Big gains in the north

Rotations restore cane system profits

Business Management
Sugarcane being harvested in Queensland's coastal Burnett region. PHOTO Rebecca Thyer | GRDC

Sugarcane being harvested in Queensland's coastal Burnett region. PHOTO Rebecca Thyer | GRDC


Breaking up sugarcane monoculture proves successful in the north.


Six years into a GRDC-funded program to bring rotation crops into the one-time sugarcane monoculture, a dynamic cropping system incorporating legumes, minimum till and controlled traffic has boosted profits by 50 per cent.

Neil Halpin, Coastal Hinterland Queensland Grower Solutions Group Chairman, says a fundamental system change has seen profits rise through increased yields, reduced fertiliser costs, and a longer cane lifespan, plus the bonus cash crop the legumes provide.

Growers are seeing healthier soils from planting a break crop and using reduced tillage following research work by University of Queenslands Professor Mike Bell, in particular, he says.

The shift began in the late 1990s through a 12-year Sugar Research and Development Corporation project dubbed the Sugar Yield Decline Joint Venture, which comprised biologists, physicists, chemists, engineers, growers and agronomists led by Dr Alan Garside.

This work, which also includes Mr Halpin in his role as Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries agronomist is helping sugarcane and legume growers refine their systems for reduced input costs and maximised productivity.

Growers are seeing healthier soils from planting a break crop and using reduced tillage. - Coastal Hinterland Queensland Grower Solutions Group Chairman Neil Halpin

The group tailors elements of national programs to regional priorities, and also determines its own local research agenda by teaming researchers with growers, including Peter Russo, Mr Halpin says.

The original initiative was borne from necessity, after three decades of zero growth in an industry defined by monoculture, heavy tilling and declining soil health.

The joint venture established the parameters for a new sugar farming system.

"Its first task was to pull apart the established sugarcane cropping system to identify the problems.

Chickpea researchers go on-farm in CQ

Researchers took the latest GRDC research findings to Central Queensland in 2018, including chickpea disease management strategies as part of a series of on-property question-and-answer sessions.

An initiative of the GRDC-funded Central Queensland Grower Solutions Group, the sessions included information on chickpea disease symptoms, spread and infection sources as well as strategies for control, including fungicides and rates.

Rod Collins, GRDC Central Queensland Grower Solutions Group chair says New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) senior plant pathologist Kevin Moore provided information and advice on managing damaging diseases including Ascochyta Blight, Phytopthera and Botrytis Grey Mould.

Managing moisture in stored grain was also a hot topic in the region and growers received tips for effectively preserving the quality of planting seed, Mr Collins says.

Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) senior development agronomist, Philip Burrill, oversaw the Grain Storage and Early Harvest Management workshops, held at Kilcummin, Capella, Orion, Moura, Duaringa and Jambin.

Mr Burrill, who is also a member of the Grains Research and Development Corporations (GRDC) Grain Storage Extension team, delivered the workshops in partnership with the Central Queensland Grower Solutions Group.

Managing moisture in stored grain was also a hot topic in the region and growers received tips for effectively preserving the quality of planting seed - GRDC Central Queensland Grower Solutions Group chair Rod Collins

Growers were told to manage moisture in grain in storage, preserve the quality of planting seed and reduce storage pest problems, they needed to practice good stored grain hygiene including emptying silos and ensuring grain handling equipment is clean in regard to pests, Mr Collins says.

They also heard that the incidence and severity of pest problems can also be combatted with adequate aeration cooling of stored grain and were urged to seek advice on fan type, fan size and the model of auto controller selected to run fans.

For most farm situations, fumigation is the only option for managing a storage pest infestation and silos needed to meet the Australian standard AS2628 for gas-tight sealing so fumigations is effective.

The ability to correctly segregate grain at harvest time on grain quality specification, as required by the market, is also a key consideration for growers to maximise profits from on-farm storage, he says.

Canola windrowing advice cuts through

Several years of GRDC-funded trials and recommendations has seen central west NSW growers direct heading more crops and increasing nitrogen fertiliser use, resulting in yield gains of 10 per cent or more.

Windrowing later has conservatively earned growers an extra $11 million annually calculated using average canola yields of 1.25 tonnes per hectare, average farmgate canola price of $500/t and the area planted to canola reported, says Grains Orana Alliance (GOA) chief executive officer Maurie Street.

Uptake of the GOA research work and tips was quantified last year in a grower survey of canola management practices in the region.

The survey examined crop and harvest management, and nutrition practices of more than 110 canola growers and advisers, looking at how they had changed over a decade and how these changes had impacted upon on-farm profitability.

Mr Street says the survey was directed at both growers and agronomists, with participants overseeing more than 207,000 hectares of canola crop, predominantly in the NSW Orana region and overwhelmingly citing yield gains as their motivation for change.

GOA is one of several GRDC Grower Solutions Group investments designed to deliver research and extension at a grassroots level, as well as provide critical information about regional production constraints and priorities.

The survey was designed to give both the GRDC and GOA an understanding of the on-farm impact of research and the effectiveness of information delivery to growers and advisers and, in turn, the practice change happening in the paddock.

Research by GOA and other supporting organisations over the past eight years has showed clear yield and grain quality advantages from delaying windrowing," Mr Street said.

"We have also found that canola is hugely responsive to nitrogen."

More growers windrowing later

Windrowing canola had been a traditional practice in central west NSW and the survey asked for both historic and current practices.

It revealed that 70 per cent of growers and 80 per cent of advisers now aimed to windrow later than they did a decade ago.

One of the key research findings has been that windrowing too early results in reductions in crop performance, mainly yield but the survey shows 80 per cent of growers are now windrowing at more than 60 per cent seed colour change.

Direct heading area on the increase

The survey showed more than 60 per cent of growers are now comfortable with direct heading, up from about 20 per cent in 2007.

These same growers are now direct harvesting more than 25 per cent of their canola crop, up from less than 10 per cent in 2007.

If this trend continues direct heading of canola will become the dominant approach to harvesting of canola in the Orana region.

Nitrogen rates on the rise

GOA and GRDC research, development and extension (RD&E) have also empowered growers to make changes to their nutrition management, with 87 per cent reporting they were now applying more than 100 kilograms per hectare of urea (46kg/ha nitrogen), up from 10 per cent a decade ago.

Close to 90 per cent of growers and advisers also believe that increasing nitrogen rates has increased their yields, with the majority estimating that increase at 10 per cent or better.