Cane growers in Sarina have ended one of their worst seasons in three decades with about 5 per cent of the crop unharvested.
Canegrowers Mackay chairman Kevin Borg said the decision was made yesterday to shut down Wilmar’s mill at Plane Creek after harvesting about 96 per cent of the crop, leaving up to 60,000 tonnes as standover cane.
“There was rain late last week, up to four inches of rain or 100mm throughout the mill area,” he said.
“That on top of the other deluge we had a few weeks ago has impacted on supply.
“The mill did do a ring around to see who could actually supply in the next few days and there were no contractors that could supply, saying that probably after new year was the first time they could supply.”
He said growers who had left their plough out blocks to the end of the season would be most affected, impacting on next year’s plant.
“They will probably have to resort to ploughing out and replanting so that’s going to be a fairly major impact,” he said.
“In my 36 years of cane farming this is the worst year that I’ve seen and a lot of people around me are saying that.”
“Growers, whilst they would have liked to have got the crop off … probably have had fair gutful of this year and people have said to me that it’s a blessing in disguise, get it over and done with and let’s get on with it.”
While wet weather was the major factor in causing the delay, Mr Borg said the interrupted season had highlighted other problems with transport and maintenance.
“The mill does struggle when there’s fine weather, once the pressure comes on to Plane Creek Mill we seem to have all sorts of troubles within the transport department, within the milling trains section, and also the back end of the mill,” he said.
“We’d like to see that 85 per cent (reliability) improved. Plane Creek had their fair share of derailments this year, which did contribute to the late finish.
‘When you have got sunshine you need to make hay and when things get going again and no sooner you get going you’re down because of a derailment or because of a mill break down. It’s very frustrating.”
Wilmar’s Mackay region operations manager Craig Muddle said Plane Creek Mill had not performed as well as planned, but had also lost seven weeks to wet weather.
“The five-year average for rain-related downtime is about two-and-a-half weeks, so we were really up against it this crushing season,” he said.
“We’ve analysed which areas have cost us the most downtime during the season and we’ll be focusing on improving reliability in those areas over the next few months.
“This includes work on the shredder and No. 3 boiler, as well as improvements to our cane railway network.”
Seven of Wilmar Sugar’s eight mill have now finished the crush, with Inkerman Mill at Home Hill expected to crush out on January 4.
Growers lash out at Mackay Sugar over reliability
Meanwhile Cane growers have lashed out at Mackay Sugar, accusing the miller of failing to improve performance after reliability dropped to 80 per cent this crush.
Canegrowers chairman Paul Schembri, who is also a shareholder of Mackay Sugar, said the crush would have been over weeks ago in Mackay if the mills were up to scratch.
“We accept in large part that the reason we are crushing cane is because of wet weather. I get that. I understand that because we had an exceptional amount rain in the winter and spring,” he said.
“But I want to make it very plain … one of the other contributing factors has been poor milling performance.
“We’re quite angry by that because there is no doubt that this poor million performance has resulted in us now seeing our crops still unharvested in the field.”
Growers had been buoyed throughout the season by high prices, but Mr Schembri said it was frustrating to see a profitable crop sit in the paddock.
“I can’t control the weather, I can’t control the price, but when we lose control of the this that we can control such as milling reliability we’re going to be in trouble as an industry,” he said.
“You can’t run a modern, efficient sugar industry when your mills are broken down 20 per cent of the time.
“We’ve been given assurances each year by the board of Mackay Sugar that milling performance wouldl improve. It hasn’t, and it’s something that’s frustrating, the growers are sick to the back teeth about it.”
Mill says it is working to improve performance
Mackay Sugar chief executive Jason Lowry acknowledged that performance had been unacceptable, but said a large part of the downtime was due to an explosion in the number one boiler at Marian Mill at the start of the season.
The boiler was being repaired after causing major delays in the previous season.
“The factory downtime has been due to the boiler issue that we had right at the start of the season, that was about two thirds of that,” he said.
“The remaining third we’ve lost about seven days throughout the season due to additional downtime that was not planned.
But he said the mill was working to address the issues, both through training and investment, though funds had been hard to come by.
“The downtime that we experienced can be split into two categories, one is operational and one is equipment,” he said.
“On the operational side we have an extensive training program which is being developed and put in place this coming year, so that will help with that portion of the downtime.
“On the asset side we have a strategic plan for the last several years that requires a capital investment and that capital investment has not been forthcoming so we are working with an outside consultant who is coming up with ideas on how to get the capital injection.”
Despite the doubts from growers, he said the mill had improved its performance in the three seasons prior to 2016.