OFF the back of a fantastic 2022 season, growers and their advisers are pondering what's in store for 2023.
Total grain production in Western Australia was just over 26 million tonnes, eight per cent higher than 2021, with a near-record area sown of 8.9 million hectares.
As a result of two good years in a row, many grower's balance sheets are strong with low levels of debt, good cash reserves and recent capital upgrades.
Along with this, fixed costs have increased substantially, and many growers are now locked into higher production cost structures, according to the latest Grain Industry of Western Australia (GIWA) Crop Report.
GIWA believes the sub-soil moisture levels are good for WA's central and southern regions, although the recent climate forecast is predicting less rainfall for the 2023 growing season.
For many growers in the lower rainfall regions, there will be a pulling back in area cropped, however this will be largely dependent on the timing of the break to the season.
For the higher rainfall areas there will be more of an enterprise shift rather than a significant change in area cropped.
"There may even be a slight increase in cropped area due to the current low sheep prices," the report said.
Less people are predicted to grow barley due to its relative grain yield performance compared to wheat and the high cost of controlling diseases in the higher rainfall regions.
Wheat has outperformed barley in yield for the past few years due to the mild and slow finishes, making better use of available rainfall.
If there is no autumn rain or a late break, canola area could see a swing back to well under the record two million hectares grown in 2022.
The lupin area is under more pressure now that the price of bagged nitrogen has come back a little and there are significant volumes of lupins being carried over on farms.
"Pulses are having a tough time on the price front and whilst everyone would like to grow more, the dollars simply do not stack up for many growers," the report said.
"In saying that, cereals following lupins, legume pasture and pulses in 2022 returned up to 2pc higher protein at higher grain yields and less applied nitrogen than cereal on cereal paddocks."
Two record years in a row is rare, but some growers in the eastern corridor have had three good seasons - which is simply unheard of.
With the potential of four good years in a row, GIWA predicts growers to be more risk averse in the 2023 cropping season.
"Although the recent reduction in variable costs such as fertiliser and crop protection products has changed the thinking to 'risk averse while keeping options open and ready to react', it still depends on what unfolds at the start of the season," GIWA said.
Soil moisture reserves are low in this zone and this will almost certainly mean more fallow on the heavy soils that are able to store moisture.
The area of fallow has been low in the past few years, as growers have opted to crop those paddocks targeted for fallow and take the cash instead of leaving them out.
"Advancements in managing fallow at a lower cost and the contribution of mineralised nitrogen on fallow paddocks being able to supply 50pc of the following crops' needs, will see less crop area in 2023 for the zone," the crop report said.
Lighter soils that do not store moisture will continue to be "fallowed" with lupins even though they may not contribute significantly to the profitability of whole farm operation.
According to GIWA, 2022 was an exception to this and due to very high grain yields, despite low prices, lupins were profitable in the year they were grown, which is not always the case.
The low rainfall regions of Kwinana produced more grain than the higher rainfall Kwinana west area for the first time since the zones were split up.
There are reasonable levels of stored soil moisture right throughout the low rainfall regions of the zone, and this could prove to be very valuable if the low rainfall outlook for the growing season eventuate.
There is continued nervousness in the Kwinana North Midlands as budgets are "line-ball" on current grain prices and longer-term average yields.
According to GIWA, it is not going to take too much of a hiccup to push profit negative.
Growers are very aware of the risk this season and have several contingency plans in place depending on the timing of the break to the season.
"We are probably unlikely to see whole-scale large areas of dry sowing as in the past due to the risk involved," the report said.
Wheat was "brilliant" this season in the Albany region, and it is predicted that there will be a continued shift out of barley to wheat again in 2023.
Growers eventually managed to get over the wet portions of paddocks and finish harvest in January, although GIWA said plenty of grain was left behind - with up to half a tonne of barley and 200kg per hectare of canola lost from wind, hail and heavy rainfall.
Even though the cost to grow a crop in the region is more than $1000/t, there will probably be a slight shift to more area cropped as sheep "are difficult to get rid of at the moment", with no sign that tight processing and lack of export markets for aged sheep will improve in the near future.
Similar to the Geraldton port zone, Esperance has had back-to-back years of more than 4mt of grain produced.
Growers are finally winding up the 2022 harvest, with the majority of grain bags now having been emptied for cleaning and drying.
According to GIWA, the demand for dryers and cleaning has been well in excess of supply and will continue into March, although the percentage of total production to be delivered is now low.
The whole zone had significant rainfall just prior to and during harvest and available sub-soil moisture will be in the back of growers' minds as the end of March and the start of April nears.
"They will be ready to jump onto any planting opportunity following a rainfall event," the report said.
With barley struggling in 2022 from leaf diseases, there is likely to be a movement from barley to wheat in 2023 - which is mirrored across various parts of WA.
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