The annual Queensland sugar crush is underway and as usual, there have been plenty of ups and downs.
The annual Queensland sugar crush is underway following a rough start to 2017 for many cane growers due to extreme weather, including Tropical Cyclone Debbie, as well as sugar marketing deals that were not signed off on until the 11th hour.
The Australian Sugar Milling Council predicts 34 million tonnes of cane will be crushed in Queensland by season’s end, which is about the same as last year.
To date, just over 12 per cent of that total has gone through the mills.
The northernmost districts are faring better than their southern counterparts.
Far north Queensland mill records best start in 25 years
The state’s sugar crush began in the far north in late May, and although some patchy dry season rain and a few minor mechanical issues have led to brief stoppages, the region’s mills are on schedule.
However, the standout is Cofco Group’s Tully Mill.
After an extended crushing season last year, which led to delays planting this year’s crop, it has sent 200,000 tonnes more cane through the mill than at the same time in 2016.
Growers including Tom Harney hope to finish the harvest early this year.
“You’d probably have to go back 25 years when we’ve had an early start like this because we actually started on the first of June, which is almost unheard of in Tully.”
Largest sugar-milling region reports record-breaking week
Further south in the Herbert and Burdekin, last-minute cane supply agreements between growers and miller Wilmar Sugar led to a frantic opening to the harvest.
Since then, mills in both districts have surpassed budgets, and Australia’s biggest cane growing region, the Burdekin, last week crushed a season record 389,000 tonnes.
In the Herbert district, growers including Michael Pisano have been frustrated by IT problems with a new harvest management system.
“When you don’t have access to reliable figures or the mapping tools that we have been able to use in the past, it makes us all a little bit nervous and we get the feeling that we’re flying a little blind,” he said.
Mackay still recovering
The Mackay region’s harvesters have been battling with cyclone debris.
Proserpine’s cane paddocks were some of the worst hit by Cyclone Debbie in March, and the crop is expected to be down by about 25 per cent.
The district’s mill only began crushing two weeks ago and despite the challenges, Wilmar Sugar Mackay region operations manager Craig Muddle said cane quality and sugar content was higher than first estimated.
“We expected to see a lot of mud come in with the harvest and also with a lot of cane that was snapped, we expected to see some deterioration, which makes it difficult to crystallise the sugar,” he said.
“We’ve seen a few little patches of that but once it hits the factory and it’s mixed in, we don’t tend to notice it on the back end.”
Drought delays crushing season in Maryborough
Disastrous drought conditions in the Maryborough region last year had growers fearing they would lose half their crop, especially when water in the irrigation schemes ran out in February.
Rain from Cyclone Debbie helped them reach a predicted 600,000 tonnes.
However, MSF Sugar’s Maryborough general manager Stewart Norton said that was still down on last year.
“We had enough cane in the ground this year to probably be up around 900,000 tonnes easily with reasonable weather conditions, but unfortunately they didn’t eventuate,” he said.
State’s southernmost mill at a crossroads
Rocky Point Sugar Mill, between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, is playing catch-up after a fire in the main control panel in November brought an abrupt end to last year’s harvest.
Managing director David Heck said it was now full steam ahead.
“It’s been quite an exercise just to get all of the electrical installation back and running and commissioned,” he said.
“Last year we only got a portion of our crop off, so we’ve got a huge crop to get off this year.”
It may be among the last harvests in the region, with growers in talks with Chinese investors about having their rural land rezoned for urban development.