By Boyd Champness

A LACK of rain across large tracts of Australias grain belt is decreasing the likelihood of Australia producing a record wheat crop this year.

Analysts predictions a few weeks ago suggested Australia was heading towards a new record wheat crop of 24 million tonnes for the 1999/2000 harvest. The previous record was 23.7 million tonnes in 1996/97.

However, this is far from assured, with autumn rains in many states arriving late or not at all.

Plantings have just begun in Queensland, and farmers in some parts of western and southern New South Wales and northern-west Victoria have been forced to sow crops dry in the hope that the autumn break will eventually arrive.

The area sown to canola this year is also under review following the late rains. Australias canola (oilseed rape) area is forecast to enjoy a 39% increase this season, with the potential to yield a record 2.14 million tonnes

But the forecast 1.65 million hectares will only eventuate if rain is received across the whole canola belt by the end of this month, according to the Stock and Land.

Canola Association of Australia president Bob Colton told the newspaper a combination of early sowings into moisture and more recent dry sowings have seen about half the intended crop planted in NSW and about one third in Western Australia.

However, very little has been planted in Victoria and South Australia to date, both large canola states.

Last year, about 80% of the national crop had been sown by mid-May.

Mr Colton said establishment of this seasons already sown crop is expected to be patchy unless rain is received soon.