Customer stories

Harvesters at the ready as annual crush looms, with sugar prices fuelling optimistic outlook for 2023 season

16 Jun 2023

Cane farmers across North Queensland and Northern NSW are counting down to the start of this year's crush, and with sugar prices the best they've been in years and weather forecasts promising for the months ahead, optimism within the industry is also at a high.

In recent months, the sugar price went beyond $800 a tonne, in stark contrast to the $400 of just a few years ago.

Craig Emmerson, who runs contracting harvesting business Proserpine Harvesting Co with his cousin, David, near Proserpine in Queensland, said the current prices were not only welcome, but long overdue.

"The price has not been this high for a long time. We're up to more than $800 a tonne for sugar and I've been able to price a fair bit at $800. Last year I think I priced a fair bit at $600, so I'm a fair way up this year. The fact you can price out for four years, means the next few years are looking really good, too," Craig said.

"Going into the crush, it gives everyone a great deal of confidence, When the prices are low and outputs are high, everyone's down a bit. I mean the outputs are still high at the moment, but the prices are up so everyone has a spring in their step. Think we're shaping up for a good year," Craig said.

Near Ingham in Queensland, cane farmer Robert Bonassi, who farms with wife Leanne and sons Brandon and Cameron, said the ability today of farmers to forward-price meant the current prices were also positive for the future.

"I've forward-priced 2023, 2024 and now we're looking at 2025. While 2023 has hit $800 a tonne, because of forward-pricing a lot of growers may not have got that, but what these current prices do is lift 2024/2025 prices – and beyond," he said. "On the flip side, input costs are huge at the moment – fuel, power, fertiliser – but going forward now we're hoping some of those prices will relax and there'll be a lot bigger margin of profit." 

The one thing Craig and Robert are hoping for is an earlier finish this year than last, when the crush dragged well into December, impacting the overall quality of the harvest in some areas and forcing some growers to leave crop in the paddock. 

​"Going into the crush, it gives everyone a great deal of confidence, When the prices are low and outputs are high, everyone's down a bit. I mean the outputs are still high at the moment, but the prices are up so everyone has a spring in their step. Think we're shaping up for a good year" - Case IH customer Craig Emmerson

This season, Craig will have about 15,000 tonnes of his own cane and expects to contract harvest about 340,000 tonnes. They're due to start later this month and are expecting an above average year.

"In the Proserpine district, if we average 82 tonnes a hectare, that's a pretty good crop. But probably looking at being in the mid 90s this year, so probably up 10 per cent on a standard year," he said.

The business will also have two new Case IH Austoft 9900s this year, joining an Austoft 8810, and Craig said the technology in today's harvesters couldn't be underestimated when it came to performance and productivity.

"We use GPS in all the machines, and we run yield monitors, monitoring every crop we cut and having the ability to share this data with our customers to give them an indication of how the crop's going and giving them the information they need to help with decisions going forward. We also use auto tracker for automatic base-cutter height – everything that's offered in these machines, we use," he said.

"You do get a lot more productivity but it also provides a lot of assistance to the driver in terms of reducing fatigue. They can sit in the harvester for 12 hours but they're still reasonably fresh at the end of the day because the technology's doing a lot of the work for them."

The Bonassis run a Case IH Austoft 9900, too, and on average they harvest more than 120,000 tonnes between themselves and for a neighbouring grower under contract. Last year, this was up to 128,000 tonnes but with 8500 tonnes standover. On their own block they usually bring in about 20,000 tonnes, but this year, while Robert says their crop looks okay, he thinks the yield will be back slightly to about 18,000 tonnes. In the Herbert region itself, Robert says there's a pre-estimate of 4.2 million tonnes.

"But that is going to be heavily determined by how the standover performs, and we also had a lot of rats in the Herbert last year which continued into this year. So, there are blocks of standover that are going to yield quite poorly and that's probably going to determine how some of the crop pans out by the end of 2023," he said.

Robert's been in the industry for 35 years, starting with a Toft 6000 harvester, so the differences between that and the Case IH Austoft they use today are not lost on him.

"The technology of today is unbelievable. You can cut large crops and get through your day comfortably. We cut 128,000 tonnes of cane with the 9900 last year, averaging 108 tonnes to the hectare. The fuel economy was extremely good, it's a great cab set-up and it's very good on serviceability," he said.

So, with final preparations under way for the start of the annual crush, growers are hoping the promising lead-up brings the desired results.

"The weather's looking good, and the cutting conditions really good, so we're hopeful of a strong result," Craig said.

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