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Growers adapting to drier seasons

WIMMERA farmers are evaluating what the  new year will bring after a dry end to 2019. 

The Bureau of Meteorology’s first outlook for the year shows Wimmera farmers could experience a drier than average first quarter. 

Like many farmers in the district Victorian Farmers Federation Warracknabeal Branch President David Drage welcomed a positive 2019 harvest.

Mr Drage said the strong harvest and minimal rainfall later in the year has left little moisture in the soil profile, and he’ll be “starting the season on an empty tank.” 

“We had a good harvest, but as a result of that, we have no subsoil moisture left. I have a few moisture probes and they’re all as dry as they’ve ever been. With the good harvest we’ve used up all the stored moisture we had and so far we’ve had no rain to do a replenishment of the soil,” Mr Drage said. 

“It basically means we’re starting this season with an empty tank. We’re going to be entirely dependent on a good opening break and good seasonal rainfall to get us through.” 

BoM’s Jan-March outlook is showing the chance of receiving a significant rainfall similar to last season is less likely; however there is an equal chance of a dry or wet start to the year. 

Drought

Much of Australia is affected by drought, especially in New South Wales and southern Queensland. 

The bureau reports Australia is being affected by one of the strongest positive Indian Ocean Dipole events on record; El Niño–Southern Oscillation neutral throughout the year. 

Comparatively farmers across the Wimmera welcomed a positive start to the 2019 season with significant rainfalls. 

Recordings from Warracknabeal Museum’s recorded heavy rainfall of 106mm in December of 2018.

The BoM reports this year’s December and January rainfall totals have fallen short of last years totals. 

The statewide average rainfall total was 78 percent below the December average of 48mm.

However, Mr Drage said the positive to take away from the drier outlook is less weeds to deal with on lead up to sowing. 

“So far this looks like it’s going to be a dry summer. We’re saving money on chemicals but it means we’re going into the coming season without any confidence of any stored soil moisture.” 

Bureau of Meteorology Senior Climatologist Robin Duell said the outlook is also showing warmer than average temperatures on the horizon.

“The warm and dry conditions we’ve experienced this year have been driven by a very strong positive Indian Ocean Dipole, but also strong angular momentum in our south, these drivers are now starting to weaken,” Dr Duell said. 

“This has led us into our driest time of the year, our summer time, with very dry soils.” 

“If we take a look at first quarter of 2020, the days will likely be warmer than average and nights will also likely be warmer than average, so again a continuation of elevated risk of bushfires and heat wave.” 

She said the bureau is predicting a neutral outlook for rainfall for the first quarter. 

“In terms of rainfall we actually have a neutral outlook. So this means for most of Australia there’s no strong indication either way that it will be particularly wet or dry.” 

Senior Hydrologist Robert Pipunic said the rainfall outlook will have an affect on stream flows between December and February. 

“The rainfall outlook does have an affect on stream flow outlook but also the current state of the landscape plays a big role as well,” Dr Pipunic said. 

“If we look out flow forecast for the summer - a lot of our forecasts locations are indicating a low flow and that’s not good in flows storages either.” 

Mr Drage said with the potential for a drier farming season, he will strategically sow crops which require less water and crops like vetch which can double to feed his sheep. 

“I’ll be limiting the amount of canola I’ll be planting, mostly barley, and I’ll increase the amount of vetch I’ll be planting,” Mr Drage said. 

“Vetch has the dual benefit of  either being harvested or grazing it off for the sheep if it is a poor year and I’m desperate for sheep feed. It’s the safest legume to grow if you want to get some return out of it.” 

The Bureau’s  Regional Weather and Climate Guide for the Wimmera states over the last 30 years rainfall has decreased nine percent annually.

It also reports there have been more frosts and they have been occurring later, while there have been more hot days, with more consecutive days above 40 degree celcius.

Climate

With a drying climate, Wimmera Catchment Management Authority (CMA) Agriculture Landcare Facilitator Ray Zippel  who expertise in soil profiles said with a changing climate farmers are having later breaks than usual. 

“With climate change or whatever you like to call it, we’re getting shorter seasons and hotter seasons. Our seasonal break seems to be getting later all the time and the trend at the moment is for spring to cut off earlier.” 

According to the climate guide farmers are far more likely to receive rainfall over winter than in summer. 

Mr Zippel said farmers rely heavily on the winter rainfall as summer is unpredictable. 

“We’re pretty much reliant on what we get for the winter unless we have some sort of an even,” Mr Zippel said. 

Techniques

He said modern techniques of focusing on the soil profiles have proven effective with even in drier than average years.  

“Modern farming methods have gotten us over the line in recent times,” he said. 

“The way people farm these days has had significant advantages, less soil disturbance leaves more cover on the soil through the summer which means we’re much more effect at managing what moisture we get.

“In the past, they were working their ground a lot more than they do now and a lot of the soil structure was being destroyed at the same time.”

Adapting

He said farmers are adapting to drought more effectively. 

“You’d only have to go back the 1980s and 90s to see like the 1982 drought, there was practically nothing growing, and really we’re not that much different with our seasons in our recent times, to the way that season played out.” 

While still early in the year, he said farmers are likely continue to evaluate the weather patterns before making any critical decisions. 

“Most people will have a good look at what they’re going to do for the year from March and early April, they’d have a look at all that data that’s available now on the amount of moisture in their profile,” he said. 

“They’d typically leave a crop out of paddock that they’d think is a bit risky perhaps put a different variety of something that handle the dry a little bit better.”

He said with less rain recorded for late 2019 and early 2020, prospects are looking far more underwhelming than 2019s results. 

“It’s only personal observation but -unless we get a winter I’d say the prospects next spring will certainly be weighted against us,” he said. 

“We had a very easy spring this last year, the temperature stayed low and we didn’t get hot too quick and we didn’t have a lot of frost damage. 

“When we get drier years we generally get a lot of wind in the spring time, wind dries things out and we get frost. We might not have had the rain we needed but it was an easy spring, that got us through.”