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New push to sweeten soybean plantings

Jeff and Judy Plath started incorporating soybeans into their farming system two decades ago. Judy remains passionate about them, recently taking on a newly created role with Soy Australia to help boost plantings in future seasons.
Photo: Elloise Bailey, QCL

Key points

  • North Queensland mayor Ramon Jayo instigated the ‘Grain in the Rain’ project to diversify his region’s reliance on sugarcane
  • It is just one project the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is undertaking to boost soybean plantings
  • Across the northern region, there has been a recent push to reinvigorate the industry, with DAF agronomists and industry development officers playing key roles
  • Soy Australia has also appointed its first-ever industry development officer, Judy Plath, to increase plantings

When he was elected mayor of the Hinchinbrook Shire Council in 2016, Ramon Jayo’s platform was to diversify the region’s economy and reduce its reliance on sugar.

In this part of tropical north Queensland, sugarcane has been the number-one crop since it was first planted in the 1860s.

Ramon says sugarcane is “bomb proof”, which suits the area’s volatile weather. “We can have no rain for six months and then 16 inches (400 millimetres) overnight. Sugarcane can handle that.”

However, as a sugarcane grower himself, he knew that practice changes, including controlled-traffic farming, would help improve the chances of alternative crops also having success. He instigated a ‘Grain in the Rain’ project with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF).

“I wanted to show that we could grow something in conjunction with and complementary to the sugarcane cycle, diversifying our economics. We needed an alternative cash crop that would give us a cash boost while providing a break crop and enhancing soil quality.”

The project is one example of a recent push to reinvigorate the soybean industry across the state, with DAF agronomists and industry development officers playing a key role.

Mr Jayo is working closely with DAF’s Brock Dembowski, while further south DAF’s Carla Atkinson and Neil Halpin are working to boost soybean growth around the Burdekin, Mackay and Bundaberg. Soy Australia has also appointed its first-ever industry development officer – well-respected soybean agronomist and grower Judy Plath.

GRDC grower relations manager Vicki Green says soybeans are a great fit in high-rainfall coastal and hinterland areas. To support growers as they explore increasing soybean production and the crops fit in the coastal farming system, GRDC has invested in two projects. One with DAF in Queensland and the second with DPI in New South Wales, both focussed on growing agronomic knowledge.

Soybean’s fit with cane

Together, DAF and GRDC have worked closely over the past 20 years with the region’s sugarcane growers and industry to increase soybean production as a means of diversifying operations, improving soil health and reducing nitrogen fertiliser use in the Great Barrier Reef catchment area.

Today, the growing alternative protein market gives this added momentum, with Australian-grown soybeans being used in non-meat alternatives.

For Townsville-based Brock Dembowski, an industry development officer with DAF, the aim is twofold: to diversify sugarcane growers’ portfolios and de-risk the option of planting soybeans. “And we’re pushing further north of the Burdekin into Ingham, a traditional cattle and cane area,” he says.

A photo of a dry soy bean crop with a harvester approaching on the horizon.

Soybeans are pushing north into Queensland’s Ingham region, where Townsville-based Brock Dembowski, an industry development officer with DAF, helps to de-risk their planting and harvest. Photo: Brock Dembowski, DAF

Mr Dembowski has been working with Mr Jayo and other growers in the Hinchinbrook region and as far north as Mossman, and credits newer varieties Kuranda HB1 (PBR), Mossman HB1 (PBR) and Hayman (PBR), developed by CSIRO’s Dr Andrew James, in allowing this to occur.

“For many of these sugarcane growers, new soybean varieties have given those in the north the opportunity to grow beans. They have been a game changer.”

He says Kuranda HB1 (PBR) tends to yield an extra half a tonne compared to other varieties. “But Hayman (PBR) is preferred by soybean processors as a food grade bean. Its gelling capabilities for tofu are meant to be better.”

That said, Mr Dembowski tells new growers not to worry too much about this. “Soybeans have great benefits to the following sugarcane crop. So, I tell new growers to work back from when they want to harvest and plant the variety that suits that timeframe; aim for crushing and not food grade.

“If it gets to food grade, that’s great. But often weather impacts during the wet season influence seed quality and market pricing.”

Mr Jayo says the ‘Grain in the Rain’ project has been well received and opened local cane growers’ eyes to other opportunities to better use fallow periods. About 20 young growers are keen to keep growing alternative break crops in the fallow.

“The first-year trials of soybeans, mungbeans and industrial hemp were smashed by drought and then heavy rain. But, since then, a few growers are harvesting food grade soybean and mungbeans.”

Pests and prices

Challenges remain for the northern Queensland region though. “The general feeling is that soybeans are more labour-intensive and riskier than mungbeans,” Mr Jayo says.

“Soybeans have a propensity to attract insect pests. And if they do, we want to spray them quickly. But if it’s been wet, we may not be able to get on paddocks. We’d prefer to use ground rigs but have been trialling some drones too, to get around this issue.”

DAF senior development extension officer Carla Atkinson says this region and south to the Burdekin has also faced the perfect storm for disease pressure in recent years. “Humidity adds to the disease pressure, but we can decrease the likelihood of disease via agronomic choices. We are looking more into that, ensuring growers know about varieties that will tolerate disease,” she says.

Other challenges include traditional cane farm size, Mr Jayo says, and with that header access. “There are limited areas where we can get headers on, so trials have been done on more broadacre areas. A lot of other areas in my region are crisscrossed by rivers and creeks.”

High sugar prices – at $900 a tonne – in late 2023 tend to “make growers forget about other options”, he says. And with many buyers located in Queensland’s south, logistics can be challenging. But he is positive that pulses have a place in traditional sugar areas. “If we keep at it, the markets will follow.”

The tyranny of distance

Ms Atkinson agrees that freight costs can be daunting. “Freight costs doubled from $100/t to $200/t at one point in 2022,” she says. It means that growers look to alternatives including the feed market and export.

DAF has tried to address this at grower days by inviting local transport companies. “They have had a chat about options. We’ve also had some more local processors come to our meetings, which could help some growers bypass the expensive freight.”

Transport itself is often a new idea for sugar growers. “Sugar growers tend to take it to the nearest mill and there is an extensive rail network for that. They just take it a kilometre or so, always to a train pad area. Soybean marketing is very different; it’s a different mental mindset.”

Mr Dembowski agrees. “Growers are also often bottlenecked by freight. To increase production in the north, I think we need to continue to focus on local feed markets and look at export opportunities through the Port of Townsville.

“Supplying local markets reduces freight costs. There’s a chook farm here using an extruder, and many growers will sell to them. On-farm storage buffers this supply, so some growers are putting in silos.”

Retelling the soybean story

To encourage more soybean plantings, the story of soybeans may need to be retold – something that Judy Plath, a grower and soybean agronomist from Bundaberg, is keen to do.

In late 2023 she was appointed as a soybean industry development officer with industry body Soy Australia. The newly created role aims to help boost plantings in coming seasons to meet targets to double annual production over the next decade.

Ms Plath has been involved in the coastal Wide Bay soybean industry for 20 years. “I began promoting soybeans as an ideal legume break crop for sugarcane in the Wide Bay area in 2003. In time I married into a local cane farming family and have seen first-hand the benefits that soybeans offer to our farming system and our bottom line.”

She says there was a lot of momentum 20 years ago. “Since then, there has been a lot of change in the sugar industry. We don’t want knowledge lost.”

Those changes include a move to more macadamia plantings. “We’ve lost a lot of growers. A lot of hectares in this area have converted from sugarcane to macadamias. Once a farm is planted to trees, there’s no opportunity to plant something else, such as soybeans.”

A photo of a small silo being emptied into a truck while a man in a blue long sleeved collared shirt and black cap watches from next to the silo.

On-farm storage helps to support local supply chains, while reducing freight costs. Photo: Brock Dembowski, DAF

Crop competition is another issue, with some cane farmers opting to lease land to horticultural growers, while some have chosen peanuts over soybeans. “Peanuts are a higher-risk crop, but there’s a higher potential income. However, with the recent jump in soybean prices, soy is definitely worth revisiting.”

Ms Plath says the other challenge has been growers’ age, with many transitioning to retirement. “Fitting in another crop may not be their highest priority. Many will be a one-man band and they focus on their core business, which is cane.”

She says the initial excitement about soybeans needs to be revitalised. “When we first really got excited about soybeans 21 years ago there was a real buzz about them. It was being talked about a lot. There were trials and we were all learning about it.

“All those things created a buzz and kept them front of mind for people. And then, as we became more confident with them, some of those learning opportunities dropped off and they became more of a matter of course.

“Some people kept at it and soybeans became a core part of the farming system every year.”

Ms Plath sees an opportunity to educate the next generation about soybeans and their soil fertility benefits. “There’s plenty of good data available on the sort of nitrogen returns to expect from a well-grown crop of soybeans, whether it is green manured or harvested.

“Growers can feel really confident in that data and in knowing that if soybeans are grown, they are going to get a fair chunk of free nitrogen which they can allow for in their fertiliser programs.”

Soy Australia chair Paul Fleming, who is a grower from the northern New South Wales region, says the organisation is keen to help build broader awareness of agronomic best practice as well as the economic benefits of soybeans in key growing regions such as the coastal regions of North Queensland, the Wide Bay-Burnett, the Northern Rivers and Northern Tablelands of NSW and the Riverina region.

“While the Australian soybean industry is small by global standards, it plays an important role in many farming systems across Australia and is increasingly providing a higher-value crop option for growers,” Mr Fleming says.

“Soy Australia believes the demand for non-genetically modified, Australian-grown, good-quality soybeans is strong, but we need to increase production if we hope to develop long-term relationships with our end users.”

What are the agronomic benefits?

Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) principal farming systems agronomist Neil Halpin says research findings show soybeans are a great fit for those wanting a legume rotation crop.

“Our department has been involved in a range of soybean research projects over the last 20 years or so and we’ve come to understand just how valuable this legume is in the sugarcane farming system,” he says.

Cane growers can expect a 10 per cent yield increase in the cane crop following a well-grown soybean crop, compared to a plough-out replant.

DAF research has also shown that a well-grown crop of soybeans can return 300 kilograms of plant-available nitrogen to the soil if green manured.

"Growers who are growing soybeans for harvest can gain extra income from the soybeans and still expect 60kg or more of ‘free’ nitrogen for their next crop,” he says.

The soybean expansion project, jointly supported by GRDC and DAF, is planning to run a bus tour to southern Queensland and northern NSW in early 2024.

Growers who are interested in more details about forthcoming events are urged to subscribe to the DAF Soybean Update by emailing their details to

Two decades of benefits

Jeff and Judy Plath integrated soybeans into their farming system 20 years ago.

Jeff says he saw immediate benefits. “Not only do soybeans supplement our income, but they also improve our soil structure, return nitrogen to the soil, and allow us to reduce cultivation in our farming system.”

The Plaths use a zero-tillage planting system that allows them to plant the soybeans directly through the trash from the previous cane crop.

After soybeans are harvested, the soybean trash is left intact for as long as possible to protect the soil from erosion, conserve soil moisture, improve soil organic matter levels and allow for the strategic release of the nitrogen stored in the soybean plant material.

Before planting sugarcane, Jeff cultivates the soybean paddock with two passes. “Occasionally the seasonal conditions mean I need to cultivate earlier, or more often, but in general over the last 10 years or more I have been able to plant most of my soybean blocks back to sugarcane with minimal cultivation,” he says.

More information: Brock Dembowski, 07 3330 4519,; Judy Plath, 0407 114 748

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