The recent harvest provided a physical and emotional rollercoaster with the highlights of big yields and strong pricing counterbalanced by persistent harvest rains and the subsequent delays and quality issues.
For growers, the operational difficulties of harvest are quickly fading from memory as the focus has well and truly shifted to planting into what is been widely regarded as a textbook autumn break.
However for exporters, domestic consumers and other members of the supply chain, the rollercoaster ride continues as the task of executing an enormous program continues to throw up challenge after challenge.
Rail is a critical component of the export supply chain and in a normal export year, is responsible for an estimated 70 to 80 per cent of grain movements from upcountry to port. However, this year a perfect storm of factors will mean rail performance will fall well short of delivering what has been asked of it.
A shortage of qualified drivers has meant crewing trains has been problematic. The unreliable nature of the Australian crop size has seen a reduction in driver numbers over the past 10 years, and with drivers requiring up to two years of training there is no immediate solution available. Retaining drivers over the competing industries of mining and passenger services can be difficult, as both offer their own attractions.
Environmental forces have also been a big factor. Between flooding and hot weather Queensland's rail capacity has been cut over summer, not helped by Olympics-related line interruptions. Flooding across much of NSW has seen numerous line closures. Wet weather has also seen significant ground damage and landslides, with Port Kembla most significantly impacted by long-term rail line outages.
Rail equipment is also in short supply. The wait time for new wagons and locomotives is measured in years. So, extra pressure is applied to the road freight industry to pick up the shortfall.
Unfortunately, the national bulk tipper fleet was surplus to requirements over consecutive poor production years and while being rebuilt, it falls well short of meeting current demand. And, at least in the short term, a sizeable percentage of the national fleet is confined to farm duties.
COVID-19 continues to hit workforce availability, and with so many other job options available to them finding full-time truck drivers willing to commit to the lifestyle, is challenging. As a result, it is not unusual for 10 to 15pc of the fleet to be sitting idle. As such, the demand for bulk tippers is through the roof, further tightening a market fuelled by government stimulus construction, urban growth projects and other booming agri-commodities.
With demurrage rates (the charges incurred by loading vessels outside their nominated window) now in the order of US$50,000 per day, there is a lot riding on the successful navigation of what seems at times to be a logistical nightmare.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.