VIDEO: Cane farmers Step Up with technology

By: Anna Game-Lopata, Photography by: David Gilchrist, Video by: David Gilchrist

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Over 160 sugar cane growers from Ballina, NSW to Mossman in the tropical north of Queensland gathered at Palm Cove last week to attend the second Case IH Step Up Conference.

Sugar cane growers have to change their practices if they are to remain profitable and fulfil their environmental responsibilities this year’s Step Up! Conference has heard.

Sponsored by Case IH, the Step Up! Conference is a partnership between Australian Cane Growers and Next Gen, a support organisation for younger farmers in the industry.

Speaker Malcom Petrie, who manages the Queensland government’s program for sugar cane growing standards, Smart Cane BMP [best management practices], says the industry is under a lot of pressure to comply with expectations to improve water quality on the Great Barrier Reef.

"There has been a clear indication the new Queensland government is looking for an 80 per cent reduction in run off to the reef from the use of pesticides and nutrients such as nitrogen," Petrie told the conference.

"We’re expecting a task force will shortly be set up to look into how water quality issues will be managed on the reef."

Petrie says Smartcane BMP has been funded to accredit producers in the management processes required to help reach the target.

The program delivers training modules covering soil health, nutrient management, pests and disease and drainage and irrigation.

To date Smartcane BMP has 800 registered farmers amounting to 91,000 hectares under cane, achieved in just 14 months.

"We don’t have the opportunity to rest on our laurels," Petrie says. "We need 1520 registered farmers in the next 12 months."

The conference heard new technologies and practices offer key opportunities to work towards better management and the retention of younger farmers in the industry.

Smartcane BMP’s newly developed mobile phone app to enable record keeping is one example highlighted at the conference.

Malcolm Petrie
Malcolm Petrie manages Smartcane BMP -a program of industry standards set by the Queensland government to improve water quality on the Great Barrier Reef.

"Record keeping isn’t a great strength of growers, they often don’t see the value and at the end of the day they don’t have the energy to recall what they’ve been doing," Malcolm Petrie says.

"We recognised we needed to remove those barriers to help growers to record the evidence demonstrating that they meet industry standards."

The app works by recording the details of any activity undertaken on farm using the farmer’s mobile phone.

Information such as the amount of pesticide or nutrient applied, wind speed and even drift on a particular day automatically populates the grower’s Smartcane BMP account.

"The data can be used to accredit those growers in terms of water quality for a better outcome for the reef," Petrie says.

In addition Innisfail-based 2nd generation cane farmer and founder of Maalacan Engineering Michael Camilleri presented his latest piece of equipment, a coulter for subsoil fertiliser application.

The REEFA (Responsible economic environmental subsoil fertiliser applicator) works in red soil to protect reef water quality and save money by retaining nutrients beneath the surface of the soil and preventing run off (See the report in NFM’s special technology report out in the May issue).

A dual herbicide sprayer developed as an alternative to regulation was another innovative piece of equipment discussed to address the issue.

Developed and trialled by Allan Blair and Jack Robertson from Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management, the sprayer is proving a successful solution to reducing residual herbicides and is now commercially available. (See Tom Dickson’s video review online and the full review in NFM's May issue.)

Visiting Case IH Tractor Product specialist Ken Ohnell concluded his company’s 2015 Red Power Tour with a demonstration of the new Magnum Rowtrac at the Step Up! Conference.

Ohnell says the Rowtrac offers better flotation, manoeuvring and flexibility for row crop farming.

Case IH Step Up Conference Display

Case IH demonstrated its new lineup of tractors at the Next Gen Step Up! Conference in Palm Cove March 16-18th 

Other machines on show were the new model mid-range Magnum, the Maxxum CVT, the Farmall C and Advanced Farming Systems (AFS).

Fourth generation cane farmer and Next Gen officer Gerard Puglisi organises the Step Up! Conference every two years.

Puglisi says young growers are enthusiastic but struggle with the input costs of farming.

"GPS has probably been the biggest technological leap forward in the sugar cane industry in terms of yields along with newer Tier 4 tractors which put out fewer emissions," he says.

GPS isn’t new in the sugar cane industry but Puglisi says only about six operations in his region of Mossman, including his own, utilise it due to the prohibitive cost.

Puglisi established Next Gen in the Mossman region nine years ago to help address such gaps in the development of the industry and is currently rolling it out to all the mill areas in the sugar industry.

Puglisi has been travelling the coast to speak to the growers about their main concerns.

"Every region has different issues, the further south you go the more they become about water and power whereas in the tropics, we’re rain fed."

"We try to have regular meetings so the farmers can mix and we provide practical support such as access to professional people who can help them with problems or issues."

Puglisi says the Step Up! Conference is an invaluable chance for growers to network and as a way to encourage them to take a more active role as the industry’s next generation of leaders.

Other highlights included a look at carbon retention and emissions reduction work undertaken by NSW cane farmer Robert Quirk and preliminary nitrogen trials from DAFF scientist Derek Sparkes which show no significant connection between increased use of nitrogen and yields.

Quirk, whose operation is also undergoing skip row trials has increased carbon in his soils by up to 3 per cent by eliminating the burning of cane and over cultivation, implementing proper drainage  to prevent acid discharge caused by major rain events and the resulting increase of fungus in the soil.

The conference also offered insights into increasing productivity, succession planning and held site visits to the Cairns Sugar Terminal and Gerard Puglisi’s sugar cane and cocoa operation.

It was held at the Grand Chancellor Hotel, Palm Cove March 16-18.

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