El Nino could slash eastern Australian winter crop production

Drought looming? | Analyst looks at cooling trend in Indian Ocean

Australia’s winter crops are off to a terrific start, but the finish will depend on weather conditions, which look dicey for the east and encouraging for the western part of the country.

Nick Goddard, executive director of the Australian Oilseeds Federation, said good rain and unusually warm weather combined to create ideal seeding conditions.

“In some areas, growers are saying this is the best start to the winter cropping season in 30 years,” he said in an e-mail.

Drew Lerner, president of World Weather Inc., said all of the main growing areas for wheat, barley and canola have received more rain than normal at some point since March.

“Planting got started early, it has advanced quickly and crop conditions in general up until now have been mostly good,” he said.

There has been little rain in eastern Australia since planting and none on the horizon, but that is not critical because most crops slip into a state of semi-dormancy once winter hits.

What will be crucial is the conditions in the September through November spring months, when the crops enter the reproductive stage. However, that doesn’t look good for eastern Australia.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology says there is at least a 70 percent chance of El Nino occurring this year. Some models predict a transition to El Nino as early as July.

That doesn’t bode well for Queens-land and northern New South Wales, two states in eastern Australia.

“It’s one of the higher correlated areas in the world, so it’s almost inevitable that if there is a developing El Nino that eastern Australia will get less than normal rainfall,” said Lerner.

Queensland and New South Wales produced 29 percent of Australia’s 2013-14 wheat crop, 14 percent of its barley and 19 percent of its canola.

A more important production and exporting region is Western Australia, which produced 39 percent of last year’s wheat crop, 40 percent of the barley and 51 percent of the canola.

El Nino tends to have little impact on weather conditions in Western Australia.

What could be a major influence is the Indian Ocean Dipole. Lerner said there are signs the dipole is entering a negative phase caused by a cooling of the central Indian Ocean.

If it switches to a negative phase, there would likely be above normal precipitation in Western Australia over the Australian winter, boosting prospects for a good crop in that region and offsetting the potential for poor yields in eastern Australia.

Goddard said he expects a canola crop similar to the past two years of 3.5 to four million tonnes, which is well above the previous long-term average of one to two million tonnes.

“We seem to have made a step change to three to four million tonnes per year in recent years as grower confidence in canola has grown, bolstered by better prices at planting versus cereals in recent years.”

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