Night & Day…..

My Lord, my Lord! Baptism of fire! I arrived back in Wagga from Singapore at 1pm on Monday 4 November, 2013. Neil met me at the airport, not the plan and alarm bells went off momentarily wondering where my son, Daniel, was.

Neil: “We need you out there now, Bernadette”.

Yours truly: “Ahhhh, nope, can’t do”. This goes down like a lead balloon.

Neil: “Can you be out there by 7pm”? It was 1pm.

Yours truly: “Ahhhh? Yeahhhp, I think I might be able to do that”. Silent question bubbles swimming in my head. 

I think I arrived in Neil’s canola paddock at 7.30pm after some manic “little jobs” in Wagga, having landed in Sydney from Singapore at 6.30am that morning and 1pm in Wagga. Had to throw some clothes in my suitcase for working in a paddock, not city living in Singapore. “Hopefield”, Neil’s property, is 35 minutes from Wagga if you break a few road rules, which of course, I did, 45 minutes if you don’t.

Neil was a great teacher – few instructions and a lot of trust and not a single swear word – from him! Me, on the other hand, had some very colourful vocabulary that would not have made my father proud. Sorry Dad. Sorry Neil. Saying “bother” just doesn’t cut it. It was dark and I was learning how to drive a tractor, chase a header that looked like a beast and not drop my bundle, let alone any grain! It wasn’t easy. 


Harvested canola being loaded from the field bin. Photo courtesy Neil Schirmer Facebook!

Since beginning this entry to my blog, I’ve done a fair amount of travelling between the brother’s farms and paddocks. Interestingly, on the last day we moved machinery into a paddock of lupins so that Peter could get started the next day when it was forecast to be cooler and I wasn’t required to chase. (This is a legume crop and the “pea-like” seed will split if the weather is too hot or dry, which reduces its value). Anyway, I could have sworn this lupin crop of Peter’s was right next door to the crop of canola I started in on that Monday night nearly 3 weeks prior.


The “dam paddock” referred to…. where I apparently started, is on the other side of the dam in this pic. It was canola and we were harvesting in wheat when I took this pic back to Galore Hill. At this time I still didn’t know that I had started in that paddock. I’m still gobsmacked I can’t remember. It’s been carefully filed in a box in my mind… somewhere!

So – the conversation goes….

Neil: “No, we started in my dam paddock”.

Me: “No, we started here. I distinctly remember starting here”. This paddock is probably about 5km from the dam paddock… on a different property, requiring all machinery to be moved.

Neil: “No. It was definitely the dam paddock.”

Me: “Really? You have to be kidding me…. I remember driving through the dam paddock when we started on the wheat and thought, ‘they must have done this canola crop before I got here’.”

Neil: (With incredulous look) “No. That’s where you started. Not here”.

Me: “Well, I must have been traumatised in those early hours with nerves. I have no recollection of being in that paddock at all, except moving machinery to get to the wheat”!

What can I say? Wow. I have searched my brain many times since and still can’t find the memory of that first paddock! Though I do now remember the move to Peter’s canola which must have been the next afternoon. Whatever, it’s scary when there are blanks!

Three hours worth of lessons, in the dark, in a paddock I don’t recall chasing in, and you’re on your own, it seems. The next morning, on board the blue New Holland, luxurious and filled with lots of gizzmo’s, I await another lesson. Feeling agitated and terrified. Hmmm. Lesson 2, in daylight, not forthcoming. Everyone is busy.


In the dark… so many times! Photo courtesy Neil Schirmer Facebook page. (I think it’s safe to say you are now famous Neil… just what you always wanted!)

Neil: Over the radio. “Looks like Bernadette’s on her own then”? With a hint of a smile.

Never mind Bernadette peeing her pants in the tractor!

Me: “Nooooooo wayyyyyyyy!!! Nooooooo wayyyyyy! I’m not ready for this! Shit. Shit. Shit. Shhhhhhhhit!”

Me: Thought bubble. Not comfortable with this, not comfortable at all. All care and no responsibility… I begin to chant.” I can do this. I can do this. I can do this”.

Meanwhile, in my guts, was a stampede that would rival Calgary. I’m telling you, not sure I’ve ever been more churned up over anything quite like this in my life. I reckon I lost 3kg that day! The fright I got when Dad shot the snake at the back door, paled into insignificance.

I wouldn’t say I aced that first chase on my own but there was no grain on the ground at the end of it, and subsequent chases got easier. So long as I had the beast looming in one of my two reference points I knew the grain was falling in the chaser bin. The other reference point was keeping the tractor the same distance from the header at all times, not so easy in canola.


The 36 foot comb on the Case Header becomes a reference point from the tractor when chasing…. or at least one end of it does. Then you have to find another reference point to stay parallel to the crop line. In canola it’s different and more difficult as the lines aren’t straight. Pic stolen from Neil’s Facebook page.

Having said all that, the tractor is not easy to drive. Both Peter and Neil admitted this to me a few days into the harvest. It’s very comfortable and very nice when you have the speed consistent. Maintaining a consistent speed while chasing is almost impossible. The tractor would surge sometimes, other times nothing, when I was willing it to go. Keeping an eye on the header’s speed going from light patches in the crop where it had been frosted to heavier patches where the yield was good, required the operator to slow down or speed up accordingly so the beast didn’t choke. Keeping all this alignment certainly wasn’t easy to start with.

Chasing wheat….


A stationery unload of the header. Did this when we either ran out of paddock or it was too rough for one reason or another. Most chases varied between about 6.5km – 10.5km ph depending on the crop yield etc.

I’d been assured that chasing wheat was much easier than canola as the header was on auto-steer via satellite and it was all “straight lines”. However, I insisted someone was in the tractor with me for the first chase in wheat. Fair enough, I thought. So Ian, the oldest of the brothers was delegated as my teacher, as Neil was in the header with Peter investigating warning lights… yeah right! Whatever.

Me: Concentrating and chasing.

Ian: “Have you got your reference point”?

Me: “Yep”. Concentrating furiously.

Ian: Have you got your reference point”?

Me: “Yes”.

Ian:  “Have you got your reference point”?

Me: Thought bubble….for God’s sake shutup and let me think. “Yes. I have my reference point”. Calmly.

Ian: “Have you got your reference point”?

Me: “YES. I have my reference point”! Not so calmly.

Ian: “Have you got your reference point”?

Me: “For God’s sake, YES, I have my reference point – shooosh will you”!

No less than 5 times he asked me about the bloody reference point. Needless to say I banned him from the tractor because it was also the worst chase I’d done with him talking in my ear and a few well-meant messages from Peter over the radio. Sometimes in teaching, it’s best to be quiet and just let the student get on with it. I grabbed Ian by the shoulders at the end of the chase, looked him in the eye and told him it would be best if he stayed off the tractor. Things went smoothly for me from then, for the most part.

About the tractor….

It has an Infinite Variable Transmission. All new to me. Nothing like the old days. It can be programmed to not go over a certain speed with 3 choices of maximum speed both forwards and backwards and a scroll wheel if the programmed speed isn’t fast or slow enough. All operated by pushing or pulling a joystick with thumb controls on the variable speed choices. Confused? Yep. Me too. The first few days of driving it had me bamboozled. Why doesn’t this thing just “go”… smoothly? My first few “chases” were living on the edge experiences for me. Nearly a million dollars worth of machinery and if there’s a mess up:

  1. I don’t want it to be on my watch.
  2. Delays cost money.
  3. The embarrassment.
  4. See point 1 and read again.

    Neil (back) and Peter (facing) dealing with a relatively small breakdown – it was a case of “a stitch in time saves nine”.

Questions and check lists – night 1


Unloading canola as the sun sets. As the night wore on it was “black on black”. Fortunate for the lights!

We sit to eat dinner at 10pm or something ridiculous, after my initiation chasing canola in the dark. Marg was in hospital having had a foot operation that afternoon! So it was just Neil and I and I have no idea what we ate for dinner. Probably something delicious that Marg had left for us. What I do know is, that I was so nervous and pumped with adrenaline that relaxing just wasn’t happening! The tractor, it’s operation and the reference points were leaving me perplexed and way out of my depth!

Me: “OK, I think I need a check list”?

Neil: “OK, I’ll write one for you”.

Me: “How do I start the tractor”?

Neil: Blank look. Silence.

Me: “Does it scare you a little that I’m asking how to start the tractor”?

Neil: “Ahhh, a little”.

Me: “Well, I need you to write that down too”.

Neil: “OK”. Then silence for a bit longer than was comfortable.

Would have loved a penny for his thoughts. Perhaps they were going something like this:

“Holy crap. She doesn’t even know how to start the bloody tractor! WTF”?

Hmmm…. He will read this and I think I may be on the money!


The Check List. Thank you Neil.

I did let Neil know that a few lessons on driving the tractor might have been in order before being thrown in the deep end and chasing straight up. He agreed, with a shrug of the shoulders. He jumped in the tractor a few times throughout harvest, while waiting for one of the trucks to be filled and came on the chase with me. On the last occasion, and perhaps the reason it was the last occasion, I asked him to drive for me so I could see a pro in action. By this stage I had about 150 hours of chaser bin driving under my belt. And, to be fair, Neil would have thousands of hours of header driving under his.

Me: “Here, swap seats. Show me how it’s done”.

Neil: “No. You can do it”. (hint of trepidation)

Me: “Go’orn, have a go. Let me watch you do this”.

Neil: “No. You can do it”. (more trepidation)

Me: “Haahaaaa! You can’t do it! Or at least not as well as me”! (roaring with laughter)

Neil: “Nope. Possibly not”. Gotta give him credit for actually saying this!

Me: “Seriously?

Neil: “I can do it, I can”.

Me: “Ahhh, just not as good as me”! (feeling satisfied!)

Me: Big smile! Ammunition for the future!

Sometimes you just have to let that ego out of its bag! I was feeling smug.

To auto-steer or not to auto-steer….

When the header is unloading and you are inches from the header comb, and the grain is pouring into the chaser bin there’s not much room for error. The target has to stay steady. Otherwise, grain can go over the back or the front of the chaser bin. I think on one occasion, when the auto-steer on the header lost it’s satellite signal we may have even lost some over the side! I thought the beast was going to come straight through the back window of the tractor and spit me out with the straw and dust at the back! Peter was driving at the time and had one of their farming advisors onboard, Amy.


Me standing by the beast while Peter filled it with oil.

Me: In tractor swearing again because I had no idea what just happened.

Peter: “Sorry about that Bernadette. Looks like the header wanted to eat you”.

Me: Still shaking. “What happened”?

Peter: “Auto-steer went walk-about”?

Me: “Shit. I thought I’d screwed up my point of reference”!

Peter: “Nah, nah. You did well. You did well. Bit scary when that happens though isn’t it”?

Me: “Yep, yep indeed. Hope that doesn’t happen again”! Nearly needed to go home and change my pants… again!

Peter: “Yeah. Me either, happens from time to time when we lose the signal”.

Me: Not on radio. *%#*@!!! “I hope it behaves itself for the rest of harvest”!


The New Holland and chaser bin.

Hmmmm. Well, it didn’t. It’s a machine after all. However, it was never as scary the subsequent times except in the dark one night and my rear tyre, which is nearly twice the size of me, clipped the header comb guard and left me a bit shaken for the next run. There were periods of time when the satellite signal was lost in a valley or on the wrong side of a hill. All in all it probably happened about ten times. Every time, it left me a bit edgy. Understandable I reckon.


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