THE annual migration of contract harvesters following the grain from Queensland down to Victoria as harvest extends from north to south will be cut short this year due to the drought in northern and central NSW and Queensland.
Contractors have said there is not sufficient grain in the northern run to make it worth the expense of moving equipment north.
Instead they will be sticking to Victoria, where crop prospects are better, or looking at diversifying into other forms of agricultural contracting, such as hay-making.
Geoff Mulholland, spokesman for contract harvesting sector representative body Australian Custom Harvesters (ACH), said contractors faced bleak prospects this year.
"There is nothing happening basically north of the Murray River, there will just not be the acres to do, there is not a contractor going up there," Mr Mulholland said.
"You may find the odd good crop here or there, but there is not the scale you require to make it worthwhile, and even where there is a little bit of grain farmers are also looking to save costs and harvest themselves where possible."
2019 will mark the first year in a long time Chris Bartlett, Bartlett Brothers Contract Harvesting, has not taken a machine north.
Mr Bartlett, based at Pimpinio, near Horsham, will this year go no further north than an hour away to Hopetoun.
"There is no point trying to compete for what few acres there are," Mr Bartlett said.
"We will look to do a bit of contract baling. There is a lot of interest from people in cutting crops for hay, especially where there are concerns about running out of moisture for grain."
Mr Mulholland said contract harvesters did not usually become involved in fodder-making contract work.
"The time you would be needing to work on hay making in Victoria is when you should be up north on the headers so it doesn't fit in that well, especially for smaller contracting businesses," he said. "This year with no-one going north you could do both."
Mr Bartlett said two seasons ago four of the five harvesters in his fleet had gone north, last year as the drought bit there was only one before this year's decision not to make the trek north at all.
Mr Mulholland said the lack of work would make it difficult in some instances for contractors to generate enough income from their contracting work to make payments on equipment.
He said strict biosecurity rules, combined with the distance, meant contractors were not looking at Western Australia, where crops are generally better, as an option.
The drought has exacerbated a gradual squeeze within the contract harvesting sector in recent years and contractors are pinning their hopes on the Victorian Mallee having a good season.
"If the Mallee is good you can go from the Mallee down through the Wimmera and Western District and still get a reasonable run of work for the harvest," he said.