THE ANNUAL migration of contract harvesters following the grain from Queensland down to Victoria as harvest extends from north to south will be cut short this year due to the drought in northern and central NSW and Queensland.
Contractors have said there is not sufficient grain in the northern run, barring geographically remote Central Queensland, to make it worth the expense of moving equipment north.
Instead they will be sticking to Victoria, where crop prospects are better or looking at diversifying into other forms of agricultural contracting, such as hay-making.
Geoff Mulholland, spokesman for Australian Custom Harvesters (ACH), the representative body for the contract harvesting sector, said contractors faced bleak prospects in trying to get enough work to make money this year.
"There is nothing happening basically north of the Murray River, there will just not be the acres to do, it is not a contractor going up there," Mr Mulholland said.
"You may find the odd good crop here or there but there is not the scale you require to make it worthwhile, and even where there is a little bit of grain farmers are also looking to save costs and harvest themselves where possible."
2019 will mark the first year in a long time Chris Bartlett, Bartlett Brothers Contract Harvesting, has not taken a machine north.
Mr Bartlett, based at Pimpinio, near Horsham in Victoria's Wimmera, will this year go no further north than Hopetoun, an hour away from where he is based.
"There is no point trying to compete for what few acres there are," Mr Bartlett, also a member of ACH, said.
Instead he said the business had invested in baling equipment.
"We will look to do a bit of contract baling, there is a lot of interest from people in cutting crops for hay, especially where there are concerns about running out of moisture for grain."
Mr Mulholland said in general contract harvesters did not become involved in fodder making contract work, because of the overlap.
"Usually the time you would be needing to work on hay making in Victoria is when you should be up north on the headers so it doesn't fit in that well, especially for smaller contracting businesses, but this year with no-one going north you could do both."
Mr Bartlett said two seasons ago four of the five harvesters in his fleet had gone north, last year as the drought bit there was only one before this year's decision not to make the trek north at all.
"We normally go to the area to the east of Moree, places like Pallamallawa and then down to the Central West, out around Trangie, but while there could be some crop up in the north it will not be enough to break even on the trip.
"You'd need about 200 rotor hours of work to make the trip worth your while."
Mr Mulholland said the lack of work would make it difficult in some instances for contractors to generate enough income from their contracting work to make payments on equipment.
"If you've got a $100,000 payment on the harvester then you'd probably want to get 125 rotor hours just to make the payments, that's before you start paying the other costs, such as transport and stuff and well before you make any money yourself."
He said strict biosecurity rules, combined with the distance, meant contractors were not looking at Western Australia, where crops are generally better, as an option.
"It is expensive and the headers just about have to be taken apart and put back together due to the biosecurity issues then you've got to find the work, so I wouldn't expect many to go down that route," he said.
Mr Mulholland said the drought was exacerbating what had been a gradual squeeze within the contract harvesting sector in recent years.
"With larger farm sizes more and more farmers see it is as economical to get their own harvesters while there is an increasing requirement to fit within a certain controlled traffic system and to provide full data sets to help with precision agriculture.
"That is all fine but in general we're finding people are asking for all these extras, but not willing to pay any more which makes it tough."
Mr Mulholland said contractors were now pinning their hopes on the Victorian Mallee having a good season.
"If the Mallee is good you can go from the Mallee down through the Wimmera and Western District and still get a reasonable run of work for the harvest."