El Niño hammers wheat crop

14 Oct, 2015 01:00 AM
The week of heat may have cost the nation’s wheat crop 1.6 million tonnes of yield

EL NINO has badly battered the 2015 Australian wheat crop, and may batter the south-east more before the headers move in, but the harvest should still outstrip the 2014 total.

Modelling by the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) suggests that from mid-NSW south, a dry spring has stripped tens of millions of dollars from the wheat crop’s potential.

That was compounded by the heat wave that rolled across south-eastern Australia at the beginning of October - an event not captured in the modelling.

The heat spell was particularly damaging for Victoria’s Mallee and Wimmera regions, Hannah Janson of Australian Crop Forecasters (ACF) said, because those crops were already struggling on insufficient soil moisture.

The yield potential of the Mallee-Wimmera alone dropped by about 14 per cent in the week of the heatwave, ACF calculated. Elsewhere, the yield reduction was more in the order of five per cent.

Overall, ACF thinks the week of heat may have cost the nation’s wheat crop 1.6 million tonnes of yield, or about $500 million, on top of the effects of a dry spring.

ACF’s latest harvest estimate puts the Australian crop at 24.3Mt, better than the 23.6Mt crop of 2014, but with considerable uncertainties around how the remainder of the crop will finish, and what headers will report when they start stripping.

ACF also reduced estimated Australian canola and barley production by three and four per cent respectively, month on month.

QAAFI scientist Graeme Hammer said although the loss of yield potential is disheartening, it could have been much worse. One of the top four El Niño events on record had the potential to wreak much greater drought havoc on winter crops, but fortunately, El Niño’s drying trend was countered up until September by moisture streaming off a warm Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean has now cooled substantially off Australia, meaning that it will reinforce the drying effects of El Niño until the Asian monsoon starts streaming moisture across the continent again - hopefully in the next month or two.

Professor Hammer said although the 2015 winter crop season and its warm, dry spring are within the bounds of natural climate variability, climate trends are moving the envelope of that variability in a direction that promises to make such seasons more common.

Lack of moisture is not the only threat inherent in this pattern.

“With the heat effect pushing the crop earlier, you have to be careful not to run yourself into a frost,” Prof. Hammer said.

“You get a hot season, your crops flower earlier, and you increase your frost risk.”

The extra carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere that is shifting climatic patterns carries some benefits to croppers. Heightened levels of CO2 change many plants’ response to water stress, and in the case of wheat it will lead to greater water efficiency, at least in the northern wheat zones that QAAFI has studied.

The kicker: by mid-century, Prof. Hammer said, the climate change effects of heat and altered rainfall patterns are likely to have a greater negative effect on wheat’s water efficiency than the positive effects of CO2 fertilisation.

That may not be the case with sorghum, though, which has such a strong response to CO2 fertilisation that it could outweigh adverse effects from rainfall and heat.


Matthew Cawood

Matthew Cawood

is the national science and environment writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


Evil Deregulation
14/10/2015 7:03:48 AM

Somehow this El Nino was almost definitely caused by the deregulation of the old National pool, I can feel it in my bones. Back in the day of the single desk- droughts were as rare as good merchants.
14/10/2015 12:25:49 PM

These are the years the agrarian socialists used to withhold grain from the AWB pools to cash in on domestic market opportunities. Of course leaving all the cost of the AWB profit machine on WA growers. USDA has Australia at 27mmt. Reality says we could be looking at half that. No rain in September or October is never good for Australia.
Philip Downie
14/10/2015 3:26:44 PM

Deregulation didn't change the weather or the price, as some would have us believe.
14/10/2015 11:15:54 PM

WA 35 deg plus over past week, also impacting negatively
18/10/2015 2:55:14 PM

Well why wouldn't we D8? It was WA growers who cashed in their shares and delivered the grower corporate AWB to institutional shareholders, did you not ever consider the fact that under the national pooling arrangement the east coast domestic market added value to the pools and helped everyone. Domestic deregulation was always going to lead to that scenario , don't you people over there ever think about cause and effect?
21/10/2015 10:37:15 AM

Looks like (too) late season rain is the next challenge for East Coast growers http://wxmaps.org/pix/prec7.html
NSW Farmer
21/10/2015 12:34:25 PM

sure hope that forecast is wrong
21/10/2015 7:47:32 PM

Now add hail, rain and high winds.
Itz Me
22/10/2015 5:10:54 AM

We can't change the weather, but we can change the crops we grow !
22/10/2015 8:03:17 AM

"While a major El Niño event is doing some of the heavy lifting in boosting global temperatures this year, such records are also a sign of how much Earth has warmed due to the continual buildup of heat-trapping greenhouses gases in the atmosphere." http://www.climatecentral.org/new s/sizzling-september-sets-global- records-19579 Global population reduction is coming. There goes your market. Our world can not support seven billion people. Resource depletion and water scarcity will cause famine on a scale the world has never seen before.
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