IT has been a rollercoaster year for many farmers across the WA grainbelt with plenty of promise at the outset that quickly faded following one of the driest starts to the growing season in recent memory.
However for most WA grain growers, the 2017 season has ended well above expectations thanks to a soft finish that saw State production estimates climb by more than three million tonnes.
Farmers were given an early confidence boost following heavy summer rain that saturated parts of the Central Wheatbelt, Great Southern and South Coast and resulted in record-breaking downpours of more than 200 millimetres over five days from February 8.
Ravensthorpe was among the heaviest hit recording 239 millimetres, while 207mm fell in Wagin and 201mm landed at Mount Madden.
The wild weather caused significant damage to roads – particularly in Esperance region – while the CBH Borden receival site was inundated with floodwaters, and sections of Arc Infrastructure’s Lake Grace-Newdegate rail line was completely washed away.
The rain caused more immediate harm than good to some properties along the South Coast, with flooded paddocks resulting in livestock losses, topsoil erosion and fence damage.
Despite the destruction, the wet weather set the season up for a promising start and confidence was high for a repeat of the early sowing opportunities seen in 2016.
Some growers took advantage of substantial subsoil moisture and kick-started their seeding programs in March, but most waited until after the Easter break on April 16 to get stuck into their programs.
Apart from some small areas of canola that were planted on moisture, most grain was sown dry across the State and growers became frustrated with patchy germination.
Farmers relied on isolated storms to get their crops out of the ground and while small rainfall events gave growers in the south of the grainbelt the germination they were after, many in the northern agricultural regions and the north eastern Wheatbelt began cutting back their cropping programs in mid-May.
Growers in Wubin, Kalannie, Goodlands and Dalwallinu were among the driest and the Grains Institute of WA (GIWA) adjusted its total State planting estimates down by more than 150,000 hectares from May to July.
Prospects of a year reminiscent of last year’s record 16.6 million tonne crop quickly faded and GIWA’s first production predictions released in July had State crop estimates pinned between 10mt to 12mt.
A frontal system through northern parts of the agricultural region dropped falls of up to 10mm at the end of July and threw some growers a lifeline, but was most heavily concentrated along the coast where it wasn’t needed.
It wasn’t until August that Mother Nature answered the calls of the State’s 4200 grain growers – many of whom had begun comparing the season to 2006 – and winter finally arrived.
Wet, cool conditions in September and October turned the season around for most growers, with the exception of those in the north eastern Wheatbelt and northern agricultural areas for whom it came too late.
In most areas the conditions were ideal for grain fill and with very little frost evident, GIWA revised its estimates to 11.5mt in October, with a 5 per cent predicted production increase across all grains from the previous month.
The soft finish was a major win for grain growers, but a dampener for export hay producers who suffered significant quality downgrades across predominant oaten hay production zones surrounding Moora, York, Narrogin and Wagin.
Harvest kicked off in early October, with the first delivery made to CBH on Saturday, October 7 in the Esperance port zone.
It was q slow start to harvest with grain deliveries through CBH at a six-year low by the end of the month, sitting at less than 70,000t by October 27 due to continuous rainfall.
At the same time last year more than 600,000t had been delivered.
As more harvesters made their way into paddocks it quickly became evident that the soft finish had benefited grains more than expected and crops were yielding better than they looked.
State production estimates jumped to 13.5mt in GIWA’s December crop report, with potential for a further increase according to report author Michael Lamond.
Of all the State’s port zones, Esperance has been the biggest winner and exceeded its grain receival record of 2.67mt achieved last year.
The zone benefited from more consistent rain than the rest of the grainbelt throughout the growing season leading to massive yields of up to 6 tonnes per hectare in wheat crops.
Quality suffered the consequences of the boosted yields with many wheat and barley crops failing to reach protein benchmarks for top grade cereals.
The low protein trend was evident across most of the grainbelt, with the slow start to the season making input decisions difficult for growers who weren’t expecting the soft finish.
But for most, the low protein is a low price to pay for the major boost in yields.
“Pretty well everywhere – particularly in the lower rainfall areas in Geraldton and Kwinana – most growers have got that extra 100 kilograms or 200kg in their crops and it has just added up,” Mr Lamond said.
“After speaking with growers and consultants, I don’t think we’ve ever seen such a significant late-season improvement, it’s very unusual to get such a good finish.”
CBH leadership changes
After more than eight years at the helm of Australia’s largest grain exporter, former CBH chief executive officer Andy Crane announced he would step down from the top job early this year.
Dr Crane spent more than 17 years in various roles with CBH and promised to stay with the co-operative until an appropriate replacement was found after his resignation announcement in April.
Dr Crane outlined his greatest achievements as a reduction in injury and incident rates, the acquisition of locomotives and wagons for rail and business diversification improvements, including CBH’s investments in Interflour.
Former BHP Billiton iron ore boss Jimmy Wilson took over from Dr Crane on October 1.
Mr Wilson led BHP’s energy coal, stainless steel and nickel west divisions in Australia and managed BHP’s chrome and aluminium operations in South Africa before becoming president of the company’s iron ore division, where he was recognised for posting massive savings of up to 50pc.
He is among 21 people facing charges of culpable homicide after 19 people died following a dam collapse in 2015 at Brazil’s Somarco mine.
Safety was outlined as Mr Wilson’s key priority at his new role with CBH, along with a focus on cost cutting and efficiency improvements within the co-operative’s operations division.
“The strategy within the business –in the storage and handling business and in the logistical part of the business – is to get down that cost curve sustainably and safely,” Mr Wilson said.
“That’s probably where the business needs to focus now given that we’re going to be deploying this $750 million on the network over the next five to 10 years.”
Meanwhile member director elections early in the year left the CBH board unchanged, with the reappointment of chairman Wally Newman, Vern Dempster and Rod Madden.
Mr Newman was re-elected unopposed in District 4, while Morawa’s Mr Madden defeated Northampton grower Brad Cripps and Walkaway’s Gareth Rowe by more than 100 votes.
Results were down to the wire in District 2, where Vern Dempster edged out Cunderdin grower Stuart Mussered by just seven votes.
It was a controversial campaign following suggestions from Mr Dempster that Mr Mussared was aligned with the Australian Grains Champions move to corporatise CBH – a suggestion Mr Mussared strongly denied.
CBH new Intermalt facility
CBH’s venture into the South East Asian malting market became official in July, with the opening of the $US70m ($90m) Intermalt factory in the Vietnamese province of Ba Ria Vung.
Intermalt is a subsidiary of Interflour, which is 50pc owned by the CBH Group.
WA growers are expected to supply the majority of malting barley to the facility, which at this stage has the capacity to produce 110,000t of malt each year.
The plant took two and a half years to construct, with plans to build production to 220,000t by 2019 to meet the growing demand for beer in Vietnam which has seen consumption rise at an average of 6-9pc per annum over the past decade, making it the biggest beer market in South East Asia.
More than 40 CBH growers made their way to the facility for its official opening during the bulk handler’s study tour.
CBH grains stock disclosure debate continues
The discussion on whether Australia’s biggest grain handlers should be forced to disclose stock information has been a hot topic this year, with on-going debate between WA’s State farming organisations and their eastern States’ counterparts.
Grain Growers Limited and Grain Producers Australia (GPA) have been key advocates for mandatory disclosure of stocks information in a bid to improve transparency and competition within the industry.
The groups lobbied former agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce to legislate that commercial grain storage companies make details of their grain stocks public.
The CBH Group has pushed against the public disclosure of its stocks information, but has provided receival and quality information to its growers each week on its LoadNet portal during harvest for the first time.
This includes tonnage and quality information by class and port zone.
“CBH is still yet to be convinced of the economic benefit to growers of full grain stocks disclosure to the global market,” said CBH Group general manager of grower and external relations, Brianna Peake.
“To bring added value to our growers CBH is providing receival and quality data on our secure online platform LoadNet.”
The move was welcomed by WAFarmers and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA (PGA) who recognised the advantage offered to growers by having access to the same information as grain marketers.
However each group stopped short of calling for the release of stocks information to become mandatory, making note of market differences between the eastern States and WA.
“One of the marketing advantages that we have in WA is that the market has to guess a little bit about where the stocks are in WA, we’ve got that advantage so why not keep it?” asked PGA Grain Committee chairman Gary McGill.
“As an export State, we’re yet to see the economic argument for WA growers to have all of the stocks held in the bulk handling authority here released, particularly in a mandated fashion.”
WAFarmers said in a statement it supports equal access to harvest delivery information as made available to the trade by CBH.
“The information provided by bulk handling companies this season is essential, as voluntary declaration of stocks information would prevent government intervention and legislation,’’ it said.
“At this time, WAFarmers does not support legislation mandating grain stocks reporting.”
GPA chairman Andrew Weidemann also commended CBH’s release of aggregated stocks information and described it as a “good start”.
GM back in the spotlight
Ahead of the March 11 State election, the Labor party softened its stance on genetically modified (GM) cropping in WA.
After staunch resistance in late 2016 to the repeal of the GM Crops Free Areas Act, then shadow agriculture minister Mick Murray indicated in January that Labor had changed its attitude towards the technology.
Mr Murray said although Labor was disappointed, there was “no scope for the State to stop GM canola”.
“In government we would work to protect non-GM farmers and the community from GM contamination and put the proper labelling of foods on the national agenda,” Mr Murray said.
This statement rang true mid-year when Greens MP Diane Evers tabled a petition in Parliament calling for an investigation into compensation mechanisms for WA growers who suffer economic loss caused by GM contamination, prompted by the high profile Marsh versus Baxter case.
Labor supported the inquiry, which will be conducted by an Upper House standing committee with public submissions open until February 16, 2018.
Grain growers have hit back at the inquiry with fears it will be a step backwards following the repeal of the GM Crops Free Act last year.
“While we understand the State government is intending to look at this issue to ensure peaceful co-existence rather than necessarily changing current legislation, bringing GM canola back into the spotlight after the difficulties faced by industry in getting the GM Free Areas Bill 2003 repealed last year seems like a backward step,” said WAFarmers grain section president Duncan Young.
New crop research Hub
Mr Joyce announced a new $5m crop research hub in WA in August, which will be dedicated to bolstering crop productivity and reducing the impact of disease nationwide.
The investment was made up of a $3 million contribution from the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), along with 1.5m from Murdoch University and $250,000 from Curtin University and DPIRD.
The research hub will be primarily based at Murdoch University where 18 glasshouses will be built and 2.8ha of irrigated, netted field plots will be established.
A separate glasshouse will be built at Curtin, and will work alongside the university’s new Centre for Crop Disease and Management.