Concerns for Goulburn River health as unseasonal flows sent downstream

A north-east Victorian farmer is concerned unseasonably high flows will have a damaging impact on the health of the Goulburn River.

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Since December last year, flow into the lower Goulburn river has increased from the recommended 800 megalitres per day to up to 3,000ML per day to meet water demands from towns, irrigators and the environment.

The Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority (GBCMA) said recent dry conditions across large parts of south-eastern Australia have increased demand for water downstream along the Murray River.

More water is being delivered out of the lower Goulburn River to meet those needs.

But at what cost?

Congupna farmer David Miles said in previous years high summer flows had caused significant damage to the riverbank.

“Several years ago, [we] had some massive high summer flows ruin the banks,” he said.

“[There were] massive erosion problems and trees falling in and they were softening the bank and then letting it dry out a little bit, then letting the river rise.”

Mr Miles said the current high flows he had observed looked similar to those he witnessed about five years ago.

“There was a lot of damage done … and it takes years to repair that,” he said.

“In places where the banks ripped into the clay, nothing can grow on that, so we’ve just got to put up with that being bad for a long time,” he said.

“Let’s hope we don’t have [the] devastation we had back then.”

He worried that current high flows would undermine the positive impact environmental flows had on the bank-stabilising vegetation during last spring.

“Let’s hope that doesn’t kill all the growth they’ve put along the lower parts of the bank,” he said.

Mr Miles is not alone in his concerns.

Last month, the GBCMA recommended that planned summer water transfers to meet downstream demand be delivered as a series of pulses through the lower Goulburn River, rather than a steady flow, to help minimise damage to the riverbank.

Delivering water at a steady level means the bank plants are underwater for too long and effectively drown.

“We prefer that water be delivered as pulses because it reduces the likelihood of bank erosion and loss of important bank vegetation, which can be a consequence of more consistent high flows,” Environmental Water and Wetlands manager Simon Casanelia said.

Pulsing not always an option, says Goulburn Murray Water

Goulburn Murray Water (GMW) acknowledged community concerns about the health of the riverbank but said ‘pulsing’ was not always a viable option.

Acting head of Water Resources, Andrew Shields, said GMW was expecting to deliver higher flows for at least the next six weeks.

“We’re trying to implement a pulsed recommendation from the GBCMA but there’s not a lot more that we can do given the requirements for us to transfer the water downstream to meet those water demands,” he said.

“We’re hoping there’s an opportunity to bring the water levels down a little bit as some of those demands decrease … If we get a cooler spell we might have the opportunity to do that.”

Mr Casanelia said he was disappointed the GMW had not fully implemented the GBCMA’s recommendation.

“Our preference would be obviously to have flows averaging around the 1,000ML a day in accordance with our best scientific understanding, which supports the bank vegetation,” he said.

Damage to the environment recorded last summer

Mr Casanelia said high flows caused significant damage to the riverbank last summer.

“Our observations and some of the monitoring we’ve undertaken indicated the high flows did result in loss of bank vegetation and did cause erosion and bank slumping in some parts of the river,” he said.

“It was most prominent last year when we had lots of demand for water downstream.

“The vegetation below the water level drowns and dies, given it’s flowing for long periods of time.

“It’s certainly reducing the extent and cover of the vegetation over time unfortunately.”

Mr Casanelia said the GBCMA had observed similar conditions this summer.

“We certainly have seen some good positive responses from the bank vegetation over that spring [to] early summer period,” he said.

GMW’s Andrew Shields said it was delivering similar rates of water downstream as it did last year, despite the warnings and concerns raised by the GBCMA and community members.

“The demands are quite similar to this time last year on the Murray system so we’re delivering similar rates down the Goulburn River to what we did this time last year,” he said.

High flows could result in a decline in recreational users of the river

Environmental Water and Wetlands manager Simon Casanelia said there were concerns that a loss of environment life could result in a decline in people visiting the river for recreational activities such as fishing, boating and swimming.

“It’s certainly a potential impact,” he said.

“I understand the high-water levels obviously reduce access and amenity for campers and community users.

“Success of fishing is obviously reduced with these higher flows over the summer period.”

Source: ABC Rural 2019-01

Supermarket Coles begins hand-out of drought money levied on milk

Supermarket giant Coles is going to start handing out the money it collected from a levy on cheap milk it sold to customers.

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The 30-cent levy on its own-brand 3-litre bottles of milk raised $3.97 million which, from Monday, would be shared among 639 farmers at an average of $6,219.55 per farmer.

Coles’ senior communications manager, Martine Alpins, said farmers could use the funds in a number of ways.

“This money will provide critical financial support, feed and water, costs for their cattle, farm improvements, household expenses,” she said.

Ms Alpins confirmed that funds collected from consumers, including interest, was audited by Price Waterhouse Coopers to make sure all money raised would end up with farmers.

Retailers could do more

United Dairyfarmers of Victoria president Paul Mumford is happy with some funds but said it would not do much for farmers.

“It only equates to only half a load of fodder at today’s prices,” he said. He added that supermarkets could be doing a lot more to help farmers crippled by drought.

“It’s good to highlight the plight of dairy farmers at the consumer level but if retailers are truly serious about helping farmers, they should stop using dollar-per-litre milk, stop discounting dairy, and pay a fair price to farmers.”

While $6,200 is not a lot of money for a dairy farming business, farmers like John Ryan from Denison in Victoria’s Gippsland region, are happy to receive the funds.

“We milk 300 cows and I opened the email this morning and saw that we got this money,” he said. “Firstly, I’d like to say thank-you to those who contributed.

“It’s not a great amount — our extra feed or water costs this year got to $200,000 — but we really appreciate if people consciously bought that product to support us.”

Drought ongoing but Coles stops collecting funds

The money was raised with the levy on Coles milk in three-litre containers between September 21 and December 31, 2018. Despite the drought continuing, the drought collection by Coles is not.

“The [drought] is definitely not broken [but] we had to put an end date [on this program] to ensure we had the final amount as quickly as possible,” Ms Alpins said.

The supermarket chain ruled out a program where it would continuously collect funds and hand out money at the end of each month.

Woolworths still collecting

After the Coles announcement, supermarket rival Woolworths provided an update on its milk levy fund for farmers.

In a statement, Woolworths director Paul Harker said their drought relief milk had now provided $4.5 million to 285 farmers.

“The drought is far from over and neither is our drought relief milk effort,” he said, adding that they were continuing to collect funds for drought relief.

Source: ABC Rural 2019-01

Almond growers prepare for record harvest but more bees needed

Australia’s almond growers are set for a record crop this season but as the industry keeps growing, more pollination services are needed.

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Almond Board of Australia CEO, Ross Skinner, said despite some hail damage to the crop early in the season the overall production volumes looked very strong.

“The early estimates provided to us from the industry processors is for a national crop of about 93,000 tonnes, which is about 13,000 tonnes more than in 2018,” Mr Skinner said.

“A lot of the plantings that have occurred over the past six or seven years are now starting to reach maturity, so the crop sizes have increased.”

However, as the industry is still growing, and many trees are yet to reach full maturity, Mr Skinner said accessing pollination services would become a major challenge and more hives were needed to pollinate new trees.

“I think from 2016 to 2018 we’ve seen 12,000 additional hectares added to the industry acreage,” he said.

“The 12,000 hectares that have already gone into the ground will need approximately 70,000 additional hives, so going forward the industry is certainly seeing a need for additional hives to be available.”

“We are working with the honey bee industry to see if we can open up additional resources so that the beekeepers can increase the number of hives that are available in Australia.”

Beekeepers feel the pressure for pollination services

The rapid growth of Australia’s almond industry and increased demand for pollination services is felt by commercial and amateur beekeepers across the country.

Apiarist Kerry Chambers, who runs her beekeeping business Half Barrel Honey in Renmark, said a lot of commercial beekeepers came from interstate to meet the demand of pollination services from the almond industry.

“Even amateur beekeepers like myself are leasing out our hives to fill that shortfall from the commercial beekeepers,” Ms Chambers said.

“There is a lot of pressure on existing commercial beekeepers to build their business and get more hives up and running, but that comes with a lot of issues where we need government support.

“We need access to sites to forage because it’s good when your bees are on the almonds but, in between each almond pollination period, you need somewhere to put your bees.

“So, access to national parks and areas where there is bee food is really crucial for those beekeepers to actually sustain that number of colonies.”

Despite increased pressure for pollination services, it has also been a tough season for beekeepers as low rainfall has led to low amounts of bee forage.

Ms Chambers said many beekeepers had to feed their bees pollen supplements and sugar syrup to sustain their colonies.

“It is just really challenging because bee pollination for the almonds falls in winter, where naturally your bee colonies are at their weakest,” she said.

“So, there is that pressure to make sure that your bee hives are really strong to meet the needs of pollinating the almonds.”

Global demand for almonds expected to rise

As consumer awareness of the health benefits of nuts and in particular almonds was continuing to grow, Mr Skinner said he expected demand for almond to increase in the future.

“We are seeing a doubling in supply in the world over the past 15 years … at a very viable price,” he said.

“Australia is only a small player in comparison to the US industry, which produces about 80 per cent of the world production.

“Australia is the second biggest world producer with 7 per cent of world production followed by Spain with about 5 to 6 per cent.”

Mr Skinner said regardless of being a small player on the global market, demand for Australian almonds was strong especially from Asia, India and Europe.

Source: ABC Rural 2019-01

Early cyclones bring relief to dry far north Queensland farmers

Two early cyclones in far north Queensland this summer have changed the fortunes of one of the country’s most intensive farming areas.

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Parts of the Atherton Tablelands were drenched by more than 600 millimetres of rain in December, making it one of the wettest on record.

It was a welcome change after more than six months without significant rain and record-breaking heatwaves.

“I think it was the driest I’d ever seen it, I’d never seen the creeks and rivers as low as the were,” Malanda dairy farmer Greg English said.

“We certainly did have to increase the amount of feed [the cattle] were given and with that it certainly becomes more expensive.”

Water security for irrigators

The early wet season rain has boosted the local Tinaroo Dam, which is currently sitting at 83 per cent capacity.

Tablelands Mayor Joe Paronella said while it was previously above 70 per cent, water was draining quickly with farmers trying to rescue crops.

“It was going down about one-and-a-half per cent a week, so that’s a drastic fall,” Cr Paronella said.

“When it comes to the cropping, we’re very reliant [on Tinaroo].”

While other dams in north Queensland have had similar fortune, many areas are still looking for the rain.

Brisbane’s main water supply, Wivenhoe, is at 74 per cent, Fairbairn in central Queensland is at 14 per cent, and Ilfracombe in western Queensland is resorting to a de-salination plant.

More water needed for Tinaroo

With the winter months traditionally being dry in far north Queensland, many irrigators are hoping for the dam to fill to capacity.

Papaya grower Gerard Kath said he would like to see the dam at more than 90 per cent of its capacity by the end of summer.

“This area we’re in here, on the western side of Mareeba, is a dry-land savannah,” he said.

“Without irrigation you wouldn’t grow any horticultural crops here.

“I’d like to see it not too concentrated. I hate seeing big volumes of rain at any given time. It’s always stressful for plants.

“[But] ironically, in the last month or so, most of the rains occurred on the weekend, so it’s been ideal farmers’ rain.”

Source: ABC Rural 2019-01

Cotton in NT starts to emerge as southern farmers look elsewhere

Signs of a cotton industry in the Northern Territory are starting to sprout, with interstate and international investors watching as trials underway.

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Cotton has long been spoken of as a key to northern development, but commercial quantities have never been harvested in the NT.

Now, as debate rages about growing cotton in drought-ridden eastern states, NT farmers and researchers are throwing their support behind the crop and putting seeds in the ground.

The Top End’s more reliable wet season rainfall, its vast undeveloped land and climate have all attracted the attention of cotton growers from southern states as NT farmers look to diversify.

Tipperary Station, 160 kilometres south of Darwin, is one of three properties undertaking commercial trials of cotton in 2019.

Manager David Connolly said cotton is a crop well suited to Top End conditions.

“Cotton is a crop that likes humidity, water and heat. We have plenty of that,” he said.

“There is a shortage of cotton worldwide, and if grown correctly there is a good margin in it.

“There’s a lot of negative talk about cotton in the south, usually by people who don’t understand the countryside and what you’re trying to do.

“But I think cotton is a really good fit for the Northern Territory — if we can make it grow.”

Tipperary Station planted 20 hectares of dryland cotton in January and in the coming months will plant a further 50 hectares under a centre-pivot.

Farmers look north

Over the past 12 months, several investors in NT pastoral land have expressed an interest in investigating the potential of cotton, including the new owners of Flying Fox Station and Florina Station.

In January, a Vietnamese company which bought a trio of cattle stations in the NT and WA signalled its desire to try diversifying into cotton.

Top End farmers and industry associations have been buoyed by the resurrection of large-scale cotton plantings just over the border in the Ord Valley.

Andrew Philip, a plant industry development officer with the NT Farmers Association, said the renewed push for cotton in the NT was largely being driven by cotton farmers from eastern states looking to expand.

“There’s been a number of overseas people coming and looking at properties with a view of cotton being one of their options,” he said.

“But the biggest range of investors we’re seeing are family companies from the eastern states — Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria — that have basically become land-locked, haven’t been able to expand their cotton enterprises, and are looking at the next place to go.

“With the good quality trials out of Kununurra last year, and talk a gin will be built over there next year, they’re certainly looking and coming up.”

Government supportive but ‘not rushing’

The growing interest in cotton has prompted the NT Department of Primary Industry to plant four GM cotton varieties in a new trial at its Katherine Research Station this month.

Executive director of agriculture Phil Hausler said although pressure is mounting to establish the new industry, the Government would not be making any hasty decisions regarding cotton development.

“Any successful agricultural commodity in the Territory has taken some time to establish, so we are here for the long term and we want to get this right,” Mr Hausler said.

“We’re not about rushing in and making quick decisions, we see in the long term that cotton would have some good benefits for the Territory.”

Source: ABC 2019-01

Private conservation group spends $55m to protect Murray-Darling

With neighbouring Yanga national park and government-owned Gayini-Nimmie Caira, more than 200,000 hectares are under protection.

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A record $55m has been spent by the Nature Conservancy to buy two cattle stations along the Murrumbidgee River near Balranald in New South Wales to preserve valuable wetlands, known as the Great Cumbung Swamp, that are a major breeding ground for birds.

The properties, which adjoin the NSW-government owned property, Gayini-Nimmie Caira and the Yanga national park, near Balranald, have been bought through a partnership with an agricultural investment company, Tiverton.

It is one of the most ambitious private conservation efforts attempted in Australia and together the three areas will result in more than 200,000 hectares of land being under protection. The area has been under constant threat of being converted to irrigated cropping.

The Juanbung and Boyong cattle stations, along with the properties’ water rights, will be managed in conjunction with Nimmie-Caira. This will result in the protection of almost the entire extent of the Great Cumbung swamp.

Juanbung and Boyong cattle stations will be managed by TNC and the Nari Nari tribal council. Photograph: Peter Stephen

“Cumbung is one of the largest and most important wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is home to 131 bird species and more than 200 plant species and is uniquely located at the confluence of the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers,” Nature Conservancy’s Australian director, Rich Gilmore, said.

“Today, more than ever, we need science-based, pragmatic solutions that deliver benefits for people and nature. If we are to save the basin’s rivers and the communities that depend on them, conservationists, irrigators and governments must come together and act with courage, urgency and optimism,” he said.

In addition to wetland conservation and water recovery, Tiverton will manage the property for the dual objectives of conservation and sustainable agriculture.

Like Nimmie Caira, this is likely to be for sustainable grazing in less sensitive areas. “This will ensure jobs continue in the Riverina,” said Gilmore.

Tiverton’s director, Nigel Sharp, said the property would be managed for sustainable farming and the company would be exploring other options such as carbon and biodiversity offsets and ecotourism.

The Great Cumbung will be managed in conjunction with the 87,000-hectare Gayini Nimmie-Caira property, which was purchased for conservation by the NSW government in2012 and is now managed by the Nature Conservancy and Nari Nari tribal council.

The chair of the tribal council, Ian Woods, said: “Nari Nari people are very supportive of the purchase and we look forward to working with TNC and Tiverton at the Great Cumbung and Gayini Nimmie-Caira.”

The TNC’s work in the Murray-Darling is being supported by John B Fairfax , The Ian Potter Foundation, the Besen family and the Baillieu Myer family’s Yulgilbar Foundation. Funding was also provided by the US-based Wyss Foundation and the Wyss Campaign for Nature. Debt finance was provided by ANZ.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organisation dedicated to conserving the lands and waterways.

Source: The Guardian 2019 -01

Fish kills will not be added to Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission

The South Australian Government has refused an offer from the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission to investigate recent fish kills.

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Key points:

  • Murray-Darling royal commission report to be published in full on February 1
  • SA Attorney-General Vickie Chapman refuses request to investigate recent Darling River fish kills
  • Crossbench MPs say push for a delay related to NSW state election

But the state’s Attorney-General, Vickie Chapman, has bowed to pressure from royal commissioner Bret Walker SC to keep the commission’s website operating for 12 months after his report is published.

The commission is due to deliver is final report to SA Governor Hieu Van Le on February 1, and has said it will include “adverse assessments of many governmental decisions and processes”.

This morning, Mr Walker took the unusual step of releasing letters between the commission and the Attorney-General’s Department, revealing a dispute over how and when his report should be published.

The letters revealed the commissioner had requested in November to have his report published in full on his own website immediately after it was handed to the Governor.

But the request was refused, with the Government insisting it would instead be published on the Environment Department’s website.

Further, the commissioner was advised that his own website, which contains transcripts, submissions and other evidence, would be shut down on March 30.

Commissioner wants report published immediately

In a strongly worded response to Ms Chapman, Mr Walker urged “immediate and complete publication of the report”.

“It is my view that the whole report should be published immediately,” the letter stated.

“The public interest demands it. There are no countervailing considerations such as national security or the administration of justice.

Mr Walker’s letter also urged the Government to keep the commission’s own website online for longer, so readers could check his findings against lengthy and complex documents and transcripts given in evidence.

“This is all the more important because my conclusions include adverse assessments of many governmental decisions and processes,” the letter said. “The criticism and justification of governmental conduct is peculiarly, in our society, best done openly.”

Fish kills will not be investigated

In the letter, Mr Walker volunteered himself to investigate recent fish kills in the lower Darling and various political, official and community responses to them.

“If the Government were interested to investigate these matters in relation to the proper concerns of South Australia in them, I would be willing to accept an appropriately tight, limited and economic extension of the time for a final report, so as to encompass these recent events in my work,” the letter said.

But Ms Chapman today declined the offer of an extension.

“I note that the cost to date of the commission is $5.017 million,” she wrote.

Ms Chapman did not indicate when the Government would publish the report, but agreed to keep the commission’s website operative for 12 months.

“Given how strongly you have expressed the need for the commission’s website to remain operative for some time, I do not propose to quibble about the matter,” she wrote.

In her letter, Ms Chapman asked the royal commissioner to advise whether he had referred any matters to investigative or prosecutorial agencies.

‘Protection racket’ ahead of NSW election

Mr Walker was appointed as royal commissioner in 2017 at the behest of then-South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, soon after the ABC’s Four Corners program aired allegations of upstream water theft.

The commissioner engaged in a separate dispute with the State Government last year, after it refused to grant his request for an extension, and abandoned a legal push to force Commonwealth public servants to give evidence.

Crossbench senators have used the latest disagreement to accuse the South Australian Liberal Government of running a “protection racket” for Liberal governments elsewhere in the country.

South Australian Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said the suggestion the report may not be released immediately showed a contempt for the public.

“The South Australian Government should not be running a protection racket for their federal counterparts and release this report immediately when the commissioner delivers it,” she said.

Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff questioned whether the SA Government may be seeking to delay the release of the report beyond the NSW election on March.

“This is not a political issue. It should not be a political issue,” he said.

“If they are trying to delay it beyond the New South Wales election, I think everyone will see through that.”

State Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said whether the Premier delayed the release of the report or not would be “a key test of whether Steven Marshall is standing up for South Australia and the Murray or taking his orders from the eastern states”.

Source: 2019-01

ENSO Outlook downgraded to El Nino Watch

The Bureau of Meteorology has downgraded its ENSO Outlook to “El Niño Watch” meaning the chance of an El Niño forming this year is 50 per cent.

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The Outlook was previously at “El Niño Alert”, meaning there was a 70 per cent chance of formation.

Bureau climatologist Felicity Gamble said there had been some observed changes in the tropical Pacific Ocean which reduced the likelihood of formation in the coming few months.

“The Pacific Ocean remains warmer than normal, but it has cooled in recent weeks which has reduced the chances of an El Niño taking hold for now,” Ms Gamble said.

“However, with the temperatures in the Pacific Ocean still elevated, a number of climate models are predicting the possibility of an El Niño forming in mid-2019.

“The Bureau of Meteorology is closely monitoring the situation and will continue to provide the Australian public with regular updates.”

El Niños have traditionally resulted in warmer and drier conditions for eastern and southern Australia, however the strength of an El Niño does not necessarily correspond with its impact on Australian rainfall.

Ms Gamble said despite the ENSO Outlook being downgraded, the potential for El Niño remained, and this along with other local climate drivers meant the next three months were expected to be warmer and drier than average for many parts of the country.

Meanwhile the Bureau has released its February to April 2019 climate outlook, pointing to a drier than normal three months for most of WA, western parts of northern NT and SA, and much of eastern mainland Australia.

The rest of the country shows no strong push towards a wetter or drier than median season.

Warmer than median days and nights are likely for almost all of Australia for February to April.

For daytime temperatures, the chances of being warmer than median are very high, greater than 80pc for most of the country.

Historical outlook accuracy for February to April is moderate across most of mainland Australia and northern Tasmania.

However, over southwestern Australia, southern SA, western and central Victoria, and southern Tasmania accuracy is low to very low.

Source: The Land 2019-01

Slower start to the New Year for grain trading

One thing that has not changed this start to the New Year is the slow downward trend of the east coast wheat market.

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Well, what a start to the new year.

Trade talks between China are still tense, the continuing US Government shut down over Trump’s wall, more confusion and uncertainty around Brexit and heatwave conditions over much of the eastern seaboard during the past week.

It has certainly been an action-packed three weeks.

One thing that has not changed though is the slow downward trend of the east coast wheat market.

Since the start of the year, the market has dropped $10 a tonne back to $452/t early this week in the Port Kembla zone.

This has largely been due to contracts being filled, the availability of grain from Western Australia and parts of Victoria along with local grower selling.

Chicago Board of Trade wheat futures have not been very supportive either and since January 1, have traded within a range of US20 cents a bushel from highs to lows.

So where to from here we ask?

It is a known fact that grain is in limited supply on the east coast and we know that there is a lot of resistance from buyers in $480/t plus area for grain.

Also, generally speaking January is a slow month in the market picking up from mid-February onwards.

However, things may change this year with boats arriving from the west that will supply most end users for a period of time.

Once this grain starts to run out, the end users will start to use their own stocks, live hand to mouth to carry them through to another series of boats from Western Australia and then the process will start again.

So maybe the prices we are seeing today could be the same or drop further away come mid to late March depending on east coast rainfall and the size of the sorghum crop.

To add further insult, the US is sitting on massive stocks and a potential large harvest in Argentina.

The caveat to the above is while the US is sitting on large stocks, supply from other origins is drying up.

Russia, which has been supplying the bulk of the global wheat flow for some time has seen values slowly climbing for the last month or so. Demand should, in time, shift to the US which will in turn support global prices.

This will likely have an effect on local markets in Australia and could present advantageous pricing opportunities.

At the end of the day, we are not certain what is going to happen over the next two to three months, but we can start to see what the bigger picture will look like.

So, in my mind, the grower has three options: to take the money now and run; wait until early to mid-April and hope for world volatility; or look for risk management tools that allow you to capitalise on today’s price while letting you capture any upside in the market.

To quote Forrest Gump, “grain prices are like a box of chocolates you never quite know what you’re going to get”.

Source: The Land 2019-01

Sources include: ABC Rural, The Land, The Weekly Times, Stock and Land, Stock Journal, Bloomberg, Farm Online, Queensland Country Life

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