The West

Steve Dilley needs 150Ml to irrigate his apple orchard.
Steve Dilley needs 150Ml to irrigate his apple orchard.

WA farmers have started writing off failed crops, blaming a severe lack of rain following one of the driest winters on record.

Hyden crop and sheep farmers started spraying dead crops to eradicate weeds this week, while sheep farmers allowed their flock to graze on canola and lupin crops that are now worth more as livestock feed.

It means a potential loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in income the crops would normally have returned.

Hundreds of sheep and cattle are being trucked over east because of a lack of feed from the Wheatbelt and pastoralists are destocking to stop animals dying.

Dairy farmers reliant on water from dams and reservoirs are increasingly nervous about having their water allocations cut as the State deals with low water levels.

Orchardists are warning of smaller fruit from the South-West as the State's "fruit bowl" struggles from the dry conditions.

Bulk grain handler CBH said the latest forecast for this year's harvest would be about eight million tonnes - two million tonnes below average.

Hyden farmer Colin Nicholl said this was the worst year he had seen in his 52 years of farming and his sheep now grazed on what was left of his canola crops.

"A lot of farmers in the region have got rid of their stock and now everyone is starting to say, 'let's forget about this year and start getting ready for next year'," Mr Nicholl said.

Another Hyden farmer, Trevor Hinck, has started killing his crops after the driest year since 1940, a loss of about $80,000 of seed, chemicals and fertilisers.

Successive dry years have forced pastoralists to destock or watch animals die slowly from thirst.

Murgoo Station owners Reg and Bridget Seaman have had just 68mm of rain this year at the Murchison property and have had just one winter with average rainfall in 10 years.

"This is the first time we have had to destock completely and our family has been farming here since 1974," Mr Seaman said.

"It's better to sell everything off and sit tight for as long as we can and we'll probably be right for the next 12 months."

Harvey dairy farmer Michael Giumelli feared low levels in the Harvey Dam could see his water allocation cut over summer, his peak milking season.

"We're still holding on to hope that we will have a wet September," he said. "But with escalating grain prices and high input costs, we can't take any more costs."

WAFarmers president Mike Norton said some farmers have had poor incomes for years because of frost and dry weather and now they faced crop failure.

"People have written this year off and are starting to set their paddocks up for next year, either by turning sheep to get on to weeds or spraying," he said.

With just five megalitres of water in his dams, Donnybrook orchardist Steve Dilley is desperately short of the 150Ml he needs to irrigate his apple orchard.

With just 413mm in the gauge so far this year, he had received well below last year's rainfall of 690mm and will have to start pumping water from the river on his property. "We are very short of water. If we haven't got enough water to irrigate crops we get small fruit and the stress not only affects this year's crop but also next year's and the year after," he said.

Blossoming of his apples is due to start next month, starting from a pea-sized apple. Mr Dilley will start irrigating in December and carry on through to mid-May next year.

But of his 200Ml maximum dam storage, the drought has left his three dams with just 5Ml. He said no amount of rain would help now.

"It's too late now. During winter, say we need 250mm of rain in a four-week period to saturate the ground, but our situation is worse because our run-off comes through the forest and the trees soak up the water," he said. "So we always need more rain on top of that to fill the dams."

The West Australian

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