Soaking rain leaves farmers hopeful of breaking the drought

Soaking rain leaves farmers hopeful of breaking the drought

Grain
A stream rips through the ground burnt by the Gospers Mountain fire at Bilpin in NSW's Blue Mountains following rain in excess of 400mm. Photo: Kim Chappell.

A stream rips through the ground burnt by the Gospers Mountain fire at Bilpin in NSW's Blue Mountains following rain in excess of 400mm. Photo: Kim Chappell.

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It's been patchy, but the rain over the past week has farmers hopeful they are finally on their way out of drought.

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HEAVY falls through drought-stricken Queensland and NSW over the past week have further consolidated the above-average rainfall for the start of 2020 and have the farming sector hopeful the crippling dry may be on its way out.

In spite of falls as high as a staggering 698mm at Robertson, in the heart of NSW's potato-growing district in the southern highlands, and relatively frequent falls through the Darling Downs in Queensland in excess of 400mm for the year farm leaders are cautioning that it is too early to consider the drought finished.

Right across the country the characterising feature of the rain has been its patchy nature.

Reports of less than 10mm just kilometres from places receiving 100mm have been the norm right through from Victoria to Queensland.

However, while the NSW and Queensland rain has hogged the headlines there have also been good falls in parts of the Victorian Mallee in the past fortnight, while the remnants of tropical cyclone Damien have delivered good rain through the Pilbara, Kimberley and Gascoyne regions in northern WA.

With further good rain for northern Australia over the next eight days according to Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) modelling there are further opportunities for those areas that have missed out to get valuable falls.

The rain in northern NSW and Queensland is replenishing the nation's parched Murray-Darling Basin.

The Darling is currently running at Walgett and authorities are hopeful a flow will make it as far down as Menindee.

The weekly BOM rainfall map makes happy reading for many previously desperate for rain in northern and eastern Australia.

The weekly BOM rainfall map makes happy reading for many previously desperate for rain in northern and eastern Australia.

Further rain could lead to the possibility of a flush all the way down the ailing river system.

Here, Farmonline takes an in-depth look at the moisture situation state-by-state.

QUEENSLAND:

AgForce grains section president Brendan Taylor said the Darling Downs was unrecognisable from a month ago.

"At the start of the year the Bureau was saying it was likely to be a dry summer, we were coming off 190mm in total for 2019 here at Warra, our lowest annual rain ever and it felt like it was never going to rain again," Mr Taylor said.

Ironically, AgForce Queensland grains section president Brendan Taylor says after years of drought it is nearly too wet in his local area.

Ironically, AgForce Queensland grains section president Brendan Taylor says after years of drought it is nearly too wet in his local area.

However, storm systems started kicking in and now in his local area he is faced with a problem he thought inconceivable a month ago.

"We've had around 400mm for the year in this little area and we could probably do with a couple of days of dry weather," Mr Taylor said.

"From our driest year on record to what could end up being our wettest two months on record, it highlights how variable our climate is."

Overnight there were further falls of 35-125mm in the northern and western Downs, and moderate flood warnings on major watercourses in the areas such as the Condamine, Balonne and Moonie Rivers and the Myall Creek.

Mr Taylor said the potential was there for further rain to lead to damaging flooding.

"We'll need more rain later on to really fill up our soil moisture profile but further rain immediately just brings the potential for flooding, we've already seen low lying areas of Dalby go under and now the ground is primed and wet another big fall could get quite nasty."

However, Mr Taylor said not all farmers were in the same position.

"The stormy nature of it means you're finding some pockets right in the centre of the Downs where there's only been 150mm, it is still great, but either side of them the figure rises to 350-400mm in a matter of 15-20 kilometres."

Mr Taylor said the southern border region around Goondiwindi was still eager for rain after missing many of the storm fronts, but added a lot of growers in that region were finally starting to build some decent totals.

The Darling Downs and south-east Queensland received the heaviest falls in the Sunshine State last week.

The Darling Downs and south-east Queensland received the heaviest falls in the Sunshine State last week.

"The falls have certainly been patchy down there but we're slowly starting to patch in the gaps where people have missed out."

On the Downs, Mr Taylor reported a 'tremendous' amount of water moving.

"The flood harvesters are in full force but they will not be able to take it all, so I would expect we will see some good flows downstream into the Darling system as the water works its way through."

He said small farm dams had a welcome fill and even larger irrigation storage systems were nearing capacity.

In terms of soil moisture, he estimated it would be around 50pc in his area, with more filling to come.

He said there were varying rates of infiltration.

"It depends on the state of the soil, whether there was any cover or not and how hard the rain came down, but in a lot of cases on bare paddocks with heavy rain there was a lot of run-off and permeation rates will not be as good."

However the rain has had a downside, with farmers who took a punt on late summer crop on the back of January rain wondering whether they had smashed a mirror.

"It is a real case of Sod's law but after not getting a rain for the best part of two years we're suddenly faced with these newly planted summer crops going under water and being ruined.

"There's obviously going to be a chance to use that moisture with a winter crop but there is a cost to putting in the summer crop and with cash flow so tight after the run of poor years it is not great news for those that did take that punt," Mr Taylor said.

When the winter crop planting window opens in April Mr Taylor said he expected farmers to go for feed grain, primarily wheat and barley in order to meet the local demand which has been paying top dollar for 18 months to bring grain up from southern regions due to a lack of local supplies.

NSW:

NSW has been the scene of some of the most dramatic rainfall in the country, with the heavy east coast low dumping rain right along coastal areas and the elevated areas exposed to the front.

However, in the agricultural heartland to the west of the Great Dividing Range, it has been a mixed bag.

The recent rain has been characterised by an abnormal pattern where the normally more arid regions to the west of the agricultural zone have fared best.

Much of the region around Walgett received over 100mm in the past week, while further south, Condobolin is also over the 100mm mark.

However, further east in the normally wetter Central Tablelands Bathurst and Orange have been drier than expected while farmers to the east of Moree are also looking for more falls.

Rebecca Reardon, NSW Farmers Association treasurer and farmer at Terry Hie Hie east of Moree said the recent rainband had been slightly disappointing compared with expectations in her local area, but added there had been reasonable falls for the year.

Water gushes down the Blue Mountains near Bilpin. Photo: Kim Chappell.

Water gushes down the Blue Mountains near Bilpin. Photo: Kim Chappell.

"We saw the forecast and went out and moved lambs from our lower paddocks but then we really didn't get anything significant, and that was a similar story in a line across from Bellata across to the east of Moree."

However, there was a bonus for the area on Wednesday, after Ms Reardon spoke to Farmonline, with a heavy band of storms running through the districts south and east of Moree, with Terry Hie Hie recording 32mm and even heavier falls to the east with Warialda getting 46mm and Delungra a whopping 82mm.

And in good news there has also been good rain in the parched north-west.

"Walgett and out in the west have seen heavy rain which is fantastic news for them," Ms Reardon said.

Even before the falls this week she said it was not all bad news in her local area.

"We had 100mm for January and then around 25mm last week so things are green, they look a bit better than they are and we really want follow to spark a bit of run-off for dams but it has been great to at least see a bit of a shift in the weather patterns."

Ms Reardon estimated around 250mm would be needed to fill the soil profile in normal conditions, but cautioned the extreme dry prior may mean more moisture is required.

"We've had half of that but after the first rain we saw water running off paddocks, the rain did not seem to be soaking in as well as it could have, which may be because the soil was so dusty and in such fine particles there were issues with infiltration."

Further south Graham McDonald, who farms to the north-west of Condobolin, was hailing the rain as a game-changer, saying he now had water supplies for two to three years.

As of yesterday afternoon he had a cumulative total of 80mm for the event, with parts of his property having 140mm over 10 days and had filled dams.

"We had some run-off before the rain today (Tuesday) but then the heavy storm we got today really got things running," Mr McDonald said.

The North Richmond bridge vanished underwater at the height of the floods earlier this week. Photo: Kim Chappell.

The North Richmond bridge vanished underwater at the height of the floods earlier this week. Photo: Kim Chappell.

"After only 100mm all up for last year it is great to get a bit of security regarding water supplies."

He said he had measured around 40cm of moisture in the soil profile and was upbeat about the prospects for the upcoming cropping season.

"We would hope to store a fair bit of this for the crop to use, it is getting cooler and you'd hope it wouldn't dry out as much as a rain at the start of January."

"It has been a real lottery and it is patchy but it is filling in, although it is still dry enough further up the Lachlan Valley which is unusual."

He said he would now have to formulate a cropping rotation after the drought-enforced two year fallow period.

"Our rotations are all out of whack and we might have a few weed problems so that moisture helps as it means we have the option of canola, which can be a bit marginal in this area, if we want it to help control grass weeds."

VICTORIA:

The southern state does not have as high a reliance on stored summer moisture, but there have been a number of handy rain events for the year, with a heavy thunderstorm across the southern Mallee the headline event in cropping regions.

Elsewhere, parts of fire-ravaged east Gippsland and the eastern ranges have received a helping hand with the remnants of the system that swept across NSW with falls of between 25-50mm.

In the Mallee, farmers in a strip from Walpeup south through Hopetoun and Birchip were the grateful beneficiaries of an unexpected rain event that delivered up to 100mm in some parts between Hopetoun and Birchip, with widespread falls of 40mm and many places receiving up to 75mm.

"It was a real case of storm lotto," said Birchip Cropping Group (BCG) commercial services manager Cameron Taylor.

Many parts of western Victoria received good rainfall earlier in the month.

Many parts of western Victoria received good rainfall earlier in the month.

"The predictions were only for outside chance of a stormy shower but we were lucky enough to see a solid, slow moving band deliver."

Mr Taylor said farmers in the region had seen the importance of summer rain in the 2019 crop, where areas that received heavy rain over the 2018-19 summer managing far better results than those that missed out, despite similar in-crop rain.

"People will be out and really trying to store as much of that moisture for the upcoming crop."

There were plenty of areas less fortunate, however, with the parched Millewa region receiving just patchy storms, with very few in the far-north west getting meaningful tallies.

Further south, Grain Producers Australia chairman Andrew Weidemann said the Wimmera had also had good falls, generally earlier in the piece.

At Rupanyup, where he farms, there have been falls of up to 100mm in isolated patches and more widespread totals of 50-75mm all up, which is relatively common for the western and central Wimmera.

Directly to the east, however, Mr Weidemann said tallies dropped off.

"Places like Marnoo and St Arnaud have had very little rain, there are parts of the Northern Country where they have had useful rain, but again, it is characterised by just how patchy it is."

SOUTH AUSTRALIA:

South Australia has not been the centre of the most recent rain event, but earlier in the year there were handy falls in parts, including right up into the north-eastern pastoral zone.

Further south, prime cropping regions such as the Mallee and the Eyre Peninsula have enjoyed patchy rain, although plenty missed out.

In the Mallee Grain Producers South Australia (GPSA) board member Tanja Morgan said there were wildly varying tallies.

"Around Loxton there was 15-40mm a couple of weeks ago, but down towards Lameroo that grades up to 60-10mm.

"It came down in storms so it varies from paddock to paddock let alone district to district and then you've got areas such as Murray Bridge which pretty much missed out altogether," Ms Morgan, who farms at Jabuk, in the southern Mallee, said.

In general she said most of the Mallee would look to do some summer spraying, but added more rain was needed for some for it to be of real use.

Wade Dabinett, GPA chairman, who farms at Parilla, said he had around 60mm near the Victorian border.

Wade Dabinett, GPSA chairman, says 60mm in his local area has put a spring in farmers' step.

Wade Dabinett, GPSA chairman, says 60mm in his local area has put a spring in farmers' step.

"It is great, we're summer spraying with a purpose this year, the rain will mean we can bank some moisture."

On the Eyre Peninsula Jared Sampson, Warramboo, said while his area in the north of the peninsula had largely missed out on rain it was a different story back towards the coast.

"Friday week ago we had those patchy summer storms, so while I only had 6-8mm half an hour away there was 140mm," Mr Sampson, also a GPSA director, said.

He said he was in Port Lincoln at the time of a heavy rain and there had been flash flooding.

"It came down really heavily there, over 100mm, but at the airport 10km away it was only 10-15mm, which gives you an idea how patchy it was."

"It was really hit and miss, but there will be some that have got some useful moisture for the upcoming crop."

He said the patchiness had been characteristic of the EP as a whole in recent years.

"You've had some pockets, in around Cowell that have done it really tough, while further to the south they have enjoyed some good yields."

WESTERN AUSTRALIA:

The north and the east of Western Australia have enjoyed good rain for the year, with successive cyclones striking the north-west coast.

In the past week, Cyclone Damien pushed into the semi-arid Gascoyne region delivering falls up to 100mm in pastoral hubs such as Meekatharra and Wiluna before heading further south and dropping useful falls of up to 25mm on centres including Kalgoorlie.

However, in the state's agricultural heartland in the south-west it remains parched.

"We've seen the rain to the north just push east and we've just had a really dry summer," said Pingelly farmer and WA Grains Group member Ray Marshall.

Ray Marshall, Pingelly, says south-west Western Australia would welcome a drink.

Ray Marshall, Pingelly, says south-west Western Australia would welcome a drink.

"Summer rain is not necessarily essential for our cropping systems but we're at a stage where we just want to see some rain for human consumption, for livestock, for fire-fighting and those sort of essentials," Mr Marshall said.

"There was a fire not long ago and the volunteers' efforts were hampered as they just couldn't get hold of water to fight the fire."

"Earlier in the summer rain can be a bit of a nuisance as it brings up all sorts of trash, the melons and all sorts of summer weeds, but from here on in any rain would be fantastic from a cropping point of view, but it would be mainly welcomed to get some water in tanks and dams."

"The rain has been great for the state's pastoral areas but we'd love to see some in the south-west fairly soon."

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