Most grains in New South Wales are grown in the portion of the Australian Grain Belt which crosses the centre of New South Wales from southern Queensland to western Victoria.
The Grain Belt in NSW extends from the margins of the dry western grazing country, eastwards through the slopes as far as the central uplands. All the wheat and barley is grown throughout this belt, and most of the oats, although, as a grazing crop they are also grown in the highlands. Canola and rice are grown in the southern part, and sorghum, sunflowers and cotton in the northern part. This belt in NSW produces on average (1997-2006):
• 40% of Australia’s sorghum crop;
• 32% of Australia’s canola crop;
• 29% of Australia’s wheat crop;
• 25% of Australia’s oat crop;
• 19% of Australia’s barley crop; and
• 98% of Australia’s rice crop.
All these crops are annual crops, and growers often graze livestock as well, so the amount planted in each season is a reflection of the expectations of yield (rainfall) and market price, as well as the outlook for animal production.
Apart from rice and cotton, grains and oilseeds are rain-dependent crops, and NSW production has been badly affected during the drought years since 2002, as is shown in the table. Rice production has also fallen greatly with a shortage of irrigation water.
Wheat, barley, oats and canola are winter crops. Rice, sorghum, sunflowers and cotton are summer crops, and in some conditions and areas, a summer crop can follow a winter crop on the same land.
Wheat is the main winter grain, and in earlier non-drought years has been the most valuable commodity produced in NSW. Wheat is usually planted May to July, with the hope that spring rain will produce good flowering and grain set. Timing is usually to ensure that flowering will take place after the last frost, and maturity will occur before any summer humidity.
Both soft wheats and hard wheats are grown in NSW – hard wheat (durum wheat) mostly in the north. Soft wheat is used for milling for flour, bread and cake making, and hard wheat is used for pasta and noodles.
Due to a combination of strong international prices and very high quality grain, Australian durum wheat production has made impressive growth from around 55,000 tonnes produced in northern NSW in 1996 to current average production of around 200,000 tonnes.
Barley is a winter grain grown in all areas of the grain belt. Barley is used for malting and as livestock feed. Botanically, cultivated barley is either two row or six row, referring to the number of rows of seed on a head. Two-row barley has a lower protein content than six-row barley and is more suitable for malting. High protein barley is best suited for animal feed. Although all barley is more drought tolerant than wheat, two row barley malting quality depends on reliable winter rain. Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of malt barley and it has benefited from the increasing demand from the Asian brewing industry. Feed barley is also an important export but dependant on world supply and world prices, whereas malting barley exports depend on the amount of the suitable quality than can be produced according to the season. If malting barley does not attain the quality required, it can be down-graded to feed barley.
Oats are grown throughout the grain belt and beyond, as they are very hardy and can withstand cold and wet conditions. Harvested oats are used largely by the domestic feed industry, although there are some exports. Oats are often grown also as a grazing crop by livestock producers, and are grazed before harvest, or completely grazed out and not harvested.
Sorghum is Australia’s predominant summer grain and northern NSW and the Darling Downs of Queensland are the main areas of production. The greater part of grain produced is used for stock feed, both domestic and exported.
Both dryland and irrigated sorghum is normally grown on heavy clay soils as are found in the northern and north western parts of the NSW grain belt where summer rainfall is also dominant. The clay soil has a good water holding capacity for the warm growing season. Grain sorghum also has a critical role as a rotation crop with winter cereals in the growing area, as it has good qualities of weed and disease control.
When water is available, rice is grown extensively on the flat irrigated paddy fields of the Riverina – in the Murrumbidgee, Coleambally, and the Deniboota and Berriquin irrigation areas near Deniliquin, with water sourced from the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers. In a good year the production potential of these areas is over 1 million tonnes, most of which would be exported. NSW rice production can also achieve very high yields. In 2002 the yield was 8.3 tonnes/ha, second only to Egypt, and greater than those achieved in the USA (7.4 tonnes/ha), Japan (6.6 tonnes/ha), and China (6.2 tonnes/ha).
NSW is normally the major producer for canola, which is used as a source of vegetable oil and animal feed. A winter crop, it is grown in the central and southern parts of the grain belt, and is a useful rotation crop with wheat. Being planted and harvested in advance of wheat, it is also a useful crop to manage in mixed broad acre cropping. Central and southern NSW have been favoured for production as canola needs reliable winter and spring rain, which has been normal for these areas. However, in recent years central and southern NSW have been the worst affected by drought and this has dramatically reduced canola production.
Sunflowers are also a source of vegetable oil, and they are mostly grown in the northern part of the grain belt, as a summer crop, mixed with sorghum. Like sorghum, the crop has good soil moisture requirements, and benefits from summer rain and soils that hold moisture. Very high summer temperatures reduce the yield of sunflowers, and so the very northern part of the area is less favoured than the area around Gunnedah and the Liverpool Plains, where conditions are normally ideal for a good crop.
Tony Moody, Industry and Investment NSW