Wet summer turns to a heartbreaking winter dry

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Kondinin growers Karl and Natalie Browning and daughter Chloe hope
a good early start has set up season 2017 for success.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

Unlike vast stretches of the Western Australian grainbelt, early rain meant a positive start to seeding for Karl and Natalie Browning of Kondinin. However, for many growers, 2017 will be remembered as one of the driest starts to the season ever recorded, with below average rainfall across much of the grain belt. But for the Brownings, falls in January, February, March and April, totalling 170 millimetres, allowed the couple to begin seeding canola on 2 April.

Early sown and germinated canola can be make-or-break for the Brownings and, in some years, yields can be doubled by early germinated crops. But frost avoidance is the key factor in their planning, so the Brownings stretch out their seeding program and often do not complete the cereals until the last few days of May.

“Our program is totally influenced by frost,” Natalie says. “We budget on a severe frost once every four years, and that’s certainly been the case in the past decade, with bad frosts in 2008, 2012 and 2016. In 2016 the frost events were so severe that we lost 50 per cent from the value of our crops.”

Regardless of rainfall, the Brownings – Karl and Natalie, and Karl’s parents John and Anne – are never tempted to move away from their staggered seeding program, which provides multiple flowering windows to reduce their frost exposure.

However, Natalie is hopeful this year’s early start will set up the season. “With adequate rain through the growing season we could be looking at canola yields of between 1.3 and 1.8 tonnes per hectare,” she says. Their average is 0.8t/ha.

“We need the longer growing season for canola because out here we quite often don’t get finishing rains in September.”

This year, the family’s cropping program includes 650ha of canola, 1200ha of lupins, 2750ha of barley and 1800ha of wheat. Lupins are another important commodity for the business, but last year Natalie says a lot of the lupin crop was also severely frosted. “We had a couple of hundred hectares of lupins that went black. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The Brownings also plan their seeding program according to topography. Natalie says having parcels of land in different locations across the shire has added geographic diversity to their business. Being able to seed higher, more-reliable, less-frost-prone country first helps reduce overall risk and maximise yield potential.

Despite predictions of a drier-than-average winter, Natalie says the early sown crops are looking good. “It’s been a positive start … but we don’t get too emotional out here until it’s in the bin.”

Feature: Frost conundrum on the back of warmer winters

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Natalie and Karl Browning,