Grower: GRDC Northern Panelist Roy Hamilton says the season has tested the resilience of southern NSW growers so he is encouraging people to reach out for a hand, or talk to a mate, if they are findings things tough. Photo: supplied

Tough finish to challenging season in the south

Challenging, volatile, frustrating: there are a string of words southern NSW grain grower Roy Hamilton could use to describe one of the toughest seasons he has known.

Challenging, volatile, frustrating: there are a string of words southern NSW grain grower Roy Hamilton could use to describe one of the toughest seasons he has known.

But the well respected grower and current Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Northern Region panellist understands that dealing with variable climatic conditions are often the most testing part of agricultural business.

“As growers we deal with dry conditions, frosted crops and wet harvests and we look after our country and we know it will recover,” Mr Hamilton explained.

“However I worry about the people, whose livelihood is farming. This sort of season tests the resilience of even the most hardy, so it is a case of watching out for each other, taking care of our communities and encouraging people to ask for help if they are finding things a bit tough.”

At Mr Hamilton’s family property, Bogandillan at Rand, the winter cropping season started with average soil moisture levels, then deteriorated through an extended dry spell, with crops hit hard by heavy frosts.

Yet the situation was looking up after mid-October rain gave crops a chance to recover, then harvest was just getting into full swing when heavy rain across southern NSW bought it to a halt.

“The situation is the same for a lot of growers across southern NSW, yields and quality was looking good and then it started raining,” Mr Hamilton said.

“In my region most growers got their canola and barley off, but not their wheat. We measured between 70 and 100mm in the last rain event so a lot of crop that was in the paddock will now been downgraded.”

He said looking ahead the moist conditions would mean growers had to stay on top of weed control during the summer.

Andrew McFadyen is a grain grower and consultant in the northern Riverina and also juggles the paddock role with his responsibilities as a GRDC Northern Panelist.

He too says it has been a difficult season, but harvest was largely completed before the rain with wheat yields ranging from 0.5t/ha to 2.8t/ha and those growers who planted early reaping the rewards.

“In crop rainfall ranged from 70mm to 130mm for the growing season, so moisture stress, heat stress and frosts were the major yield constraints this year,” Mr McFadyen said.

“In the past two months we have had 100-150mm of rain, which fell too late to influence crop yields, but fortunately most crops were harvested before the rain.

“This season 90 per cent of grain harvested fell into the H2, APH2 and APH1 grades, with prices making up for the lower yields and most growers would have made a decent margin on their wheat.”

Mr McFadyen said barley harvest yields ranged from 0.8t/ha through to 3.2t/ha, while it was a disappointing year for canola due to the heat and moisture stress, coupled with frost impact and in the worst cases hail damage.

“Pulse crops were also another real challenge for southern growers this season with lentils a complete failure, field peas a major failure, chickpeas a disaster and lupins a failure,” he said.

“Looking ahead it would be really good to see profitable pulses that could cope with lower rainfall zones, which experience heat stress.”

Yet he said the upside of the tough year with a wet finish was the high soil moisture profile, which would set growers up for next season if they stayed on top of fallow weed control to conserve moisture.

And like his GRDC Northern Panel colleague Mr McFadyen agrees the seasonal challenges that often bring with them a high financial cost to growers can take their toll on emotional and mental health.

“We hear a lot about resilience, but I think at times it is also about reaching out and asking for a hand or admitting you’re feeling the pressure after a tough year,” he said.

“There are times when we all wonder why we’re farmers, but there are support services and mates out there to help you through seasons like this.”

Rural Management Strategies business consultant Chris Minehan, who also co-ordinates the NSW Regional Cropping Solutions Network (RCSN) for GRDC in southern NSW, is encouraging the growers and agronomists he works with to take a break during the festive season to ‘relax, recharge and keep things in perspective'.

“There is no way to sugar coat a season like this. We had a dry, frosty winter followed by a wet harvest, it has been difficult, financially and psychologically,” he said.

“In many cases, even with hindsight, there is not a lot people could have done differently to change the outcome of this season, it was just one of those tough years.

“It is really important to have a break, to help get some perspective,” Mr Minehan said.

"Remember to focus on the important things like family, health and community."

But he believes there are three valuable take home messages for growers as they reflect on the season:

Focus on things you can control; unlike the weather, production costs are in your hands. This year reinforced the value of knowing and controlling your costs.

Grower efforts to manage soil moisture from 2016 proved critical this year. If growers hadn’t been able to do that effectively, this season’s winter crops wouldn’t have made it through to August. Many paddocks will start 2018 with good moisture profiles, provided summer weeds are controlled now.

This year reinforced that farming systems designed to be low-risk and resilient, with appropriate cost structures will be more profitable, even in poor production years.

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