A heavier cane crop with higher sugar content is just reward for Ingham brothers David and Louie Morselli who are prioritising soil health and cutting back on synthetic fertilisers.
In 2017 the Morsellis reduced bagged fertiliser use by 30 kg/ha of nitrogen on their 320ha farm at Lannercost, north-west of Ingham.
They invested the money they saved in mill by-products, partly as a trial of banded mill mud rates.
The pair began with trials on a 4ha block with a control area and treatment areas at 30, 60 and 90 tonnes per hectare. Combined with earlier changes – from laser-levelling paddocks and sub-surface fertiliser application to controlled traffic, matching wheel tracks and minimum tillage– the results have left no doubt in David Morselli’s mind about the benefits of nurturing the soil.
“We’ve been taking, taking, taking and we’ve cooked our soils,’’ he said. “We need to get the biology back in them, to improve soil health.”
Morselli Farming received funding from the Australian Government’s Reef Trust IV Repeated Tender program, delivered by the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership, to continue making changes to their farming practices. The program aims to reduce nitrogen use and improve water quality while also boosting on-farm profitability and efficiencies.
“It gave us the confidence to reduce nitrogen inputs right across the farm,’’ David said.
“In past years machinery and labour costs meant we’d only trial the banding of mill by-products (ash and mud) on sections of the farm for plant and ratoons. But in the last couple of years we’ve been covering as much area as possible.
“The difference in the 2017-18 crops is obvious. We had a bad season, with late planting and a late finish to the season along with two floods in three weeks. But our crops are cutting heavier and with higher CCS. The cane is looking better than ever, even in paddocks where we are cutting our fifth and sixth ratoons.”
He said strategically applying mill ash and mud in bands into the planting row was improving cost-effectiveness while increasing germination and health of plants. It was also helping prevent run-off and fertiliser loss in heavy rain.
“We have marginal soils and our land is in a floodplain,’’ David said. “Controlled traffic and matching wheel tracks have not only helped to reduce soil compaction in planted areas, it has extended the number of ratoons we can economically harvest."
The Morsellis have also been banding small amounts of soil ameliorants, such as ultra-fine lime, to improve calcium levels and soil fertility. They do this at the same time as applying their fertiliser.
“This gives us precision placement, targeting only the root zone,’’ David said.
“It addresses acidification caused by continuous application of artificial fertiliser in the root zone year after year. It also helps phosphorous not to lock up with aluminium, iron and manganese.”
“I can see farmers in this industry are hesitant to drop fertiliser rates in case they lose tonnage,’’ he said.
“We’ve been working to not only repair the soil but to help it rejuvenate itself and now the soil is repaying us. You have to earn the right to use less nitrogen. With good soil health we can all do it.”