Big frost devastates Rob Warburton’s cereal crops

It takes just one hour in one day when the temperature drops below 0C to turn a good crop that might yield 3t/ha to nothing – that’s what frost do. Western Australia got hit by a big frost three week ago that has so far wiped 1.5m tonnes of grain off the expected harvest. It was a flowering frost where the wheat flowers are aborted due to the temperature dropping below 0C – which typically reduces yield by between 10-30%.

But what really did the damage was the black frost – where water sitting on the plant freezes and damages the stem so the plant is unable to draw moisture and nutrients to the head and the plant dies. This type of frost damages not only wheat, but also oilseed rape and barley.

It’s a devastating feeling to be frosted. To watch all the work and money invested in the crop destroyed by a momentary drop in temperature early in the morning. To wake up as the sun rises and to look over paddocks of white seeing an entire year’s income disappear.

Australia doesn’t have multi-peril crop insurance like the USA or a single farm payments like the EU. Farmers’ businesses live and die by the season. For many businesses, this year’s frost will be the last straw, after what has been five years of difficult seasons. But for others this will create opportunities to expand and bring a younger generation of farmers to the land to try their luck.

For those that have escaped the frost it’s still going to be a tough year – most of the regions are going receive below average yields but businesses should do OK due to good grain prices. The difficult part for farmers is that the price is in part driven by the large frost.

Rob Warburton farms 3,000ha with his wife Jen and two daughters in Kojonup, below Perth in Western Australia. Cropping includes wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Wildflower seed is grown for retail. Merino sheep are reared for wool and meat.

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