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Commodity Intelligence Report
October 30, 2009

Western Australia 2009 Crop Travel: September 12-25, 2009

Western Australia (WA) is the country's major wheat-producing state and is the country's top grain exporting state. In recent years WA has also experienced expansion in production of other field crops including rapeseed, barley, oats, and lupines. Obviously, first-hand knowledge of agricultural production operations and circumstances would greatly contribute toward improvements in our crop forecasting program.


Objective (s):
This was a familiarization tour of Western Australia and the primary focus was on various aspects of agricultural production and related operational crop forecasting programs. Specifically, the trip was designed to accomplish the following:
1. Gain an insight and general understanding of Western Australia's major agricultural programs (in terms of organization, implementation, limitations, emerging directions, etc)
2. Establish and understand the significant metrics and/or parameters for yield and area forecasting/estimation for major agricultural crops (wheat, barley, rapeseed, and other field crops) at state, sub-regional, and local administrative area (shire) level
3. Find out first-hand information about the nature of the recent drought events and the impact on major agricultural operations and the existing mitigation strategies
4. Gain first-hand knowledge of major cropping patterns and crop calendars as well as non-agricultural vegetations in various agro-ecological regions.
5. Gain knowledge of landuse and landcover satellite remote-sensing mapping projects as well as other crop modeling initiatives at national, sub-national, and local administrative area (shire) level
6. Establish contacts/collaborative network with agricultural industry stakeholders (private, public, growers etc)

The crop tour was conducted in Western Australia's wheat-belt and in the Ord River Irrigation Project in the Kimberly region (Figure 1). It involved meetings with local experts, farmers, on-the-ground crop condition assessment, random yield measurements, and collection of ground-truth data for use with remotely sensed satellite information.


Figure 1: Crop Travel areas in Australia


Western Australia Wheatbelt Tour:

Western Australia is divided into five agricultural regions: the Rangelands region, Northern Agricultural region, Central Agricultural region, South West Agricultural region, and Southern Agricultural region. All the regions, except the Rangelands region, are in what is commonly referred to as the wheat-belt. I toured areas in the Central Agricultural region (Figure 2) including the following local government areas (LGA): Perth, Northam, Narrogin, Hyden, Newdegate, and Merriden.

Figure 2: Western Australia's Central Agricultural Region

Winter crops (wheat, barley, and rapeseed) in Western Australia were generally progressing very well. The crop stages ranged from advanced grain filling to maturity (Figure 3) and in some areas the crop was 2 to 3 weeks before harvest. Crop assessments conducted in Central Agricultural Region (Figure 4a) and discussions with local experts and farmers, indicated variations in potential wheat yields across the region. In the northwest and southwest estimated yields ranged from 2 to 3 tones per hectare. In the southeast and northeast the yields were generally between 1 to 2.5 tones per hectare (Figure 4b).

Figure 3: Wheat crop stages (end of September, 2009) in Western Australia wheat-belt

Most farmers indicated that the yield expectations were typical for the region during average to above average seasons like the current one. They went on to say that if more rainfall was to come (at least 20mm in the last week of September) the wheat crop output might be larger than the current forecasts. Based on my observations and discussions with growers and local experts, the 2009 total wheat production can range from 9 to10 million metric tones. Several key features shape this wheat outlook. First, generally most of the areas in the wheat-belt received good rainfall throughout the season. Second, average rainfall in August and a good start to spring rainfall in September provided a good finish to the season.

Figure 4a Crop assessment route overlaid on
P6-AWiFS satellite imagery

Figure 4b Yield-Crop condition sampling points.


Barley, rapeseed, and other field crops (Figure 5) were also growing well.  Grain farmers reported that the 2009 season was particularly good for the barley crop (a relatively short season crop that benefits in terms of early and increased planting when the rainfall is perceived to be late providing a short growing season).

Figure 5: Other field crops and landuse in Western Australia's Central Agricultural Region


The Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) is often applied in the FAS-IPAD crop forecasting system as proxy data for monitoring progress of the growing season, vegetation fraction, and condition of vegetation cover. The September, 2009 MODIS NDVI anomaly data (derived from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, MODIS) showed normal to better than normal crop conditions (Figure 6).

Figure 6: MODIS NDVI based vegetation condition image of Western Australia wheat-belt,
September, 2009.

The information obtained from the field assessments was also used for validation of MODIS NDVI anomaly data. In general, strong and viable crop conditions were observed indicating average to above average crop output. The observed crop conditions were, therefore, generally consistent with the MODIS NDVI anomalies.


Ord River Irrigation Project -The Kimberly Tour:

The Ord River Irrigation Project (ORIP) is located in the East Kimberly region in the far northeast of Western Australia (Figure 7, 8). The area has a typical tropical environment climate with distinct "wet season" and "dry season". The wet season runs from November to February. The irrigation project covers an area of 15,000 hectares. The source of irrigation water is the Ord River which flows from Lake Argyle and is located about 75 kilometers or 47 miles upstream (Figure 9).

Figure 7: The Ord River Irrigation Project Area

Figure 8: Lake Argyle and the Ord River
Irrigation Project

Figure 9: The Ord River Irrigation Project Area


The major agricultural operations in the ORIP include forestry plantations, commercial seed production (sorghum, sunflowerseed, cotton, wheat, and rice), field crops, and horticultural crop production (mangoes, bananas, melons, pumpkin, and citrus) (Figures 10, 11, 12). In recent years, there has been a large introduction and development of tropical forestry plantations of Indian sandalwood for oil and timber. The plantations now represent the largest land use in the Ord occupying about one third of the total land with expansion of plantings expected to continue.

Figure 10: Agricultural Production in the Ord River Irrigation Project (Source: DAFWA)

Figure 11: Agricultural Production in the Ord River Irrigation Project

Figure 12: Commercial seed production operations the ORIP


Agricultural research activities are also a significant part of the ORIP. The Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) conducts a wide range of research activities at The Frank Wise Institute of Tropical Agriculture (Figure 13). Crops researched include sugarcane, cotton, rice, sorghum, winter cereals, oil seeds, and peanuts. The research is focused on crop varieties, crop rotations, wet season management, irrigation management, horticultural industry, and market development.

Figure 13: Research at Frank Wise Institute of Tropical Agriculture

The ORIP has tremendous potential for agricultural expansion in Australia. There is plenty of available irrigation water (under utilized) from Lake Argyle (the largest fresh water resource in Australia) and good agricultural land to support a wide range of field crops including cotton, rice, wheat, corn, horticulture, etc. At flood level, Lake Argyle covers an area of approximately 2,000 square kilometers. In 2008, the lake discharged a total of 4,400,000 mega liters of water and the estimated water use at the ORIP was roughly 171,500 mega liters (about 3.8 percent of total discharge). Currently plans are underway for the development the "Ord River Irrigation Project Stage Two which will bring an additional 8,000 hectares to the existing irrigated area. Local sources believed the crops to be grown in this area will be cotton and rice. Overall, the irrigation project has the potential to expand to 35,000 ha including potential irrigation areas in the Northern Territories.

I had the opportunity to meet and discuss with various agricultural stakeholders including grain farmers, crop consultants and forecasters, agricultural scientists, government officials, private industry grain traders, and independent commodity analysts. I met with representatives from Cooperative Bulk Handlers (CBH), Western Australia Department of Food and Agriculture (DAFWA), Research Scientists at the Center for Cropping Systems, Western Australia Farmers Federation, Australian Crop Forecasters, ProFarmer, R.B Dessert Seed Co., Australia Agricultural Contracts Ltd., Western Australia No-Till Farmers Association (WANTFA), Northern Development Company (Kununurra), Climate Modeling Group, University of Western Australia, and the Ord River Irrigation Authority.


The information gained from this crop travel was very important and will be used to update, reorganize, and streamline USDA-FAS-International Production Assessment Division's Australia crop forecasting strategies (at national and sub-national level). This will ensure continued improvements in the accuracy, reliability, precision, and efficiency of the global agricultural commodities forecasting program.
It is important to note that, the crop observations made during this tour was consistent with and indeed supported the USDA's Australia winter crops forecast for 2009/10. The USDA's Australia wheat crop outlook for October, 2009 was, to a large extent, based on information collected during the field trip. Australia's wheat was forecast at 23.5 million tons, up 0.5 million or 2 percent from last month, and up 2 million or 9 percent from last year. The current crop outlook, if realized, will be the largest crop in four years. The area was forecast at 13.5 million hectares, unchanged from the previous forecast, and the same as last year. The key features shaping the wheat crop outlook included the observed crop conditions and a likely good finish to the season in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia.

Overall, cropping areas in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia experienced good weather throughout the season that resulted in very favorable crop conditions. In contrast, Queensland and New South Wales had below average winter rainfall and warmer than normal conditions during August and September. As a result, yield expectations in these regions were likely to be close to or slightly below the long-term average. However, yield gains in the rest of the country's wheat-belt will offset the poor outcome in Queensland and southern New South Wales.

Most crops in Queensland and New South Wales had already reached maturity and harvesting has commenced in some areas. Crop growth in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia ranged from grain filling to maturity and in certain areas weather conditions remained important in determining the final crop outcome. In general, farmers reported that the 2009 season was one of the best in many years with good rains at the commencement of planting and throughout the growing period.


I would like to express my sincere thanks for the wonderful arrangements and logistics made by the Office of Agricultural Affairs, U.S Embassy Canberra-Australia: Grant Pettrie, Mike Darby, Lindy Crothers, and Joy Dauth.

I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to Dr. Kenneth S. Chern and Regina M. Soos, Consulate General USA in Perth, Western Australia. Our discussions provided valuable baseline knowledge and information.

I am very grateful to Western Australian local farmers, crop consultants, scientists, government officials, and private industry personnel for taking time out of their busy schedule to share valuable information, knowledge, and experience. They made the crop travel a success.

Visit Crop Explorer

Current USDA area and production estimates for grains and other agricultural commodities are available on IPAD’s Agricultural Production page, or at PSD Online.

For more information contact Dath Mita | | (202) 720-7339
USDA-FAS, Office of Global Analysis

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