Soy beans and sunflower fallow crops are taking over sugar cane paddocks on the Cecchi family’s farms at Innisfail – for both cane and environmental gains.
Fourth-generation grower David Cecchi says doubling fallow land to increase production felt counter-intuitive to begin with.
“We plant about 80 hectares of cane a year and we used to leave 10 to 15 per cent fallow,’’ he said. “Now it’s 30 per cent or more.”
David, his brother Paul and father Arthur have also upped their mill ash usage on fallow land and are experimenting with mixed species fallow crops. The initiatives are part of the Australian Government’s Reef Trust IV tender program, delivered through the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership, to help growers cover the costs of changes that reduce commercial fertiliser usage and ultimately improve the health of the Great Barrier Reef.
David said the results are extremely promising.
“We are seeing much bigger (cane) crops, with much more vigour - we’ve gone from 30 or 32 tonnes to at least 50 tonnes for our plant crop,’’ he said.
“We reduced our nitrogen gradually. We started with a change to sub-surface application five years ago. Now we’ve pulled back about 50kg (of nitrogen) per hectare for plant cane in fallow, going to 90kg to account for the nitrogen supplied by the legume crop.
“There have been no adverse effects and we’re happy with where we’re at now.
“Tender funding has gone towards buying mill ash. The benefits are there. It lasts a long time. When we fallow again we won’t need to apply ash.”
His goal is to make the fallow crops cost-neutral or, better still, make inroads on them becoming a secondary income by investigating different fallow crop options and market interest.
The work follows other projects from variable-rate fertiliser application and controlled traffic using GPS systems to a creek revegetation project and drainage improvements from silt traps to spoon drains.
“We sat down and looked at the farm maps and productivity data, saw some paddocks were under-performing and took it from there bit by bit,’’ he said. “It’s about asking for advice, considering things and at the end of the day making your own decisions for your business. Farmers aren’t here to throw money away, but they do have a social licence to be responsible on the land. We’re up for trying new things. With a bit of help, good ideas can be put into practice.”
The Cecchi family is among 39 Wet Tropics growers to take advantage of the Reef Trust IV tender program.