Project: Grain Harvest

In my post ‘Visiting Sea Lake’, I mentioned that the reason for the visit was to work in the grain harvest. Although this was aimed at filling in some time, the primary reason was to learn more about how the grain industry works. The seed was sown during our return trip through the WA wheat belt – where the paddocks of wheat were endless and workers were in short supply. So, this post summarises what I managed to glean from my fellow workers, truck drivers and farmers (and a bit of on-line research).

Industry background

Sea Lake is one of many small townships in the Mallee and Wimmera regions that feature concrete grain silos located along key rail corridors. Some of these have been decorated with amazing artwork (Silo Art Trail) – most are disused, with very few still storing grain. The age of these silos ranges from 60 – 100 years, with many being designed for farmers delivering their crops in bags by horse and carts. With the closure of railway lines, changes to farming practices and up to date grain industry processes, these silos became redundant during the latter half of last century.

A typical disused silo
Sae Lake silo art

Today, grain is mainly stored in large bunkers, covered and sealed by tarpaulins. These are generally located in large receiving depots, with the main ones being adjacent to the remaining railway lines. Ownership of the majority of these depots and most of the stored grain lies with locally owned, but mainly multi-national organisations, for example:

Graincorp – founded in 1917 by the New South Wales government, privatised in 1992. A takeover bid by Canadian company ADM in 2013 was approved by the ACCC but subsequently blocked by the Federal Treasurer as it was deemed to not be in Australia’s best interests.

Grainflow – originally the Australian Wheat Board, acquired by Canadian firm Agrium in 2010 and on-sold a year later to Cargill, the largest privately owned US company of which Grainflow is a subsidiary.

Glencore – An Anglo-Swiss company that acquired Vittera in 2012, which had previously acquired ABB Grain in 2009, which, at the time, was Australia’s largest agribusiness, founded in 1939

In addition to these depots, many large farms maintain stocks of grain in their own metal silos – they hold the grain for a couple of reasons: anticipation of price increases and for sowing the next year.

Sea Lake depot
Grain stored in silos locally at farms

2021 Harvest

My original planned employment start date was 3 November, so with that in mind, I managed to complete outstanding project and personal obligations and was ready to go by the due date. However shortly before that, the start date slipped to 11 November due to the weather delaying the start of the harvest. By then I decided to go Sea Lake and at least be on the ground for an immediate start – but that didn’t happen until my eventual start date of Monday 22 November.

In other words, the harvest was significantly delayed with the result that, when it started, it was ‘full on’ for about three weeks. At the end of this I was asked to go south to the Dimboola where the harvest was still very active and they were desperate for workers. The flow of grain started to slow down during the week before Christmas, so it was time to head home.

Grains

The Sea Lake depot received various grades of wheat and barley, with Dimboola also accepting Canola (which thankfully, I managed to avoid).

The grades of both wheat and barley are assessed based mainly on the level of protein which in turn is affected by many factors including: moisture levels, temperatures and timing of fertilizers. It is therefore a balancing act for farmers with regard to timing their grain harvest.

There are ten classes of wheat with levels of protein between 7% and 22%, categorised into: Premium Hard Wheats, General Purpose Wheats and Speciality Wheats (see this web site [link to: https://wheatquality.com.au/classification/how-it-works/classes/]. Two examples are:

Premium Hard Wheat: Australian Premium Wheat (APW) contains mid levels of protein and is used primarily for noodles, Middle Eastern breads and the domestic baking industry

General Purpose Wheat: Australian Standard Wheat (ASW) is a low protein wheat with the versatility to produce a wide range of products

Barley is divided into these three categories – Malting; Food and General Purpose – depending on protein levels that in turn are affected by moisture levels .

Malting Barley is of the highest quality (10 – 12% protein) and is used in the production of a wide range of products beer, vinegar, confectionery, etc

Food Barley is used for human consumption in the forms of breakfast cereals, thickeners, health foods, etc.

General Purpose Barely is primarily used for animal feed

The methods of harvesting, transporting and storing are pretty much the same of both grains.

Grain production

When I went to school, I was taught about the basics of crop rotation in successful farming. I was therefore interested to learn that this practice has been in decline in preference for a process called direct drilling.

Crop rotation essentially means that a single paddock has different crops sown annually on a rotational basis. The principle is that different crops take and return different nutrients from the soil. I was told that the normal rotation practiced in the Mallee was a four year cycle of Wheat, Barley, Cereal and lying fallow (no crop). This involves a lot of work in advance of sowing to turn over the cut stalks into the soil (plough the paddocks) and generally prepare the paddocks for sowing.

On the other hand, the process of direct drilling sows the next year’s crop seeds into the soil amongst the remaining stalks of the previous crop. This process requires significant use of fertilizers and pesticides at the point of sowing, but generally reduces the amount of preparation work. One of the biggest problems with this approach is that the soil becomes more compacted with every crop, reducing moisture penetration and retention which in turn reduces yield.

Clearly, crop farming is significantly more complex than I was able to glean through conversations with the drivers, but it was interesting to learn about the high level principles and the fine balance that famers have to deal with, particularly the significant uncontrollable factor of the weather!

Harvesting

When protein and moisture levels are at their optimum, it is time to harvest. Grain is harvested by large machines called Headers (aka Combine Harvesters). These machines combining four separate harvesting operations: reaping, threshing, gathering, and winnowing—into a single process.

Aerial view of a header

With capacities to hold around 20 tonnes of grain, modern machines are integrated with some sophisticated technologies, their purpose being to process and transfer the grain from the stalks to the edge of the paddocks where trucks can be loaded to transport it to receiving depots, such as the one in which I worked.

At the peak of the harvest these headers work up to 18 hours a day, particularly if the weather is unsettled.

Transporting and Storing

Truck at Sunset

The harvested grain is loaded into a range of different types of trucks, from rigid bodies, to semi-trailers to B Doubles. Some of these are owned and operated by the farmers, with others operating as contractors.

Farmers have a choice of receiving depot to transport their grain to – this will be dependant primarily on the prices being offered at the depots. That said a number of farmers have contracts with specific depots to supply specified amounts of grain – once this has been reached, they are free to go elsewhere. As a result, some trucks travel as far as 70 km to empty their loads.

Opening times at the receiving depots are, to a certain extent, structured to reflect the harvesting activity in the paddocks. At their peaks, Sea Lake was open from 08:00 – 22:00 and Dimboola from 07:00 – 23:00, with average daily deliveries around 5,000 – 7,000 tonnes.

On arriving at the depots, the grain is sampled and tested. It is at this point that the quality of grain is established and the relevant storage bunker identified. The grain is tested for a range of factors including moisture content and protein levels. Once tested, trucks progress to the weighbridge and on to the relevant bunker before returning to the weighbridge to establish the difference between the loaded and empty truck and hence the weight of grain delivered.

There are two methods of emptying the trucks. The first is the DOG and Stacker. The tuck drives onto a low grill over which it tips their load. Five horizontal augers beneath the grille feed five inclined augers that transfer the grain onto the conveyor belt of the stacker to form the pile of grain.

The second method is via an elevator. The elevator is generally computer controlled and has the option to direct grain to multiple different bunkers or silos. Trucks empty their loads into a pit that is large enough to hold a full truck load. If destined for a bunker, the grain is transferred to a long conveyor belt and via a similar mechanism to the DOG and stacker to the bunker. Alternatively, silos, used mainly for loading trains, are filled by the grain being elevated to the top and dumped into the silo.

DOG and Stacker, with me holding a broom
Elevator in the background
Silos at night
Tipping grain on the DOG

The responsibility of the machine operators is to ensure that the truck has arrived at the correct location, position the truck correctly and, with regard to the DOG, ensure that the flow from the truck is consistent with that of the auger capacities. Any mis-match results in spills that create wastage and a lot of shovel work for the operator. It is also the responsibility of the operator to move the machines once the height of the bunker is reached and, once again, to avoid grain spilling over the edge of the bunker (which would mean more shovel work for the operator!).

As the bunkers fill up, the grain is covered by tarpaulins that are welded together to give a tight seal against the weather and vermin. At both depots, there was a dedicated tarpaulin team, although occasionally I was required to help out.

Tarpaulin Team welding two sheets together

My Roles

At Sea Lake, my role was DOG Operator during the afternoon shift that generally started at 14:00 and finished around 22:30, depending on when the last truck was emptied. This was a great opportunity to chat with the truck drivers to discuss the industry, the weather and generally how the harvest was going. The role was occasionally a bit boring, particularly during long gaps between trucks when we had to look busy, hence a lot of sweeping, but otherwise quite enjoyable.

At Dimboola, however, I was on the elevator, with no driver contact and some long gaps between deliveries. On the upside, I was on the morning shift, 06:30 – 15:30, more lime as normal working day.

Temperatures varied, with a maximum one day of about 36 degrees, falling to as a low as 12 degrees after sunset some days. Maintaining hydration was critical, particularly when I was sweeping and shovelling, and, of course, sun protection was essential – long sleeved shirts (supplied) and long trousers were required. Other PPE included work boots, safety glasses and gloves.

Apart from the heat and sun, the other main issue was dust – it got everywhere and was very itchy. Barely was a lot worse than wheat – for the first week or so, I was on barley! Apparently, the solution for this, courtesy of a couple of the drivers, is talcum powder, but I didn’t get the chance to try it out.

The weather (wind, rain and thunder storms) played a significant role in my shift patterns, with some being shortened and some being cancelled. The normal working week is six days, but I didn’t manage to work a full week during the five weeks I worked.

Sea Lake camp
Dimboola camp

My accommodation was the camper trailer, located at Sea Lake Camp Caravan Park (walking distance to the depot) and at Dimboola Caravan Park.

During the two weeks wait for the start, I met up with the six or so others also waiting in the camp site. They were a great mix of ages and personalities from a wide range of backgrounds, so it was interesting that we all formed quite a close working group

In conclusion

I have now been back about three weeks and had the chance to reflect on the experience. There is no doubt that I am very glad to have taken on the challenge of some hard physical work. There were times that I almost threw in the towel, but my determination carried me on. Living under canvas and in the open air was really enjoyable and made me realise how little one needs to live – there was nothing that I really missed.

Would I do it again? The answer is, possibly, but it depends on our travel plans for later in 2022.

8 Responses

  1. Interesting- particularly the practice of direct seed drilling- wonder if it is long term sustainable? I fully understand why one might throw in the towel!

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