Farmers make hay from frost-hit wheat

24 Oct, 2015 01:00 AM
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York grower Charlie Boyle took the proactive approach to a frost-affected wheat crop by cutting it for hay. His stubble management practices of burning off meant his hay fetched a premium price and helped with cost recovery. Photo: Cox Inall Communications.
York grower Charlie Boyle took the proactive approach to a frost-affected wheat crop by cutting it for hay. His stubble management practices of burning off meant his hay fetched a premium price and helped with cost recovery. Photo: Cox Inall Communications.

WHILE the weather hasn't been ideal for grain growers, the heat in recent weeks has made for prime hay conditions in WA.

Quality oat and wheat hay is coming in from all areas with growers already receiving between $200 and $250 per tonne, with the promise of top-up payments if conditions stay on track.

Gilmac general manager Munro Patchett said there was more hay being cut this year than originally thought which suited his expanding export needs.

"The market is still buying good quality oaten hay," he said.

"The hay cut early to date has been very good visually and through analysis and the hay making conditions couldn't have been better in the past two to three weeks.

"It really hasn't been good for grain growers, but luckily it's worked for us. We've had our challenges over the past few years with one being a complete wipe out.

"There's good returns out there, the prices farmers are being paid by all exporters are very fair."

York grower Charlie Boyle is among those who have managed to take advantage of the good hay weather.

Mr Boyle's wheat crop was affected by frost, but Mr Patchett said his management practices and quick action meant he has cut and baled a high quality wheat hay product.

Mr Boyle said his property was affected by several frosts in early and mid-September, which together with 30((xB0))°C days and only about 10 millimetres of rain had left a poorly producing and damaged crop.

"We had some stem frost and then we had some head frosts, which meant we had a whole lot of wheat that wasn't going to make grain so we cut it for hay," he said.

Stubble management practices such as raking or burning, which optimise the efficiency of pre-emergent herbicides, have also been shown through Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) research to reduce the effect of spring frosts on crop yields.

Mr Boyle has previously been involved in GRDC stubble management trials and said he makes this an annual practice on his farm, particularly in frost prone areas.

He said frost frequency has increased on his property during the past decade on the back of a shift to 100 per cent cropping on larger areas and moving to earlier seeding to avoid the increasingly dry spring conditions.

He hoped on-going research would fill some vital knowledge gaps to help manage frost, which is costing the industry an estimated $63 million a year in lost production.

"We have been sowing crops on an east-to-west line, thinking it was helping to intercept more light and have a shading effect on weeds," he said.

"It would be good to know how this orientation actually impacts on frost severity."

Mr Boyle said his crops tend to suffer one severe frost every three or four years, although even mild frosts can take out 30 to 50pc of production on low-lying country.

His decision to cut wheat for hay this year was focused on cost recovery.

"Rather than just sitting back and hoping for the best we cut four to five tonnes of hay a hectare," he said.

"The weather was looking conducive to hay making so we did it.

"There still would've been some grain there but it would've been low quality and it's hard to know how much was going to be there.

"With only 200mm of growing season rainfall probably at best it was going to be a two tonne per hectare crop, but with a frost on top of that it was more likely to be 1t/ha or less."

Mr Patchett said Mr Boyle was clever in his contingency planning to manage stubble as this made for less chance of contamination in hay and a higher price.

He said recent talk, particularly in Parliament, that genetically modified (GM) canola contaminations were causing problems in foreign markets was misdirected.

While contamination was an issue, he said the industry was concerned at any type of contamination, with the GM status being irrelevant.

He said a few years ago there was an issue with China rejecting GM contaminated alfalfa hay from the United States, but this wasn't the case for Australian hay.

"Markets in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan haven't indicated any issue and we don't want it to be created as an issue," he said.

"Our goal is to buy non-contaminated hay, any contaminated hay we will still buy but there will be a price penalty and we will talk to the farmer about that.

"Certainly in the wheaten hay, nobody planted the wheat crops to be hay so they didn't knock the stubble over and there is residual stubble coming through in the hay."

Mr Patchett said some quick management early in the season would provide a contingency.

"They should've rolled it or prickle chained it, but no one was planting wheat or barely for hay," he said.

"If you think there's a chance there might be a frost then be aware and do one more pass and knock that residual stubble down.

"Otherwise you'll lose $20/t off the price because there's stubble contaminating the product.

"If you think there's a chance or have a back up plan, then spend an extra couple of dollars a hectare to do the stubble.

"It's just good practice."

Mr Patchett said hay was being received at all of Gilmac's five sites across WA, South Australia and Victoria, and the newest site at Wagin was fully operational.

Construction commenced on the Wagin-Dumbleyung Road site earlier this year.

All but one final shed is up of the planned four storage sheds, plant production shed with hay press, weighbridge and site office.

Earthworks for further storage sheds has been completed, allowing for easy expansion from its 50,000t capacity to 80,000t as demand increases.

Mr Patchett said some design changes to the plant shed had held up construction but the priority of having hay storage sheds open to get hay out of the paddocks and under cover was complete.

It is expected about 15 people, mainly from the local area, will be employed at the 80 hectare site six kilometres out of Wagin.

p For information on what to do with a frosted crop visit www.grdc.com.au.

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