Wider rows boost efficiency and soil health

When Babinda cane grower Steven Bonso saw how soft the soil was on a Bundaberg farm during a field trip several years ago, he knew it was time to make some changes.

“The penetrometer being used to measure soil compaction levels literally fell into the soil,’’ Mr Bonso said.

“The farmer had been using the wider 1.8m rows, zonal tillage and cover crops for nearly 20 years.  It was a turning point for me.”

The third-generation cane farmer began trialling 1.8m rows and last year, with the help of an Australian Government Reef Trust III grant and Reef Trust IV Repeated Tender through the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership (WTSIP), he started to change the whole farm over. He has continued to plant using the wider rows across all farms this year.

The family now uses a controlled traffic system with GPS autosteer on tractors, and is moving into fallow multi-species cover-cropping this season for more soil health benefits. This follows several years of mill ash application and a reduction in bagged nitrogen from 160kg per hectare to 140 for ratoons and 125 for plants.

Mr Bonso said he and his father Leo did their homework first.

“We had a strip trial in a paddock for five years and there was no loss in yield between our 1.6m and 1.8m sections,’’ he said. “I had a look around at other farms, and went to WTSIP and Terrain NRM workshops with soil ecologist David Hardwick and the Regenerative Cane Farming Forum in Ingham.

“You could see the savings with less trips up and down the paddock and less costs for harvesting. Then there’s the benefits for soil health with less compaction and, in time, the potential for higher yields.”

The Reef Trust grant helped the Bonsos to install GPS guidance on their tractor and widen it, as well as their two-row planter and spray boom.

Early adopter Allan Lynn from Ingham said sharing machinery with neighbouring growers and moving to 1.8m rows together was another way to make the transition easier. The fourth-generation cane farmer began his changeover a decade ago with the help of an Australian Government Reef Rescue grant.

“It was more about improving soil health,’’ he said. “In the same period my fertiliser regime has dropped at least 50kg of nitrogen per hectare. The highest level now is 120kg and my yield hasn’t suffered.

“Going to 1.8m rows can be the start of a bigger change including multi-species cropping. I’m going back into my old beds now and the drill area is as soft as butter, and the root systems are at least a third to double the size of plants across the headlands.”

Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership regional support extension officer Michael Waring said more growers were being encouraged to consider moving to controlled traffic with 1.8m rows.

“Growers who’ve made the switch are experiencing greater efficiencies and cost savings as a result of spending less time in the field. On a 100-hectare property you’ll save about 69km in harvester travel a season with wider rows, plus there’s less wear and tear and less stool damage by the machinery.

“So even though it’s financially challenging to make such a big change there are definite business advantages to be gained and this is encouraging others to consider moving to wider rows,” he said.

To find out more, visit our WTSIP Team page for contact details of your nearest WTSIP extension officer.

The Reef Trust III Water Quality Grants and Reef Trust IV Repeated Tenders programs aim to reduce nitrogen use and improve water quality in cane-growing districts bordering the Great Barrier Reef while also boosting on-farm profitability and efficiencies.

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