Friday, December 8, 2023

Flood fallout hits profits, machinery

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Harvesting on dusty, silted land ages new harvesters a decade in a day.
Dean Davies’ maize grain crop was severely damaged by Cyclone Gabrielle.
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A Gisborne contractor and maize grain grower will be thousands of dollars out of pocket after Cyclone Gabrielle left most of his crop unharvestable.

Dean Davies runs a small contracting business as well as growing maize for grain on 50ha of lease land. He is based at Waerengaahika, just north of Gisborne and has his crops at Te Karaka.

He estimates around 30ha of the crop was lost to the cyclone in what had already been a challenging season in the lead-up to that weather event.

He is hoping that a small portion of the crop is salvageable, but this will be confirmed after discussions with his harvesting contractor.

Grain was still filling out on cobs on the crop when the cyclone hit, with harvest planned in late May-early June.

“That crop’s on the ground and can’t be harvested at all. Even prior to that when Cyclone Hale came through, that was right at pollination time and if you look back far enough you can see that the issues were building,” Davies said.

The poor weather at the time affected the crop’s grain yield, meaning fewer individual grains formed on the cob.

But with the bulk of the crop hit by floodwater, this will contaminate the crop and limit the options around what he can do with it. He is facing an $80,000-$100,000 loss.

It is a bitter pill to swallow, given the high grain prices forecast last season and a general shortage of maize grain throughout New Zealand.  The surge in input costs took the gloss off a lot of those prices and then the cyclone knocked the crop over, he said.

The region has 15-20 maize growers, all of whom grow maize for grain and Davies said all of them have been impacted by the flooding.

“Anyone who grows maize grain grows it in the flood-prone areas whether that’s Gisborne, up the coast towards Tolaga [Bay], and even down to Wairoa. It’s hit all three regions pretty evenly and it’s where most of the grain is grown.”

There will be other, larger growers in the region facing a million-dollar financial losses, he said.

As well as producing maize seed for human and animal consumption, the growers also grow seed for other spring planting. The cyclone will have impacted those supply numbers and he expects some varieties will have limited stock.

Davies has also heard of some contractors who have damaged brand new machines attempting to harvest crops in paddocks that were too wet.

“They bought brand new machines for the harvest season – that’s a $700,000-$800,000 investment – and they now look like they’re 10 years old.”

 Flood silt got into the machines and acted like grinding paste on the bearings and other moving parts, he said.

“They’re looking at a major rebuild of their brand-new harvester once they finish harvesting.”

For Davies, it will mean belt-tightening over the short to medium term to cover the financial loss and seeking employment outside his business to earn income.

Maize seed companies and Federated Farmers have been very proactive in talking to growers and helping them. Most of the landowners have also been very understanding, he said.

He said he doubts central government fully understands the implications for consumers if there are maize grain shortages. 

“You can’t just go overseas and buy a boatload of grain and make a profit out of it and not have those cost be passed on to the consumer.”

Horticulture NZ, Foundation for Arable Research board member and Hawke’s Bay farmer Hugh Ritchie said maize growers around the region have water and silt issues with their crops.

“Some people have lost significant areas in the lowlands. I know in Tolaga Bay and Gisborne/Wairoa there’s been a lot of flooding and slash and that’s made it hard.

“Up at Tolaga Bay, the maize is still harvestable [but it’s] very dusty and is very hard on the machinery. A lot of the silt is going through the bearings and they’re trying to wade through thick silt and mud and get trucks in and out – it’s a real battle. You have the physical damage and the silt all through it and some if it you can’t get to because it’s flat on the ground.”

On his own farm, he estimates he might have lost 12-20%. 

Ritchie said he had not heard yet whether it could lead to any maize seed supply issues. However, the weather disruptions may lead to quality issues with the maize feed grain and some supplementation might have to take place.

The big influence on that will be the dairy forecast for the new season, which could reduce spring demand for that grain, he said.

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