Digging Deep: New Zonal Ripper Trial

An innovative Ingham cane farmer will dig deep for the Great Barrier Reef by creating new farm machinery.

Third-generation sugarcane grower Paul Mizzi is designing a prototype ripper to reach soil more than 1m beneath cane farming land – and he hopes the end result will be a win-win for farms and the Reef.

The 2017 Herbert Grower of the Year has received an innovation grant from the Australian Government under its Reef Trust III programme to design and manufacture the zonal ripper which will break through compacted layers of soil and ideally reduce water and fertiliser run-off.

Mr Mizzi grows cane beside Victoria Creek, several kilometres from the ocean.
“We all like our fishing and boating here, and we’re right on the mangrove fringes,’’ he says.

“Working towards environmental and productivity outcomes is a win-win for everyone.”

His engineering background will come to the fore now as he moves from design to manufacture stage in the next few months. Conventional cane farming rippers turn over the soil to a depth of just over half a metre.

“Over the years cane haul-out machinery has got significantly bigger and heavier,’’ he says.

“We use 30-tonne instead of 12-tonne machines now and as a result soil compaction in our paddocks has gone through the roof.

“The roots of the cane can only get down so far before hitting a hard pan. If we can loosen that soil at depth, it’ll increase the area for healthy root growth and create an artificial sump for water and nutrients. It’ll also decrease run-off, and ideally improve fertiliser usage.”

Joe Marano, Chair of the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership, says soil compaction caused by heavier machinery is affecting much of the sugarcane industry.

“It is adversely affecting productivity and increasing water runoff - this was a finding of the Sugarcane Yield Decline Joint Venture,’’ he says.

“Interest is increasing in zonal tillage to address compaction, improve soil water-holding capacity and hopefully improve productivity.

“There are a range of soil conditions to manage so zonal tillage practices, including deep ripping and incorporating controlled traffic practices, need to be considered for each soil type.”

Mr Mizzi says deep ripping has been used in other agricultural industries.

“The issue here is that our depth has always been limited by the amount of linkage lift of the tractor to get it from the ‘down position’ to an ‘up position’ for turning the tractor and for travelling,’’ he says.

That is what the new design will address. Mr Mizzi has two cane farming blocks set aside for the trial where soya beans have been planted in the lead-up, and where the soil will be monitored through sampling and electro-magnetic mapping.

He says he came up with the idea for the project many years ago when drainage trenches were dug on the farm at a depth of 1m and he saw the effects on cane directly above the digging work. He has since been working to reduce soil compaction levels through a series of initiatives including using GPS or global positioning system technology for planting and harvesting in order to introduce a controlled traffic system throughout the farm. Mr Mizzi says it has noticeably increased cane productivity.

The long-time innovator - who has successfully designed and built new machinery in the past including a two-row harvester, a zonal ripper rotary hoe and a high-rise spray unit - says the financial and technical support of government and industry bodies is helping the industry to improve land management practices.

“These kind of grants give you the opportunity to accelerate things,” he says.  “There are many unknowns at this stage and a bit of road ahead of us but if all goes well this (project) will lead to both environmental and productivity outcomes.”

The Australian Government’s Reef Trust III grants in the Wet Tropics region are being delivered by the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership, an alliance of 17 partners from across the industry including millers, industry bodies, natural resource management, sugar research, productivity boards and government organisations.

The Reef Trust project aims to improve water quality in Great Barrier Reef catchment areas through improved land management practices.

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