A cyclone on one side and flooding rains on the other has set up an unusual autumn break for the far east and west this year.
- Much of the eastern and western cropping regions have received unusual autumn rainfall to kick off winter cropping
- But through the centre, farmers are still waiting on rain
- The current forecast does not suggest there will be a widespread break before the traditional Anzac Day deadline
It’s a rough concept but the ‘autumn break’ refers to the first good rains of the southern winter cropping season, usually triggered by a good cold front or two.
Traditionally, farmers would wait to sow their crops until after the break — or autumn ‘deadline’ — expected by around Anzac Day.
But a quick check across the country suggests many farmers are not waiting on a break this time around.
Meanwhile, further north they have finally caught a different kind of break.
Cyclonic rain in the west
In the west, Cyclone Seroja was a shock to WA’s Wheatbelt — not a region accustomed to tropical cyclones. The winds might have wrought havoc, but the rain has been widely welcomed.
It has brought a real turnaround for Caroline Telfer in Darkan, where her family crops and runs merinos and she works as a photographer.
“At the beginning of summer, our dams were so low that we actually sold off a lot of our sheep that we probably normally would have carried through,” she said.
But thanks to some summer rain, and now this cyclonic deluge, they have received 206mm for the year so far.
“People who were ready actually snuck some crops in before the rain that we got last week, which was probably a good idea, but we weren’t ready.”
But she is making up for lost time and hoping for some follow up in a few weeks once they have some crop in.
The early start is a boost because it leads to higher yields, according to Ms Telfer.
“When you get the opening rain and it’s still warm compared to when you get opening rains but they don’t come until late May or June then it’s too cold for them to really take off,” she said.
“It’s still warm enough that especially the pastures will be coming away after this rain.”
In the middle of the country, it is a different story.
“What break? We haven’t had one yet,” quipped Joylene Button from her mixed farming property on the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.
Summer rain has been enough to get the weeds going a little and there have been a few millimetres in the past week but that has been it so far.
Ms Button said 20mm “would be awesome right now.” But if they don’t get it they will go ahead and start seeding anyway.
“We don’t really seed by the break anymore,” she said.
Ms Button said they were very lucky on the peninsula, having avoided the huge droughts other areas suffered through recently and with a good year last year.
“We’ve had quite a few really dry years, but with our modern farming techniques we’ve been able to still get reasonable yields,” she said.
“Last year was just really nice to add to the kitty a little bit and enable us to feel a little bit more comfortable going into this year.”
Waiting in the Wimmera
Susan Findlay Tickner is also break-less at Wallup in the Wimmera, Victoria, where she grows wheat, barley, lentils, canola, and fodder.
“We will be starting to plant our crops dry after Anzac Day, the classic wait till after Anzac Day to start planting,” she said.
But she isn’t worried. According to Ms Findlay Tickner, their average break is the third week of May.
“We’re looking very positively towards the 2021 growing season on the back of a very positive 2020 growing season,” she said.
For Ms Findlay Tickner, it’s not so much about the quantity of rain but the regularity.
“If we get a decent rainfall event every couple of weeks throughout the growing season, that really sets us up well,” she said.
Then strong spring rains are the clincher.
“We really look for a couple of solid spring rainfall events and that usually gets us home in good form,” she said.
A different type of break
Up in Millmerran, south-east Queensland, they have caught a different type of break.
After six years of drought, the skies have opened.
If the drought is finally over is the million-dollar question but Sophie Curtis is hopeful.
“I haven’t seen the place like this for a number of years. Just to see green grass and pasture growing is fantastic,” she said.
The rain at the end of March certainly wasn’t welcome everywhere but it’s brought relief on the Curtis’s multigenerational organic cropping and dorper stud farm.
Cropping expert and Ms Curtis’s dad David was roped in to talk rainfall.
“It’s been perfect really — 284 millimetres so far, so yeah, fantastic,” he said.
Up in Queensland, rain can come at any time of the year so they don’t wait on an autumn break in the same way as down south, but they largely rely on summer storms.
“Cropping people, they’ll have some moisture to work with going into winter, so they won’t need a lot of rain now to get a planting opportunity in May/June. So yeah, that’s pretty good,” Mr Curtis said.
But before we get carried away, Mr Curtis points out the rainfall so far is only on par with the traditional average rainfall for the area.
“We’ve got to learn lessons from this drought and pass the knowledge that droughts can go on for this long to future generations,” he said.
“My grandfather passed away a while ago, but I’ve been reading some of his memoirs and he was saying in the early 1900s they had a similar drought.
“How we prepare for that going forward is probably going to be pretty interesting.”
So is the rain on the way?
Luke Shelley, from the Bureau of Meteorology’s agriculture program, said at the moment it did not look like we would get a traditional break before the Anzac Day deadline.
“It looks like there might be a little bit of rain forecast towards the middle of next week, but that looks like it’s more towards coastal regions and not really going to have an impact,” he said.
“Certainly not in what we would consider to be an autumn break across those areas that haven’t received it yet.”