Across the wheat farms of southern Queensland the harvest is well and truly underway. So what happens during harvest? I directed a few questions to Rob Wilson, who farms around 200 hectares near the Condamine river.
The first question I asked Rob, seems pretty simple to a farmer, but decidedly esoteric for a lay person:
How do you know when the wheat is ripe and ready to harvest?
Wheat takes about 4 months to mature, but when it comes to making a decision about the right time to harvest it, the farmer has to know when the crop is at a premium. If the weather has been dry and hot the ‘finish’ will be quicker.
When the crop has dried to a golden yellow colour and there is no more visible green in it, the farmer breaks the seed-head off a plant and ‘rubs it out’ between his hands. The grains of wheat are released and he can then bite them – if they’re hard, the crop is ready to go.
It’s likely that the farmer made a tentative booking with his contract harvester, right back when he planted the wheat some 4 months ago. In Rob’s case, he has his own harvesting machine (called a ‘header’) so when he’s ready to harvest he simply has to book the trucks that will be taking the grain to the mill.
Those with larger farms tend also to have onsite storage so that if enough trucks aren’t available when it’s time to harvest, the grain can be stored on the farm. In Rob’s case his cropping area is not large enough to warrant this so the trucks, once loaded, will be going straight to Kialla’s mill.
Harvest morning on the Downs is not too early a start. The farmer needs to wait until the sun is high enough to dry the dew that has settled on the plants overnight. Once the stalks get moist this can make them very tough to harvest – as you’ll notice with any plant in your garden, once it’s wet, it’s harder to break. The plants also need to be thoroughly dry so that the wheat grain can be cleanly separated from the chaff. For this reason, if it rains the day before, this can put the kibosh on the harvest, which will need to be postponed until the crop has thoroughly dried off.
There is already a bit of urgency in the harvest as the wet season is fast approaching and all the farmers need to ensure their crops are out before the rains come. Once it gets to that point a perfectly good crop can be ruined.
So Rob will be out around 8.30am in his header, his trucks lined up and ready to go. For his estimated 200 tonne harvest he’ll use 2 semi-trailer trucks, each with 2 large trailers. This is not necessarily going to be a good yield, as the weather has been pretty sporadic. We had an excess of rain earlier in the year, but it’s been a dry few months since.
He’s expecting to average about 1 tonne per hectare, but in a good year a hectare could grow as much as 2 and a half tonnes of wheat. Rob can expect 2 days of harvesting the work, and it’ll be a late night. But at least he will get some sleep. On many farms, especially the larger ones, the harvesting crew can work all night, or at least til 2am when the dew comes in and dampens the crop until the sun’s heat dries it again. At this rate, they can harvest up to 170 hectares a day.
So, when it comes to the technical side, what’s the harvesting process?
The cutter, in the front of the header, chops the stalks which then get fed into the thresher where they are broken and rubbed, using what is essentially a large drum with little teeth that crush the wheat stalks against a mesh screen. This causes the grain to separate from the stalks and fall through into a collection bin. The straw goes back into the field where it will later be ploughed back into the soil.
The collected grain is augured into a field bin. From here it is delivered straight into the truck. And once that’s fully loaded it will drive the 170km to deliver it directly to the Kialla mill. You can follow the next steps by watching video 1 of our Tour of the Mill.
I thought that at this point the farmer might get to sit down for a hard earned beer, or perhaps pack his bags for a holiday, but it’s not over yet. Its necessary to clean and service the header immediately. Any remnants of grain will attract mice, and since it’s organic there’s no pesticides or poisons that you can use to keep them away. Also when your header is worth around $700k you tend to want to care for it much like it’s a Lamborghini!
After that, the farmer puts the plough on the tractor and breaks the up the stubble of the stalks to cover the soil. In some parts of the country this prepares the field for the summer crop (mostly corn) which will be planted in a month or so. In much of Queensland, however, the climate is a little too dry to successfully grow 2 crops a year, making it all the more important that the single crop is successful.
As soon as any rain falls on the empty field the farmer wants to head out and plough it immediately – this actually encourages the weeds to grow and then to be cut away, so that there are no dormant seeds ready to hustle their way into the next wheat crop. If it rains straight after the crop is planted for the next season, the weeds will get a head start and choke out parts of the wheat crop. Once they are growing wildly there is nothing to be done but to get a weed separator for your collection bin so the weed seeds can be screened out from the wheat grain.
And finally, after that’s all done, it’s time for that beer…