stronger right from the start – so that was a pleasing result. Our pulse program performed reasonably well, particularly the lentils, which out performed the chick peas this year.

“I think the reason for that is related to shallower sowing depth, and they were able to get established on some of the limited rain we had at the start of the season, whereas the chickpeas took two or three rain events to germinate.”

MAKING A POINT

Mr Linklater made the point that when people talk about climate change and the need for society to adapt to the conditions being experienced, farmers have actually been doing this for decades, hence why they can grow a crop on less than half the average rainfall.

“Farmers have been dealing with extremes in the climate for decades and changing their practices to adapt to the changing conditions,” he said. “They’ve been changing what they do for a long time now, and they’re ahead of the curve– they’ve made changes to cope with dryer seasons, and it’s paying dividends.

“You can see those changes at play now. Where limited rainfall would have once meant no crop, now farmers are getting a crop on well below average rainfall.”

Mr Linklater said the research and the efforts and improvements that have been made over the last 20 years or more in the agriculture sector, particularly by MSF in regard to sustainability in the grain industry, is paying dividends,which has been demonstrated during this prolonged drought.

“It’s a pretty harsh test to demonstrate it, but where farming practices have adapted, we are seeing tremendous results,” he said.

“If you compare it to the extreme low rainfall of the 1982 drought, where people in some circumstances produced nothing, to those in a similar situation now who have produced something, that’s directly related to improved farming practices and better plant breeding.

“The farming systems are so important, crop rotation being one example which is an important factor. To have any chance in years like this, you have to have the most resilient plants possible early on, and in our farm’s case, by having the pulses in the rotation, it does add that extra nutrition to the soil to help germination and to help those plants grow more quickly and strongly.”

Mr Linklater’s concerns for the forthcoming season is the lack of top soil on some properties, something Mildura residents would appreciate, having seen some much of it blow through the region in recent months.

“One of the challenges I see for this coming season where people have suffered so much loss of top soil, is just how they are going to be able to get crops established,” he said.

“It’s hard enough as it is, and then when the wind comes along it tends to whip plants off on the sand hills, and so where there is zero ground cover, it will be a big challenge.”

On a brighter note, Mr Linklater said that there is a positive amongst some of the gloom.

“One of the good news stories of the last very testing and challenging year, is even where people may not have produced an economic return in terms of grain yields, they have achieved ground-cover and that is so important,” he said.

“Apart from preventing erosion, ground-cover allows more moisture into the soil when it rains, by preventing the water running off. Our tops soils are too precious to let blow away, and that’s why we all have to take responsibility for our farming practices. A lot of the dust we have been seeing is actually coming from pastoral rangeland districts and for those poor guys there isn’t anything that they can do.

PRAYING FOR RAIN

“They face grazing pressure from native and feral species – they’ve destocked – and so until it rains, there isn’t anything more that they can do, but wait and pray for rain, and so we really feel for those guys.”

Mr Linklater said grain prices for the season had been holding up reasonably well.

“The pricing for wheat has been fairly consistent, and so we are achieving reasonably good prices for wheat. Barley on the other hand, has really fluctuated from harvest time to now, and I think it’s back to where farmers should receive around $300 a tonne, whereas it had been in the region of $240 a tonne during harvest,” he said.

Mr Linklater, like all of his farming colleagues, will be hoping for rain in the coming months, so as to get the next grain season off to a positive start. While there have been some good falls received in far northern parts of the country as the monsoonal season gets underway, the Mallee and Millewa are yet to have the heavens open up.

“The forecast for the year ahead has stabilised somewhat, with most weather models indicating average rainfall, which would be great,” an optimistic Mr Linklater said. “I’d even take below average rainfall – just not severely below average! There is no doubt that there are going to be challenges out there, but bear in mind, even in the Millewa, there are substantial areas where they have achieved or maintained ground cover, and they will be OK and will be able to put a crop in and get establishment when it rains.

“I really feel for those whose paddocks have drifted, that’s going to make things difficult to recover for this season. At the end of the day, the element we need is rainfall that we will be relying on to pull out of the cycle.”