A stressful, difficult but ultimately rewarding season

with Bill Webb
Bill Webb Feed Solutions

The weather pattern this season has been all over the place. Spring began with very wet ground conditions from winter rains so it took us along time to get onto paddocks being so wet.

Some paddocks we couldn’t get into wet areas so planted dry areas with maize then returned three to four weeks’ later to patch up those wetter areas, planting them when we could. We used a shorter maturing variety to bring it into line timewise with the host plant.

Then it turned dry in November-December. Because it was wet and then came dry I estimated my yields to be lower than normal in mid-December – we were short of moisture and short-maturing varieties don’t yield as well.

Checking crops early-January they were actually doing quite well. I’d already turned orders down for November-December – when there was a maize shortage – thinking I couldn’t commit.

But by early-January, when I saw the extra maize and height of the plants, I thought: ‘Oh, I’m going to have extra maize about 10 per cent up on my previously reduced estimate’.

So for every 100ha you plant you have an extra 220tonne of maize to sell. So then I was in a dilemma of having too much maize. The clients who wanted it earlier had bought other products and by now the grass was growing faster than in spring, so there was no longer the same demand for maize silage.

The crops looked great but at harvest they didn’t yield quite as well as they looked but harvest was still very good. This could’ve been due to a cold snap we had in December which affected how the cobs set. When we got that nice warm rain the plants actually grew really tall.

At harvest we found dry matters were all over the place – and plants were ready about seven to 10 days earlier than estimated. We can usually calculate, within a few days, the expected harvest date. We’ve put this earliness down to the extra heat units this summer.

Dry matter

Some paddocks next door to each other, planted with the same hybrid on the same day – were up to four per cent different in dry matter.

This is huge – we aim for a 35-36 per cent harvest. One paddock was 37, the other next door was 33 – so 33 is a bit too low and 37 is getting on the higher side. It’s been really hard to get our dry matters right.

We started harvest on February 26 and by March 20 we were finished. So the pressure’s been on to organise trucks, men and machinery to get it all done in a short, sharp three-week window. The fastest we’ve ever done it in the 30 years I’ve been maize harvesting as it normally takes six weeks.

We’ve also had the threat of cyclones – three in three weeks. Fortunately, we missed the first bullet.

The second wasn’t as intense as was predicted and tracked slightly further off the east coast – and the third looks like it will miss too. It’s been like playing Russian roulette – we’ve really had our challenges.

But we’ve noticed the heat has put more starch into the corn kernels – and they dictate the dry matter to a large degree.

With a cob weighing 50 per cent-plus of the plant weight cob kernels with more starch drives up the amount of dry matter. But the plant is still green. So it’s going to make really good silage this year because there’s more starch, which means energy levels will be up, and greener plants are easier to compact and ensile well.

Great value

Overall it’s been stressful, difficult but ultimately rewarding as I believe we’ve supplied a worthwhile and great value product that will benefit our clients.

With news of farmers buying their own equipment to do their own harvest work, I want to advise this can be good and bad. Farmers used to do this many years ago – buy a machine and share it with neighbours – but the trouble comes with the questions of who repairs it, who gets it, who uses it, who breaks it and who pays for it…

Even if you buy harvest machinery for yourself to use it’s a lot of money and capital invested just for convenience. Not to mention it only gets used for three weeks of the year and sits in the shed for 11 months still with capital invested, depreciation and replacement inflation on top of that. All these factors need to be taken into account before purchasing machinery. Our point of view is buying infrequently-used machinery yourself doesn’t always make good sense.

Farmers need to be very mindful of what machinery they replace or purchase.

You also need good shedding to put equipment in – if you leave it outside it deteriorates. When we left our gear outside in the past we found it depreciated more, broke down more and was more unreliable.

Things get water in them, electronics play up then bearings cease and fail. This may not happen the first or second year with new gear, but it will after that.

A lot of this capital could be used for a feed pad to reduce feed loss, updating the cowshed, farm races, water reticulation – all of which will give you a better return than putting a heap of cash into machinery. Spend it on your core focus – milking cows and getting production.

True cost

Otherwise you’ll cop machinery depreciation, replacement and inflation on the new one when re-buying. These are three actual costs that may not be taken into account. Realise the true cost before you shell out!

And you can’t just put anyone in the tractor seat because this machinery takes knowledge to operate and it’s too much of a risk with gear worth so much money.

The other thing is time – farmers have many other tasks to do. If they don’t find time for cultivation they’ll end up getting a contractor in anyway. Or crops go in too late and the yield isn’t the best.

Some pieces of machinery are advantageous to own – like an undersower to follow the cows around after they graze. A spreader can help get fertiliser on before rain. But to buy discs, seeders, balers and wrappers is not always a great idea.

Overall we believe the risk of specialist machinery ownership and operation is best left to the contractors. While there may appear to be cost savings with on-farm ownership of this type of equipment, we know from extensive experience that the real costs of ownership and operation are often substantially greater than may appear at first.


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