The 2023 Grain Season – rocketing start to harvest pulled up by rain and hail
The Western Australian grain harvest is on track to be mostly finished by the end of December, several weeks earlier than normal. The rain and hail this week, across some parts of the central and southern regions, has put the brakes on harvesting for a few days, although most growers will be underway again before the end of the week. The short sharp finish to the growing season resulted in an earlier start to harvest than in previous years for many growers. This, combined with lower yields in all crops, increased capacity from investment in machinery following the last couple of high production years, and good harvesting conditions has meant growers are ahead of where they would normally be at this time of the year.
Late sown crops have struggled across the board and combined with the short, hard finish to the season, most yields are below expectations and are well below average. This has resulted in the estimated total harvest tonnage now being a little over 14.5 million tonnes, down 445,000t on the October estimates.
Whist there have been some surprises in better-than-expected grain quality, the yields have mostly been a little lower than expected and this trend is likely to continue as more crop comes off in the southern regions. The timing of crop emergence has had the largest impact on final grain yield this year, with the early sown crops outyielding the later sown crops by a fair margin. The lack of spring rain has effectively shortened the season and severely limited the potential of any crops that were later emerging.
Barley has been the standout crop so far, except in the very dry regions in the north of the state. There has been a good strike rate of grain making Malt in the central regions, although this falls away as you move further south in the state. Retention (grain size) has been surprisingly good in some areas, although further south in the Esperance and Albany Port Zones, retention has been poor and very few loads have made Malt either due to low retention or high protein.
Canola yields are much lower than the previous years, although the overall state average will be in excess of 1.2 tonnes per hectare, which is close to long term averages.
The majority of wheat crops have suffered from the hot dry finish and grain yields have been coming in lower than anticipated at the start of harvest.
Ian Foster, Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development
Seasonal rain April to October was much drier than normal for northern and eastern agricultural areas and parts of the south-west of Western Australia (Figure 1). Thunderstorms mid-November have produced isolated falls of up to 40 mm across the agricultural area and parts of the south-west.
Figure 1: Rainfall deciles April to October 2023 (Source: DPIRD 2023)
An El Nino event is established in the Pacific Ocean and is likely to persist into autumn 2024. A positive Indian Ocean Dipole event is also underway in the tropical Indian Ocean. Their combined impact historically suppresses rainfall over western parts of WA over summer.
These events are also influencing an expected later onset of the Australian monsoon, as well as a prediction of fewer than normal tropical cyclones for the 2023-24 season.
The Bureau of Meteorology seasonal outlook indicates below normal rain is likely over summer for most of WA.
Seasonal temperatures were markedly different between the start and finish of the growing season. The first part was much cooler than normal, while the finish was very warm.
Predictions of above normal temperatures continue over summer. Chances of unusually high maximum temperatures are up to 4 times higher than normal over summer for most of western and central WA (Figure 2). Minimum temperatures are also expected to be much warmer than normal.
Figure 2: Chances of unusually high maximum air temperature over December 2023 to February 2024 (Source: Bureau of Meteorology 2023)
Additional information is available from:
Harvest is rapidly winding up in the zone and is likely to be over for the year by mid-December, which is a reflection on how little grain there is in this region. This will be the earliest finish in memory. There have only been two harvest bans and the region missed out on the rain this week which has kept harvest moving quickly to an early finish. Many growers are hoping the State’s offshore fishing restrictions will be lifted a few weeks early, so they can at least spend the time fishing that they would otherwise have spent harvesting had the crops been better.
Overall yields are lower than expected, even given that commentators have been painting a pretty grim picture for the zone for the past few months. The heat in August, September and October shut all cereals down, resulting in high protein and light-weight grain. The only bright spots are the areas around Mullewa that had the early storms, and along the coast.
Wheat production will just sneak past one million tonnes for the zone with most being high protein and high screenings. In the past this would have been delivered as Feed, although the additional segregations initiated this year have been a game changer and have allowed growers to deliver this grain and receive a reasonable return.
Barley is all off, with very poor yields. The heat and dry conditions have really hammered the crop with some crops only yielding 200-400kg/ha with 20% screenings. Barley area was gaining momentum over recent years in the region and this year will set that back.
Lupins has been a surprising player this season. Twenty to thirty percent of the area planted to lupins was sprayed out due to the very dry conditions, and the areas that were not sprayed out yielded 500-750kg/ha inland, and 1.8-2.0t/ha in the coastal areas from Dongara to Dandaragan.
Kwinana North Midlands
There have only been a few harvest bans so far and with the clean run, growers are flying through harvest. The rain this week has delayed harvest in some areas of the zone, although most were only held up for a day or two, except for an area along the Bindi-Toodyay Road from Yerecoin to Miling which received between 20–35mm.
Grain yields have been lower than expected and without a doubt, barley has been the standout so far with fairly good yields. There has generally been a pretty good strike rate into Malt 1 up through the traditional Malt belt in the region. Most thought grain quality would be terrible, but retention in barley has generally been pretty good and if its missed Malt 1, it’s only missed by a tiny bit on retention or slightly on germ end staining. The heavy clay flats and heavy soils up and down the Midlands Road have been going Feed, but once you come off into the medium and lighter country, largely it’s been Malt.
Canola has performed well considering the poor year. In some areas on the eastern fringe, canola has yielded the same as wheat. This is disappointing on the wheat front, but with little rain on the heavy country, the canola has done okay, but the wheat has really struggled with the hard finish to the season. Oils have been down, with a lot sitting in a band between 40-44%, way down on previous years. Better crops in the areas have seen 43–45% oils, but the heavy, tough soils have been down at 40-42%. The odd grower has been down as low as 38–40%.
The areas north and east of Ballidu and Kondut are pretty untidy and growers in those areas haven’t got much longer until they will have finished harvesting what’s left.
Screenings for cereals so far have been really, really low, so grain quality has been exceptional. Growers thought they would be skating the line with screenings and there would be a heap of grading happening, but by and large, wheat quality has been very good. Yields are down as expected. Noodle wheat varieties are generally going Noodle 2 because of the high protein, or are just sliding it into the top end of Noodle 1.
There is a fair bit of wheat with high protein going H1 and H2 as well. H1 hasn’t been received around the Moora area for a long time.
Most of the zone isn’t terrible, but as you go north of Coomberdale, across to Miling and down to Kondut, Ballidu and Wongan, it gets really, really sad. Areas of heavy country that have only received 120mm for the year are reporting figures like 200kg/ha for canola, 300kg/ha for lupins, 500kg/ha for wheat and 800kg/ha for barley.
The effects of the frost throughout the winter are being felt in the areas east of the Great Northern Highway and are worst around Bindi Bindi, Wongan and Ballidu, contributing to the poor grain yields in those areas. In total tonnes, the frost probably hasn’t taken off a lot, although when you’re sitting on not much to begin with, it’s taken off that last little bit which isn’t ideal.
Overall, expectations were low, so the end result is about what was expected. Areas have been good out through Badgingarra, with some growers averaging over 2.0t/ha in canola. Further east around Moora to New Norcia, Calingiri, Yerecoin and Bolgart, there will be a lot of growers that will have canola averages in the 1.2–1.4t/ha range. East and northeast of that band, canola yields drop to under 1.0t/ha.
A lot of barley is already off, and the majority of canola will be off by the end of this week. Most growers will be onto wheat by the end of the week if they aren’t already, and by the end of the month, harvest will be mostly wrapped up for the zone.
Crops that have been harvested to date have been yielding about what was expected, with few exceeding expectations. The excellent potential that was set up during the year has not been realised due to the lack of spring rain. The top came off most crops during the final stages of grain fill and whilst disappointing, compared to some other regions of the state, most growers are pretty happy with the final result.
Canola has yielded in the 1.6-2.0t/ha range in the better areas to the west. Barley has been sensational in those areas that ended up with average or slightly above average rainfall. Growers are into their wheat in the lower portions of the zone, and most is going less than they thought it would. It appears that the dry conditions combined with frost has had more impact than originally thought.
Harvest still has a way to go as most growers are still on barley in the western areas and are only just starting on wheat in the eastern portions of the zone.
Kwinana North East
The Kwinana North East region is a very mixed bag ranging from paddocks not worth harvesting, to the better crops on fallow country from 2022 yielding close to long term averages.
From Konnongorring to Kondut west, grain yields are about what growers thought they would be, with wheat yielding up to 1.4t/ha, barley up to 1.5t/ha and canola around 1.0t/ha. Grain yields in these regions have been low, but not disastrously low. Cereal grain quality has been very good with plump grain and high retention. There was never going to be a lot of grain set due to the low rainfall and the early heat and with few grains available to fill, grain weights have been higher than expected for the finish that we had.
The north and northeast fringes of the zone have some very poor areas where cereal grain yields have been generally below 1.0t/ha, with plenty of crops yielding between 500kg/ha and 1.0t/ha. There simply was not enough rain to finish the crops, even on fallow in areas around Mollerin Rock, Cleary, parts of Beacon and east to Bonnie Rock. Further south around Mukinbudin, the best wheat crops on fallow are still below 1.0t/ha. East of Merredin, the grain yields don’t fall away as severely until you reach the far eastern grain belt.
There is a distinct difference right across the zone between crops following fallow, lupins or pasture, versus wheat following wheat. In some cases, the yield differences have been up to 50% lower on the heaver soils following wheat. This is also the case for many canola crops, with the double break canola crops yielding close to being profitable, compared with those following wheat on marginal canola soils battling to hit 500kg/ha. The difference between the foraging ability of hybrid canola versus open pollenated varieties was really apparent this year, with yield differences of up to 50% in favour of the hybrids.
The surprise player has been lupins, which in some cases is outyielding canola, and on the better lupin country is outyielding wheat.
Yields are below expected so far due to the dry finish to the season. At this stage, only canola has been harvested through the zone. Yields are slightly below average, with reports of oils 3-4% less than normal, and small or light grain.
Some barley has been harvested and it is mostly light-weight, but the protein is good due to the season finish. Most grain has been going Feed, with very few loads going Malt so far, although it is still early days in the barley harvest.
Harvest will get fully underway once crops dry out from the recent rain and within the next few weeks, there will be a better idea of how things will finish up in the region.
Wet conditions in the south have put the brakes on harvest. This was not unexpected given the forecast predicted rain for most of this week. Typical summer south-easterly winds have been driving moisture off the ocean, so the growers along the coast have been struggling to get much harvesting done. Further north, they’ve been able to harvest for a few more hours in the day and get a bit more done.
Canola harvesting through the Porongurup’s across to Gairdner is about 80% complete with yields all over the place. The odd paddock is achieving average yields, but closer to long term averages rather than more recent averages. Any canola that was sown and emerged before 10th April has done exceptionally well at around 2.0t/ha plus. Anything in after 10th April has really struggled, yielding down at 1.0–1.5t/ha.
There have been major issues experienced with canola off-types in some hybrid varieties, which have still not dried out after waiting up to 30 days. These off-types have a lot of stem rather than pod, which is delaying them drying out even where desiccated.
West of Chester Pass Road and around Woogenellup, growers didn’t quite get the seed sown in the first ten days of April, so their yields are way down with most going around 1.5–1.6t/ha, which is a disaster for that area considering the costs of production.
Bits and pieces of barley have come off across the zone, mainly in the south. Retention is down at around 55-60% and high screenings has killed any chance of going Malt. Looking at the crop in the paddock, you’d think screenings would be through the roof, but the varieties such as Maximus and Laperouse are holding above the 2.5mm sieve. Yield wise, it has been a bit better than expected and gut feeling is that it will continue to be better than expected as more is taken off.
Very little wheat has been harvested to date, but yields are expected to be poor as crops were trying to finish with absolutely no moisture.
Predictions overall are that “the good is still good, and the bad is still bad”.
Albany East (Lakes Region)
Harvest has been in full swing since late October/ early November for most thanks to the sharp end to the season. Most growers have had a good run from the start of harvest with ideal conditions, although drizzle and overcast weather has slowed down harvest in the southern regions recently, and the storms that went through earlier in the week have caused havoc for some growers who received the heavier falls of rain and hail.
Yields are slightly down on how they looked in the paddock. Canola has been in the low-ish range for oil percentage with yields varied across the area, dependent on who received the early rains at the start of the growing season. Most eastern growers are around the 1.0-1.4t/ha mark for canola with a lot of the crop falling below the 1.0t/ha mark due to either the tight finish and lack of rain throughout the season, or frost. Further west in the Narrogin area, yields pick up to be around the 1.6-2.0t/ha range. Canola crops are only yielding 2.0t/ha where the stars aligned with a good start and kind finish.
Barley yields, like canola, are slightly below what most would have hoped, but they are still good for the season that was had. A finishing rain would have been a game changer here. Despite the tight finish and reduced yields, there isn’t as much Malt as originally hoped, with most grain going Feed due to either high protein or low retention.
Harvesting of oats has only just started and there are no reports of wheat being harvested yet. With the dry finish, growers are expecting there to be plenty of lightweight oats.
Approximately two thirds of the cropped area in the zone has already been harvested, and a lot of growers are onto wheat already. In the northern areas around Salmon Gums, the odd growers with smaller areas or who got going early, have already finished harvest. Few harvest bans and little rain up until now has meant everyone has been able to get full days under their belts. Rain this week will slow everyone down a bit though.
Canola across the whole Esperance Port Zone is very mixed with northern and western areas through Salmon Gums and Grass Patch below 1.0t/ha, although further south canola grain yields creep over the 1.0t/ha mark, depending on variety and germination timing. The early crops are significantly better than the late sown crops. Canola grain yields are surprisingly good considering the rainfall. If it had been this season five years ago with Benito dominating the plantings, the yields would not have been what they are now. In these harsher years, growers are really seeing the value of moving to hybrid varieties.
In the really good areas, around Munglinup and some early sown crops in the eastern areas, yields have been as high as 2.0-2.5t/ha. Oils have been the lowest in the last few years, around 40–42%, with some down to 36%. Growers have regretted swathing this year, as high winds resulted in “hay bailing” stacks being blown around, which was disappointing for those growers that couldn’t pick up some of the grain that was there.
Snail wise, there has been the odd delivery with snails, although most of the snaily area on the south coastal sands is yet to be harvested.
Heaps of barley is now off, with very little Malt delivered in the zone. Low retention or high protein has been the letdown. Yields have been pleasantly surprising. Crops may have been filling in slightly better conditions, but even the low rainfall areas have still been reporting yields of 2.5-3.0t/ha.
There is a lot of wheat to still be harvested. Screenings will be the biggest hurdle, particularly in the Mallee region. Most of the protein has been very good and moisture doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue – no driers have been out. Yields are mixed, with some areas average and others below average. Moving south from Gibson, yields are topping out around 4.0t/ha.
There have been higher screenings in Calibre than Scepter wheat this year, which is surprising considering Calibre is a quicker maturing variety.