For those with even the greenest of thumbs, keeping a backyard garden or front lawn alive when rain doesn’t fall is a struggle. So how do Australian farmers plan to keep the country fed?
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, it was the eighth-driest April on record with rainfall across grain, sheep and cattle heartlands in southern Australia well below normal.
At 63 per cent below average, April rainfall across Western Australia was the lowest since 1994.
Despite this, WA’s grains industry estimates growers in the state will forge ahead with seeding this year’s crop, planting more than 8 million hectares of wheat, barley, canola, oats, lupins and pulses.
With drier years fast becoming the new normal, WA grain grower Mark Adams said farmers were adapting to the change.
Mr Adams and his wife Heather are planting 4,400 hectares of genetically modified canola and barley in dry and dusty conditions this year.
They were hoping for rain last weekend in Western Australia’s Great Southern region. Instead, an intense cold front delivered wind gusts of up to 95 kilometres per hour, whipping up dust storms across great swathes of the countryside.
Despite images that would not look out of place in the pages of a John Steinbeck novel, Mr Adams said the Australian farmer of today is far removed from the downtrodden “dustbowl” sharecroppers in the Grapes of Wrath.
“It was a reminder of why we farm like we do,” he said.
“Years have gone by when we have seen vast areas of the south coast and the great southern and even the entire Wheatbelt in Western Australia blow away,” he said.
Breaking with tradition, the new tradition
The Adams farming family have been proponents of the conservation agriculture practice of “no-tillage” for about 35 years, which means instead of ploughing their fields, they leave the stubble of past crops on the ground to protect the soil from wind.
Using modern herbicides to keep weeds at bay, seeds are drilled directly into the ground so as to not disturb the fragile soil or expose it to the elements.
Despite being a relatively new practice, according to the Grains Research and Development Corporation, around 89 per cent of Australian farmers have used the no-till farming method since the 1980s.
“Advances in agriculture have included obviously chemicals and no-till, time of sowing and choice of [seed] varieties … so we have a lot more options than we have had in the past.
“Our practices now are quite a bit different from what they were in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Mr Adams.
“Agriculture throughout Australia, Western Australia and the world has adapted to climate change and variation in seasons … we modify our programs based on those variations.”
Mr Adams started dry seeding barley after receiving about 20 millimetres of rain last month.
Despite the vast advances in technology, Mr Adams admitted to checking the weather forecast about five times a day.
With no rainfall on the horizon, in nearby South Stirling the Curwen family have laid down tools to reassess their plans to put 7,500 hectares of crop in the ground.
Reece Curwen, who runs the broadacre farm with his brother Guy, said it had been a long dry autumn in the usually wet south coastal region.
“With a poorer April it certainly amplifies the drier May,” he said.
“Our plan, which began on the first of February, is completely different from what it is now, but that’s just a part of the game.
The former Nuffield Scholar said flexibility was key to good farming practices.
“We always overbudget on the seed we have on hand and we always make sure we have a really diverse choice of varieties [to plant],” he said.
Many mouths to feed
In addition to feeding humans, farmers across southern Australia are tackling the difficult question of how to feed their animals.
For the Curwens that includes more than 20,000 sheep.
“In a mixed system, this is always the most difficult time of the year managing the cropping and sheep enterprises because every single paddock that you sow is one less paddock for the sheep, so it’s a real balancing act,” he said.
With about 2,000 head of cattle spread out across five farms on the state’s south coast, Jarrod and Sarah Carroll also have a lot of hungry mouths to feed.
“[You] don’t go starting a tractor with no reason around here at the moment because it gets quite noisy,” Mr Carroll said.
“They’re very much hand to mouth at the moment, even if you do see a bit of a green tinge there’s nothing in it… it’s only what’s coming off the tucker truck.”
“Normally we would have some form of decent drink but just the fact we’ve had only little drips and spots here and there is quite unusual.”
The Carrolls received rainfall at only one of their properties. They said they were not panicking and were keeping a good supply of feed on hand to deal with the dry.
“I could run more cows than what we do but I try to run just under the wire for [years like these],” he said.
“We just try to cut more hay and silage than what we need and [stock fewer animals] … just so we’ve got a bit of fat in the bank so we don’t have to be really stressed in a year like this.”
With the dry seasonal conditions in southern Australia, Mr Carroll has witnessed hay prices close to double.
“I bought a bit of extra hay just so I can sleep at night and not have to wake up thinking I’m going to run out,” he said.
“I’ve rung some people and they’ve wanted $200 a tonne … so that’s why we bought a bit now and stuck it away.
“We don’t want to be paying the big dollars at the end of the year; [that’s] if it’s still around because I know supply is getting very short.”
Mr Carroll said that with careful planning, they could hold onto many of their stock.
“We don’t just want to [have a] fire sale and drop them into the market,” he said.
“All of our cattle already pretty much have homes at the end of the year so we’re not just flying by the seat of our pants. We do have programs in place for all our animals.”
“[We also] keep all our cattle in really good condition. It’s easier to keep the condition on [than it is] to catch it up.”
For Reece Curwen, who harvested a 20,000 tonne crop last season, the outlook is positive, with a bit of careful planning.
“It’s only mid-May. There’s still time for it to rain and there are a lot of shorter season [seed] varieties which can still do just as well [compared] to a long season variety.