Bean planter the way forward

A bean planter is the next step for Ingham cane farmer Mark Zatta whose farm has become a trial area for legume fallow crops.

Mark manages 440ha of cane land that has been in the family for 70 years.

“This land had grown cane back-to-back year-in year-out,’’ he said.  “Leaving bare fallow wasn’t enough – after yield declines and soil tests consistently showing high aluminium and low pH levels we knew we needed to make changes including using a break crop to stop the crop cycle.”

For the past three years, Mark has planted cowpeas and lablab between cane crops and enjoyed strong results.

“The first year I dabbled in legumes with a 5.5ha paddock near the house and then we planted out a 14 ha paddock and a 34ha block and it all looks good,’’ he says.  “The beans grew really well and the physical size of the next cane crop was impressive.”

Now he is getting a bean planter manufactured with the help of funding received through the Australian Government’s Reef Trust IV Repeated Tenders program, delivered by the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership in the Wet Tropics region.

Mark says the goal is to make fallow crops quicker and easier for cane farmers to plant.

“The problem with legumes has always been their application – it can be costly and time consuming with three extra passes for discing and planting,’’ he says. “In our case that’s also on abrasive soils which is hard on our machinery.”

He trialled a stool splitter that a friend converted into a planter and was impressed with the efficiencies it brought about.  His bean planter will combine a stool splitter and coulter and will only require one pass instead of three.

“This way we can spray the cane out and direct drill the beans into the mound with cane trash cover to hold the moisture in,’’ he says. “We won’t be discing into bare dirt and drying the ground out.”

He plans to plant two legume varieties between cane crops - one after the other - to improve soil health and increase the soil’s biomass material.

Mark said a soil master class and then a soil health course, run by the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership and Herbert Cane Productivity Services, had opened his eyes to changing land management practices.

He has also been slowly cutting back on fertiliser.

“In days gone by cane farmers would just throw the fertiliser out and grow cane year after year. We were doing the same thing again and again, and we took all the goodness out of the soil. We need to nurture it now by building up organic matter and soil organisms, and that’ll also help the cane.

“It’s a long road… but the answer is good soil health.”

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