Despite the winter crop plant being months away, an equipment hire company near Goondiwindi is experiencing unprecedented demand for its diamond harrows, renting out its entire 14-strong fleet.
Michael and Penny Pegler of M&P Pegler at Talwood usually see a spike in business just prior to the traditional opening of the sowing window in April.
However, the combination of rising herbicide costs, unusually high rainfall, the labour shortage and a lack of brand new machines is prompting a flood of farmer enquiries.
"Normally we'd have three or four working now, but the price of Roundup's gone through the roof, which has sparked it up earlier than usual," Mr Pegler said.
"They're all working at the moment in varying configurations, anywhere from Roma to Taroom to Warwick and Dirranbandi and over the border."
Harrowing is often carried out on fields to break up lumps of soil and to provide a finer finish suitable for seedbed use. Coarser harrowing may also be used to remove weeds and to cover seed after sowing.
One of Peglers' cropping customers was recently looking to tackle his weed problem and decided hiring a harrow made more financial sense than spending tens of thousands on herbicides.
"A wheat grower was looking at a double knock at $40 a hectare or a Kelly chain at $8 a hectare," Mr Pegler said.
"He said, 'I don't need to spend $80,000 on chemicals this week and it'll rain next week and I'll have to do the same again'."
However, Mr Pegler warned harrows weren't a complete weed fix.
"We don't hire them out saying they're going to get 100 per cent of the weeds out, because you can't. They'll get 90pc out.
"They do a good job on Feathertop Rhodes grass and fleabane, but when you get to a really thick clump of Feathertop, they don't do as well."
The unseasonably wet winter in 2021 experienced by many parts of Queensland and NSW was also prompting some farmers to level out their paddocks.
"The cattle farmers are looking at running over their oats country and just doing a light working on the ground and levelling those clods," Mr Pegler said.
University of Queensland Centre for Crop Science Professor Bhagirath Chauhan said FTR was a major weed in chemical fallows in Australia and was notoriously hard to kill with glyphosate, so non-chemical control played a part in integrated weed management.
"Yes, we have the benefits of zero tillage, but if there is no other option and we don't really have chemicals, what do we do? Longterm strategies will not work now, like cover crop competition or harvest weed seed control. In fallow, we only have these [non-chemical] options, because we have relied only on glyphosate. And because of its price, you go for targeted tillage or spot tillage, or a harrow just to bury those seeds," Professor Chauhan said.
"Most weed seeds emerge from the top 5cm, so if we can bury these seeds below that depth, you can easily manage them if there is a build up of seed bank on the soil surface."
But Professor Chauhan said farmers should take a cautious approach to deeper cultivations.
"I've spoken with a few farmers who have Feathertop Rhodes grass, and in fallows they were using glyphosate, so they are actually going for shallow tillage," he said.
"We have some weed seeds which can persist in the soil for more than 20 years, so when we cultivate, we are bringing back those seeds on the soil surface.
"It all depends on the history of the paddock. When was it cultivated last, what type of weeds - and it is possible with cultivation that you may get more emergence."
Professor Chauhan said he had also seen growing interest in precision sprayers and electrical technology.
"I've seen a lot of interest in Weed-It, where farmers can save up to 90 per cent of their total chemical, and the electrical weeder, which is still in the research phase. We're hoping to see more testing with the electrical weeder in Australia this year."
Due to a farm labour shortage in some parts of the country, farmers who normally run 40-foot harrows are now looking at 60-foot harrows to boost efficiency.
"If you've got one 60-foot machine, you're basically getting as much done as two 40s," Mr Pegler said.
"You can run one 60-foot for 24 hours and you only need three men, whereas the other one, you need four, and they're a bit hard to find.
"That's all everyone's doing. If there's a gain to be made by doing something, it happens. It's all a game of percentages. It doesn't matter what you do. It's just squeezing that extra drop out of the towel into the bucket."
Mr Pegler said getting a brand new harrow or chain could prove difficult, driving many to hire instead.
"I think it's an eight or nine month wait for a chain if you want to buy a new one - with steel and COVID delays."
The business runs nine 12m Kelly diamond harrows and five 18m harrows and a range of chains depending on the application.
"We run just about anything, whether it's a double heavy disc or heavy disc on the front and a prickle chain on the back, or a heavy spike on the back," Mr Pegler said.
"Coming into planting time at the start of May we'll change a fair few of them over to prickles. That's just for covering over deep sown chickpeas and to stop people getting a bit of chemical damage. It makes it a bit better and easier on harvesting."
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