Contractors hope for dry harvest in two-in-one season

Liz Wells, September 14, 2022

Contract harversters across eastern Australia are getting ready to deploy their teams for harvest 2022 and hoping for the blue skies of harvest 2020 rather than a repeat of rain delays that made 2021 a challenge. Photo: Bourke Harvesting

CONTRACT harvesters across eastern Australia are gearing up for a two-in-one season amid the threat of rain interruptions from the prevailing La Niña event.

The unusual season is the result of rain in the middle of the sowing window, which created an early and a late crop.

While a hot and dry spring will see the gap in the maturation of both plantings narrow, contractors are being careful not to over-commit as they prepare to deploy their teams in coming weeks.

Start in CQ nears

Bourke Harvesting is based at Yarrawonga in northern Victoria, and operates 10 headers with a team of 16.

The first to get rolling this harvest is scheduled to start at Rolleston in Central Queensland (CQ) in the last week of September.

“Everyone we speak to says it’s like two seasons in one,” Bourke Harvesting principal Matthew Bourke said.

“The season is looking fantastic in terms of the yield potential, although we’re very very concerned about La Niña and wet harvest, and it makes us nervous about booking up jobs.”

“Normally, when you’re harvesting in northern New South Wales or southern Queensland, there’s nothing happening down south.

“This year, it looks like it’s going to all come in at the same time.”

Bourke Harvesting has two booked two locations to operate in NSW, where 3-4 headers will get rolling next month in Moree before moving to northern Victoria and then the Lake Bolac district in December.

“We harvest around Hillston and Griffith, and we’ll have six headers there.”

Mr Bourke said last year’s wet harvest made operations difficult enough, and contractors and growers are nervous about a repeat.

“We took headers to Moree, and they’d done 80 hours by the time we moved them; they did 220 hours the year before.”

On the Darling Downs, contractors Evan and Linda Horton run five headers and plan to be harvesting in CQ’s Springsure by the last week of September.

Mr Horton said the CQ crop was running a little late, and southern Queensland to southern NSW was “a really mixed bag” based on split planting and varying degrees of waterlogging.

“I think everywhere’s on the verge of being too wet.”

However, contractors just back from their scoping trips were unanimous on the crop’s potential.

“Big yields are on the cards.

“Provided we don’t get more rain, it’ll be OK.”

The Hortons will roll from Queensland to west of Moree, and plan to finish at Henty.

In NSW, Dubbo-based contractor and Australian Custom Harvesters president Damien Talbot runs one header plus trucks, and will be starting at Mt McLaren in CQ.

“We’d normally be there right now, but we’re looking at starting between the 25th and the 30th.

In previous years, Mr Talbot has done an extra harvest job to fill the gap between CQ and his next commitment in Walgett.

Time permitting, he hopes to do some harvesting at Roma.

“I might have to skip that; the job at Walgett will be going by the end of October, then I’ll start around Trangie in the Central West in mid-November.

“I normally try to go to the Vic border but I haven’t booked down south.”

“It’s all going to come down to weather.”

He echoed the sentiments of other contractors by saying any extra capacity could be put to use on farms where help was needed.

“It’s going to be like two harvests – an early one and a later one.”

Labour improves

Mr Bourke said COVID made harvest “really difficult and stressful” last year with concerns about crew members catching the virus and passing it on to others, and with border restrictions.

“This year, more than half our crew will be regulars.”

The opening of international as well as state borders is another boon.

“We’ve got four Canadians coming across who have driven headers before and are familiar with farming.”

Mr Horton said open borders have made the team of nine easier to put together compared with the past two years.

“Borders freeing up has made a difference for skilled labour,” Mr Horton said.

“It’s better than it’s been.

“We’ve got some takers, and I think we’ve got our team.

“Is there an oversupply? Absolutely not.”

“We do need people from overseas.”

Mr Talbot said increased labour availability was noticeable this year.

“There are more backpackers now; they are starting to come in.

“The labour shortage will still be a problem, but it won’t be as big as it has been.”

Inflation, parts delays hit

Mr Bourke is waiting on four header fronts from the OEM to increase his fleet’s ability to harvest canola.

“There’s a huge amount of canola in Victoria, and in the Riverina, and we’re waiting on equipment.

“I don’t know when or if we’re going to get it by harvest.”

Mr Horton said parts delivery has been reasonable in most cases.

“Some gear is not turning up.”

Mr Talbot said the he believed some growers were worried about getting contractors this harvest and in the future, and were either updating their headers or buying new or used ones themselves.

“That  way they can either start or finish harvest themselves.”

He said the ballpark price for a new header plus front was around $900,000.

“Normally I would have rotated my machine to a new one, but I just can’t see how we can justify it with the price of a new machine.”

“My hourly rate would have to go up 30 per cent or more to cover my costs.”

With quoting on harvest often done at the start of the year, and inflation hitting parts pricing, he said some contractors’ margins were sure to take a hit.

“The price of parts has gone up and they just kept rising.”

With a wider range of crops and sowing times, even without the rain-interrupted sowing of this year, contractors said they were finding it harder to start and finish jobs on time and move to the next farm on the run.

“That’s the problem with the harvest; everything clashes now,” Mr Talbot said.

However, excitement is in the air as the industry waits to see where yields finish up.

“It’s the last quarter of the grand final.”


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