A RECORD breaking late season frost is set to cull hundreds of thousands of tonnes of grain off the national balance sheet.
Croppers in Victoria’s Western District, which had crops looking as good as anywhere in the country, are reporting up to 100 per cent losses in their wheat crops.
The frost extended across the border to South Australia’s south-east, where crops were also at a vulnerable stage.
In the Wimmera in Victoria, cereal crops were generally too advanced to be majorly damaged, but pulse crops have been hit hard.
The grain trade is currently crunching the numbers to see whether the losses will have a major impact on supply and demand balance sheets on a national scale.
Given the reliance on the southern cropping zone to generate tonnage this year downgrading of production in this area will cause many within the industry anxious moments.
However the potential of a shortage of grain for the trade to source has yet to be reflected in grain prices, which have remained virtually unchanged since the frost, apart from in the niche Kabuli chickpea sector.
Blair Trewin, senior climatologist with the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said the frost on November 4 was the most significant November frost since 1983.
He said temperatures dropped as low as -2.3 degrees at Keith in South Australia and -1.2 at Westmere in Victoria.
The frost extended over much of inland eastern South Australia and western Victoria.
Dr Trewin said it was generated by a high pressure system that allowed temperatures to drop markedly and remain cold for a reasonable period of time.
He said the damage caused by the frost was most like the traumatic October 28 frost in 1998.
“Temperatures did not drop as low as in 1998 and it was a week later so crops were more advanced, but that is probably the obvious parallel,” he said.
He said while rare, November frosts were not unknown, even in non-elevated parts of southern Australia.
“Westmere has recorded a frost in December before,” he said.
Craig Drum, an agronomist based at Tatyoon on the east side of the Grampians in Victoria, said cereal crops had fared worst in his region, which encompasses a large proportion of Victoria’s high rainfall cropping zone.
“It is obviously patchy, but it would be fair to say that there is widespread 70-80pc damage in cereal crops,” Mr Drum said.
He said topography had been the major culprit in terms of damage.
“Plant maturity has not mattered as much as you would have thought, we had two paddocks of the same wheat variety at Yalla-Y-Poora, near Tatyoon, and they had a big difference in sowing date but both have been hit by the frost.”
He said farmers were currently assessing their options.
“In some cases, the crop was more advanced and there is grain there, but it will be shriveled.
“The experiences of 1998 showed there was grain in some paddocks but it was extremely light and extremely high in screenings, so if farmers do harvest it they will have to find a market for it.”
Mr Drum said other growers were cutting the cereal crops for hay, but added there were concerns about finding a home for the hay.
“People are saying they just can’t find a buyer for hay, even though it should be reasonable quality hay.”
He said some growers were mulching and green manuring paddocks, some were desiccating and then grazing the crops while others will run a header over the ground even though there will be little grain just for paddock maintenance and ensure better sowing conditions next year.
In other crops he said canola had been damaged least, with only 10pc losses on average, while he said pulse crops would also have some seed.
“I though the pulses would be smoked, but we’re looking at about 50pc on average damage in the lupins and faba beans.”
“We could still see canola yields of 2 tonnes to the hectare and legumes around 1.5t/ha, the major story is definitely the cereals.”
Following the frost, there has been a period of unseasonable heat, with temperatures pushing towards 40 degrees in a number of centres.
“This heat is unusual for this time of year, but it is something you would see every couple of years, the frost is certainly the rare event,” Dr Trewin said.
Farmers with pulse crops that remain green are hoping the forecast heavy downpour this week will be sufficient to allow pulse crops to reflower, potentially compensating for some of the yield losses caused by the frost, although they will then be faced with crops with uneven maturity, causing harvesting issues.