SUGARCANE growers are making profitable use of their off-season by adding nitrogen-fixing legumes to their crop rotations, which is dramatically increasing revenue through increased yields and reduced fertiliser applications.
Bundaberg cane grower Dean Cayley has enjoyed 25 per cent yield increases since changing cropping strategies, and halved his fertiliser application in his plant cane crop, giving him cash flow when he needs it most.
“Historically we used to return 100 tonne per hectare, but now we’re growing 125t/ha and we’ve dramatically decreased our fertiliser so it’s a big win for us,” Mr Cayley said.
“If research leads to higher yields or better disease resistance it’s a saving for growers, and instead of spraying 14 times in the season you might only need to spray seven times. It means more dollars return back to us which keeps us profitable.”
Mr Cayley is a third generation farmer, and runs the business with his father and a full-time employee.
He farms 150 hectares of peanuts and sugarcane in rotation on predominantly sandy loam soils, with rainfall averaging 1100mm each year.
Mr Cayley has been growing legumes since 2009, supplying peanuts to the Peanut Company of Australia (PCA).
He is one of a number of growers in the Bundaberg region who have made the switch to legumes to boost farm income.
The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) are supporting local research trials to assist sugarcane growers with suitable legume solutions for their businesses.
DAF senior agronomist Neil Halpin said the trials were part of a GRDC investment in local Grower Solutions Groups, which bring together growers and agronomists to discuss local issues and devise research projects to minimise impediments to production.
“The Grower Solutions Group program is about local development of regional research. So when other developments happen in the broader research programs, we’re the link through to testing which enables best practice to be developed in our own backyard,” Mr Halpin said.
Legumes are well known to increase nitrogen levels in soil and improve paddock fertility and crop productivity.
But the practice is not widely used in the sugarcane industry, which Mr Cayley said was changing as the benefits became more extensively known.
Mr Cayley started growing legumes to offset the increasing input costs of fertiliser, electricity and water.
“We got into growing legumes to try and cut back on some of our input costs. I thought if we could decrease some of our expense such as fertiliser it would be a huge saving,” he said.
“Another benefit we’re starting to see is how the legumes are affecting our soils. I think we’re probably getting an additional 150 to 160 units of nitrogen available before planting our cane crop.
“It means we don’t have to soil dress the plant cane crop because there’s enough N there to keep the new crop going.
“We had noticed last year season, just how much N and other elements that the peanut hay/stubble left behind in the soil. This was due to a section of a paddock being harvested and the peanut hay was completely removed.
“It is now eight months later, and we can still see the visual effect, as the sugar cane is dramatically shorter and yellow in colour, compared to where the stubble was left.”