Decade of changes in grain, with some great results

Decade of changes in grain, with some great results


Areas sown to crops remained fairly similar across the past decade, but results were wildly variable.


Advancements in technology, plant breeding and marketing opportunities set the backdrop in the past decade in the grains industry.

As grain farms increased in size, grain growers became increasingly nimble and prepared to meet the challenges of weather, markets, increasing costs, weeds and diseases.

Birchip grain grower Ian McClelland said the past 10 years saw grain growers start developing strategies to adapt to climate change.

In the past 10 years a lot of farming practices had changed because of an increasingly variable climate.

Mr McClelland said a major challenge for farmers was to produce a crop that maximised yield when climate was variable.

"Equipment technology that has developed in the past 10 years has been dramatic," he said.

"The capacity to do things on time and more accurately has made farmers incredibly efficient in planting, spraying and harvesting."

Farmers' knowledge was becoming greater and more farmers were soil testing and making decisions about nitrogen and soil moisture and what crops they sowed, based on knowledge.

Mr McClelland said farmers were growing a much more diverse range of crops that had become widely grown in rotations.

Diverse crops helped in addressing the major variables of frost and heat stress.

"Farmers are sowing earlier than ever and taking a risk on frost by using variable crops that flower at the most efficient time based on heat stress and frost capacity," he said.

He said farmers were also concentrating on stored moisture, "moisture is king".

That was demonstrated in the 2019/20 season when farms in the Birchip area received 170 milimetres of rain in December 2018.

That was followed by below average rainfall but yields were better than ever, and "that was all based on stored moisture", he said.

Mr McClelland said regular practices now included variable rate technology on seeders, urea spreading and yield monitoring.

He said farmers were now more flexible in cropping programs.

"Farmers don't have a set rotation," he said.

"They see what's happened, weigh up their options, test for root disease and fertilisers and then make a flexible decision as the season progresses."

He said in the past 20 years climate had been more variable than in his lifetime.

He said that from when he started farming in 1972 and had one drought until 2002 and then had droughts in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008 and some "very lean years" since then.

"Since 2002 we have been living with no expectations at all," he said.

Mr McClelland said 2016, 2017 and 2019 were good years.

He said weeds, weed resistance and diseases were always present.

He said farmers in the northern Mallee, on sandy soils, had made huge gains in water use efficiency and were able to grow crops "on the small of oily rag".

They were able to grow crops on 100mm of rain that were nearly average.

Storey Marketing consultant and industry analyst Ron Storey said there had been some extraordinary seasons and export performances in the past 10 years.

He said total planted area across Australia had remained relatively unchanged at around 22 to 24 million hectares over the decade.

The 2019/20 season was the lowest in the decade at 20 million hectares.

The seasons had been "wildly variable".

He said the 2016/17 season was an all time record at nearly 60 million tonnes of grain, while this year would be about 30 million.

Mr Storey said the make up of the Victorian crop had not changed a lot.

In 2009/10, the total winter crop in Victoria was 3.2 million hectares, and in 2019/20 was 3.6m ha.

Wheat planting were constant at 1.7m ha, while barley had increased slightly from 0.9 to 1.0m ha.

Canola had doubled from 0.2 to 0.4m ha and all pulses from 0.18 to 0.35m ha.

Pulses had increased (from a smaller base).

Lentils and faba beans had increased by around 50 per cent.

Mr Storey said a big change was the development of grain for domestic consumption on the east coast.

Feed grain demand for intensive livestock production increased dramatically.

Mr Storey said data released by ABARES showed that east coast demand in 2019/20 for feed grain was 12 to 13 million tonnes and projected to grow to 20mt by 2030.

"The east coast will increasingly become more domestically focused and exports being more of an opportunistic event," he said.

Grain prices over the decade followed the global cycle of supply and demand and currency.

He said the Australian dollar and US dollar were at parity early in the decade, while the current exchange rate was around 70 cents.

That was a more than 30pc swing in prices on currency alone, he said.

VFF Grains Group president Ashley Fraser said one of the big wins for grain growers was a change in standard contract terms from 10 years ago.

He said 10 years ago the standard payment terms were 30 to 60 days and now two-day terms were a reality.

"That's been a huge shift in the industry," he said.

"The financial losses through insolvencies had been a huge burden for farmers."

He said farmers had learned a lot from the Millennium Drought and were now able to produce "handy" crops on low rainfall.

He said the greatest advancement was in data measurement and the move to precision ag and variable rate technology.

He said grain growers were still feeling the ramifications of the sale of the Port of Melbourne.

He said the money that was allocated to regional infrastructure appeared to have been squandered.

Member numbers of the Grains Group continued to contract on the back of farm consolidation in the cropping sector.

Mr Fraser said the membership was still strong and the sector was well engaged.

"Our job is to ensure the environment that we farm in is not overburdened with regulatory red tape but has enough oversight to ensure we don't lose any markets and we have full access and a competitive infrastructure," he said.


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