Dry Conditions Loom Over Australian Agriculture

The Big Dry continues to grip many parts of Australia in drought, despite some areas having received encouraging recent rains.

October rains across northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland came mostly from thunderstorms, providing only patchy coverage.

“To give one example, Dubbo, which has had a direct hit from a couple of thunderstorms, has had 90 millimetres for the months, but a lot of places around it have had only 30 or 40,” said Blair Trewin, a Senior Climatologist with the Bureau of Meteorology.

Despite higher than average rainfall being received in some areas in October, water storage levels had not experienced the usual top up from winter rainfall in the northern Murray-Darling Basin or eastern New South Wales.

High daytime temperatures have contributed to a reduction in already low soil moisture levels, for much of Australia. Poor conditions have been further exacerbated with many areas being hit with frost. Grain growers in Western Australia, South Australia and the Victorian Wimmera have reported crop losses after record low temperatures were recorded.

Cropping Impact

Winter crop production is expected to be highly variable across the country with many parts of Western Australia looking in ‘good to excellent’ condition. Victoria and South Australia are both reporting mixed results, while New South Wales and Queensland are both facing a below average season. Total winter crop production (2018-2019) is expected to be 12% lower than last season, at 33.2 million tonnes.

The current outlook will likely lead to a 20% reduction in Australia’s summer cropping program, particularly in rice and cotton. Strong sorghum prices could increase plantings by 7%. Total summer cropping will decline by 16% to 3.5 million tonnes.

Looking Ahead

The next few months are expected to be drier than average across the southeast, northeast and southwest parts of Australia.

“For rainfall, the outlook over many parts of the country is leaning [towards] dry, but perhaps not quite as dry as in some recent months,” said Dr Trewin.

Warmer than average days and nights are expected for most parts of the country. Areas of the east coast, South Australia and Western Australia are due to face higher than average bush fire risk, but a lack of vegetation has reduced the fire risk to near average.

Increasing temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, indicating a stronger than normal potential for El Nino conditions. The presence of El Nino in spring or summer months typically indicated lower than average rainfall across eastern and northern Australia. This pattern could be further exacerbated by a positive Indian Dipole, caused by cooling waters northeast of Australia.

Reducing the Risk

Farmers are calling on the government to create tax breaks for those taking out multi peril crop insurance (MCPI) policies. MCPI has been available in Australia for four years, and covers the cost of seeding a crop in the event that it is wiped out by drought, flood, fire, storm or frost.

High policy costs have resulted in a low uptake rate among farmers. According to insurer Latevo, the average policy cost this year was $40,000. Modelling by the company showed that a 150% tax incentive would be cost effective for both growers and the government.

Sources: Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, ABC, ABC

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