The wheat crop in Australia’s top growing state is in a “precarious position”, thanks to a shortage of rainfall, US officials said, although foreseeing that the country overall was poised for a third successive strong harvest nonetheless.

Western Australia, which typically produces more than one-third of Australian wheat, is poised this year for a harvest “well below the record-busting crop” of 2021, after months of warm and dry weather, the US Department of Agriculture’s Canberra bureau said.

“Although the wheat crop in Western Australia currently is in good shape, it is also in a precarious position,” the bureau said, stressing the importance of “follow-up rains” to refresh a crop which has, thanks to warm conditions, developed faster than normal.

“When combined with the current advanced crop drawing on soil moisture at a greater-than-usual [rate] at this time of year, and the currently generally below-average soil moisture levels, the amount and timing of subsequent rainfall will be crucial to grain fill.”

The rapid pace of development has also raised the threat of the crop flowering earlier than normal, leaving it more vulnerable to damage from winter frost.

‘Crucial rains’

The comments follow a report from the Grain Industry of Western Australia industry group identifying a north-south divide in the state’s wheat crop fortunes.

“Crops are in very good shape in the southern regions, although the northern regions are getting desperate for a drink,” Giwa said.

Forthcoming rains would be “crucial in maintaining current grain yield potential”.

“Most regions are sitting on very low deciles for soil moisture, in part due to the rapid crop development but also due to below-average growing season rainfall.”

The state still had the potential for a 20m-tonne grains harvest, large by historical standards, if below the 24.0m tonnes reaped last year.

However, the “downside could be quite significant if the predicted low-rainfall spring eventuates”, the industry group said, noting that “climate models have suggested for a while the 2022 winter and spring in Western Australia will be drier than average”.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has forecast “below median” rains in the August-to-October period for parts of south western Western Australia.

Export prospects

The USDA bureau highlighted strong outlooks for eastern states, where “the forecast is for above-average rainfall in the August-to-October period, setting these crops up for above-average yields.

The wheat crop in eastern Australia “is currently in a very good position for another big production year”.

Total Australian wheat production in 2022-23 was forecast at 31.0m tonnes, down by 5.3m tonnes year on year, but still the fourth largest harvest on record.

Exports for 2022-23, on an October-to-September basis, were pegged at 24.0m tonnes, down by 3.5m tonnes year on year, but Australia’s third largest ever.

Shipments this season might be even higher than 27.5m tonnes, were it not for logistical constraints.

“Although typically Australian export and port capacity is more than sufficient to meet export requirements, the combination of strong global demand and record production from last season for all three of these crops [barley, canola and wheat] is resulting in sales bumping up against logistical export capacity.”