2015 Harvest of extremes

Volunteers battling to protect a crop at Scaddan, north of Esperance, WA, in November

Volunteers battling to protect a crop at Scaddan, north of Esperance, WA, in November.

PHOTO: Evan Collis, Department of Fire and Emergency Services

From a national perspective, the 2015 winter season harvest was a collation of extremes: from districts reporting some of the best harvests in years, to drought-affected districts hit by rainstorms, and the fire tragedies in WA and SA, which have devastated some farming districts

The 2015 winter harvest season will go down in history as one of the most extreme periods in recent memory. Rainstorms and firestorms delivered heartache and tragedy on a terrible scale in the western and southern grain regions at the same time as others were reporting surprisingly good harvests after a testing season, and some pulse growers marvelling at the rare coupling of high yields and record prices.

The start to the winter cereals harvest began with many southern growers cutting their cereals for hay; the Wimmera region one of many that were in drought one week and then weathering a rain deluge the next. The only silver lining to the low, black clouds that rolled across the region in early November is a full soil moisture bank for 2016.

However, the most severe weather effects were the fires that swept through cropland near Esperance, Western Australia, and a week later through South Australia’s cropping heartland near the Barossa Valley.

A cropping landscape denuded by fire and wind storms in the Scaddan district north of Esperance, WA.

A cropping landscape denuded by fire and wind storms has created a severe erosion issue for growers in the Scaddan district north of Esperance, WA.

PHOTO: Evan Collis, DFES

In WA on 17 November 100-kilometre-per-hour winds drove a lightning-sparked firestorm through an estimated 130,000 hectares of scrub and cropland, tragically killing Scaddan grain grower Kym Curnow and three young farm workers from Europe – Anna Winther from Norway, Julia Kohrs-Lichte from Germany and Thomas Butcher from England.

In SA on 25 November, another bushfire also driven by fierce winds swept through farmland between Nuriootpa and Balaklava, devastating an estimated 90,000ha of farmland, livestock, houses and machinery, and killing 69-year-old Pinery grower and volunteer firefighter Allan Tiller and a Hamley Bridge resident Janet Hughes. Allan was a recognised innovater; one of the early adopters of no-till in his district.

As with all rural communities the deaths have hit hard; farmers in particular being at the forefront of community organisations, including volunteer fire brigades.

The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) put the cost of the SA fire at $88 million. The WA fires did not reach the ICA threshold for ‘insurance emergency’, mostly because the infrastructure losses were not as extensive.

At Scaddan and Grass Patch north of Esperance, growers had started harvesting some of the best crops in recent times before being forced to evacuate.

Grass Patch grower Danny Sanderson was one of the many volunteers fighting the fires, which raged for several days. He said many lost the whole crop, and anything that was not burnt was stripped by the wind. He counted himself lucky, losing just 500ha of crop and 400ha of stubble from his 4100ha program.

In the fire’s aftermath, Mr Sanderson said the main concern was soil erosion. As soon as the remaining crops had been harvested everyone was helping each other to scarify paddocks and even sow barley and maize as cover crops: “We’ve had a lot of rain since the fires so that is helping and topping up the moisture bank for 2016.”

Mr Sanderson said the community was pulling together: “This is a tough area to crop, but the people here are successful because they are very good growers. We’ve been hit hard, but everyone is staying positive.

“This area was once a no-go for crops. Then when it opened up we used to dream of 2t/ha wheat yields … but before the fire we were all anticipating 4t/ha. That’s how far we have come.”

Seasonal wrap

Northern region

Hot, dry conditions across the northern grains region returned a “mixed bag” of outcomes for growers in New South Wales and Queensland. GRDC regional manager – north Sharon O’Keeffe said crops on long-fallow country generally performed well; however, those on short-fallow country lost yield due to limited in-crop rain.

Reflecting on the relative performance of all northern crops, she said there were “some wins due to commodity prices”. Pulses tended to be affected by heat stress and short podding periods, but high commodity prices meant that, overall, these crops performed well. Cereal crops with nemotode and crown rot resistance also performed well. Failure to assess crown rot and nematode risks, and planting cereals back to back led to yield losses.

“It was a dry finish following a drier-than-average couple of years in most areas of the northern grain region, with the exception of south-east Queensland where isolated storms meant rainfall was slightly above average.”

Western region

The view of the November fire from Mic Feels' Esperance farm

Esperance grower Mic Fels captured this dramatic scene as the tragic fire that swept through the district in mid-November bypassed his Mace crop. Mic was expecting to harvest 3.5 to 4 tonnes per hectare but says this was reduced by 100 to 200 kilograms/ha by the fierce winds that accompanied the fires. His barley suffered the most with a 50 per cent loss. Following the fires, Mic says the biggest ongoing concern is the effect of the wind erosion, exacerbated by the loss of so much ground cover.

PHOTO: Mic Fels

Although pockets of WA suffered the devastation of fire, hail, frost and dry seasonal conditions, GRDC Western Panel chair Peter Roberts said, on the whole, the state produced plenty of grain: most areas just one spring rain from an excellent season.

The exception was the mid-west, which had a very dry season with high temperatures during grain fill. Nonetheless, Mr Roberts said harvest 2015 would be in the top 10 per cent of years: “If September wasn’t dry the season would have gone close to the best on record.”

He said the lesson of 2015 was that although the rainfall was low across the region, advanced farming systems delivered an exceptional season given the conditions.

Southern region

Harvest 2015-16 will be remembered as a season of extremes, said GRDC Southern Panel chair Keith Pengilley. His home state of Tasmania failed to meet its ‘Emerald Isle’ label for the second year in a row, with a dry winter leaving many irrigation storages at critical levels. “Tasmanian growers will probably harvest just 40 per cent of their long-term average,” was Mr Pengilley’s estimate in early December.

In Victoria, areas outside the drought-hit Wimmera and Mallee were anticipating a productive harvest. However, extreme temperatures and hot winds in early October cut yield potential. Mr Pengilley said some growers estimated the heat knocked 1t/ha off their cereals.

The southern region also felt the devastation of the late November fire in the Pinery region of lower-north SA. Two people lost their lives. GRDC Board director Andy Barr and his wife Helen lost their home, as did their daughter Belinda (who provides communication services to the Southern Panel) and son-in-law Ed Cay.

“On behalf of the Southern Panel, I send our condolences to all who have lost family, friends, homes and livelihoods. The loss at a community level and at a farming industry level is large, and the effects will be felt for a long time.”

Mr Pengilley said the effects would factor into GRDC activities in 2016, including managing soil resources hit by wind erosion and redesign of burnt farms.


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