Another hot, dry season is sapping prospects for summer crop production in the wake of a disappointing winter crop harvest in much of eastern Australia.
Total planting area is actually up – slightly – on last summer at 1.3 million hectares, but soil moisture levels remain well below average in many regions, and are getting worse, says national forecaster, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES).
Water storage levels for irrigated crops such as cotton are averaging about a third lower than a year ago, at 43 per cent.
“Sufficient and timely rainfall for the remainder of the season will be critical for the development of dryland crops” said ABARES in its latest national crop report.
However, the national winter cropping story has not been as bad as feared four months ago.
Thanks to favourable spring and early summer conditions in some key growing regions of Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia, the 2017–18 winter crop harvest exceeded earlier expectations.
However, ABARES executive director, Dr Steve Hatfield-Dodds, said in contrast, Queensland and NSW production was likely to be lower than even the downgraded forecasts proffered in December.
Winter yield slump
Total winter crop production was estimated to have fallen 36pc below last year to 37.8m tonnes, but given the late season boost to production it looked likely to hold about 6pc above the 10-year average yield.
"For the major crops overall, wheat production is estimated to have decreased by 38pc to 21.2m tonnes, barley by 33pc to 8.9m tonnes and canola 15pc to 3.7m tonnes," Dr Hatfield-Dodds said.
Among other crops, chickpea production was likely to be down 49pc to 1m tonnes, and oats down 40pc to 1.1 million."
The dry weather continued to bite in northern cropping zones.
“Unfavourable weather conditions through the hottest months of the year prompted farmers to reconsider their planting strategies, which will result in less dryland crop area than anticipated and lower yields,” Dr Hatfield-Dodds said.
“Area planted to cotton in 2017–18 fell by around 10pc to 500,000ha, while rice area is estimated to have decreased by 2pc to 80,000ha.”
More sorghum, more cotton
However, less competition from cotton this summer, particularly dryland cotton, meant more grain sorghum was sown and production was forecast to jump 44pc to around 1.5m tonnes.
Total summer crop area was estimated to have increased by 2pc, with overall production likely to be up 12pc because of comparatively less dryland area.
Supplies of irrigation water are lower than at the same time last year, but sufficient for the area planted
Below average rainfall and above average temperatures in summer cropping regions had curtailed crop planting interest in the latter part of the planting window and lowered yield prospects.
Irrigated cotton plantings slipped 8pc to 394,000ha as irrigation water availability declined, while dryland area fell 17pc to 106,000ha due to poor soil moisture conditions in the August to December sowing period.
“Supplies of irrigation water are lower than at the same time last year, but sufficient for the area planted and seasonal conditions have been favourable for irrigated crops, particularly cotton,” said the ABARES report.
The national commodities forecaster said while soil moisture levels were “well below average” in for dryland cotton, irrigated crop prospects remained good.
In fact, because irrigated cotton yields were below average last year ABARES tipped overall cotton production would rise 12pc to 995,000t of lint and 1.4m of cottonseed to cotton growers.
In the southern NSW rice heartland, supplies of irrigation water were mostly sufficient to meet planting intentions, with production likely to be down just 1pc to about 800,000 tonnes.
ABARES noted the latest rainfall outlook to April from the Bureau of Meteorology still showed no strong tendency toward either higher or lower than average rainfall in summer cropping regions for the remaining summer season, so it assumed average rainfall in its projections.
“However, there is a risk rainfall will be below average,” the crop report said.