Grain drying pioneer boosts harvest security in WA's south-east by Eammon Conaghan

Grain dryer Harry Little: growers have lost their whole crop waiting for grain to dry to 12.5 per cent moisture because rain, or gale force winds, came first.

AN AGRICULTURAL maverick who once proposed to have a tilt at the Guinness Book of World Records in the 1980s by spraying 1,600 hectares in 24 hours, using his revolutionary boom spray technology, is still blazing trails across WA's south-east.

In his 34 years at Esperance, Harry Little has been at the forefront of innovation to tackle many of the region's challenges, including contrary weather that often scatters showers across ripe crops just before harvest.

He 'fell ' into the grains industry after arriving in Esperance as a Corriedale sheep stud manager from New Zealand in 1967, the same year an Englishman built Esperance's first grain-drying facility, which he later sold to Elders.

After years in livestock and running what slowly became a successful boom spray business - "I think there's one of my 'buggered' boom sprays behind every mallee bush in Esperance," - Mr Little bought the grain-drying business from Elders.

"Grain drying wasn't a great commercial interest. When it was first established, 2,000 tonnes of drying was a big season for the plant.

"I had my own trouble making enough from it to repay Elders, so I prospected for shareholders and have had 10 on board for 15 years now. Last year we handled 40,000 tonnes, which was our busiest season," he said.

That was a remarkable feat considering the facility's vintage. Many of the components were salvaged from elsewhere before drying grain for 34 years and, according to Mr Little, it looked like Steptoe's yard.

The need to expand was clear. The old drying facility was struggling to dry down from 14 per cent moisture, and Esperance had battled wet finishes in two of its past three years and had inherent problems meeting today's grain hygiene and quality assurance requirements.

"A 10-year AWB study found that 30 per cent of receivals from the south coastal region were downgraded due to weathering quality problems in an average year, with that figure inflating to 70 per cent in bad years. "Generally, grain is accepted at 12.5 per cent moisture, but we need to get it out of the paddock before it drops to that level. I've seen growers lose their whole crop waiting for that to happen because the rain, or gale force winds, came first," Mr Little said.

Peak potential yield {s estimated to drop 0.5 per cent for every day the grain remains in the field. In recent years, Esperance growers have faced extended delays due to excess moisture. This is often compounded by the $20- $80 per tonne dockage on delivery for a variety of weather-related downgrading of quality.

New state-of-the-art plant

To help finance the addition of a new $2 million plant, incorporating a European-designed tower grain dryer, five new shareholders joined Esperance Grain Handlers (EGH) early this year.

The same equipment commonly dries down from more than 20 per cent moisture in the UK. The majority of EGH clients need only to dry grain down from 15 per cent, which can be done at 60- 80 tonnes per hour.

"We could drag 4-6 per cent moisture off at 50 tonnes per hour and that's where we see a lot of our future work. We want to cut two to four weeks from the harvest," Mr Little said.

With the new additions, which opened in October 2002, the annual capacity ofEGH has leapt to 100,000 tonnes. Shareholders will account for 30,000-40,000 tonnes, leaving more than 60,000 tonnes for potential contracting, although the company has planned to dry only an additional 20,000 tonnes.

"There is potential to dry grain for AWB and the Grain Pool to help reach shipment specifications," he speculated, "but we're here for growers, and our shareholders regard this as an investment in their farming enterprise, to add value to that business, rather than as a separate off-farm investment."