Consecutive frosts over the weekend are thought to have wiped at least 500,000 tonnes and possibly up to one million tonnes off what had been a bumper grain crop in Western Australia.
Barley crops were the hardest hit as temperatures plunged to well below zero across the state’s wheatbelt, where farmers were looking forward to a combination of high yields and high prices.
The south-eastern wheatbelt, a big barley-growing area, was the worst affected, with growers there expected to start slashing ruined crops for hay. The one consolation for them is that hay is attracting inflated prices and in high demand to help to ease some of the livestock feed shortages in drought-affected eastern states.
Grain Industry Association of WA (GIWA) forecaster Michael Lamond said the barley losses would become clearer over the next few days, but would add up to at least 500,000 tonnes and possibly double that, with an already five-year-low canola crop also hard hit.
Under the worst-case scenario, the unexpected frost has wiped about $400 million off the on-farm value of the crop.
“It is extremely disappointing because, on the back of a perfect season in some areas and great prices, farmers really went for it in terms of investing in the crop. It is devastating for them because they won’t get those input costs on things like fertiliser and chemicals back,” Mr Lamond said.
However, WA remains on track to produce a wheat crop of about 10 million tonnes after that crop largely escaped damage because it has been slow to develop this year and not yet in head in many areas.
The frost came just 24 hours after grain industry leaders predicted the WA economy was on track to reap a $16 billion farming windfall based on crop forecasts, booming prices for wheat and barley, and the multiplier effect through supply chains.
GIWA will revise its production estimates after forecasting a 16.3 million tonne harvest on Friday, but said the on-farm value of the crop was about $6 billion even allowing for a million-tonne downgrade.
Australia is virtually sold out of barley on the back of high demand from China and from eastern states livestock producers grappling with feed shortages. WA had been on track to produce a record barley crop of 3.8 million tonnes.
Commonwealth forecaster ABARES said last week that Australia was likely to a 33.2 million tonne winter harvest but GIWA and Grain Producers Australia have warned the figure is likely to be closer to 26 million tonnes.