One Queensland family has been developing a new farm with best management practices by converting an area of abandoned teak plantations to sugarcane and they’ve accessed the Australian Government Reef Programme and contributed 50% towards the grant to help develop an efficient, sustainable approach right across their Herbert River farm.
By the time the year is out, the Grottelli family will have clocked thousands of hours on machinery and have a total of 405 hectares to the northeast of Ingham growing sugarcane.
The home farm for Joseph and Gerrard Grottelli and their father Enzo is at Hawkins Creek on the banks of the Herbert River but it’s further upstream at Abergowrie that their big expansion has taken place.
The family has bought more than 202 hectares of failed forestry land, and is renovating it and planting it back to sugarcane to supply to the Macknade and Victoria mills. The rehabilitated cane farms look nothing like they did before the Managed Investment Scheme companies bought them up and planted the area under teak saplings.
Each step in the process has been carefully planned, computer-designed and undertaken using best management practice principles.
In the Abergowrie area, land which had been owned by the MIS firm Great Southern was put up for tender after the company folded. The timing was right for the Grottelli brothers. While both had careers away from their family farm, helping their father was taking up more of their time.
“I was fulltime at Honeycombes working on harvesters and Gerrard was in Townsville working for QBuild as a refrigeration mechanic but we were coming back on the weekends to work on the farm with Dad,” Joe explains.
“Dad was getting older, he’s now in his 80s, so we had to make a decision about what we were going to do because we couldn’t keep going like that.”
The first tree land tender came up at the same time as a harvesting contract became available.
“The plan was that there’d be a couple of forms of income and we could do our own harvesting. Between ourselves and our accountant we decided to try it and we got the first tender around April 2012,” Joe says.
“The harvesting contract came through at about the same time so it was a big step for us,” agrees Gerrard who then moved back from Townsville
Joe says none of the teak plantations were in good condition when the family took over and 89 hectares of it had no surviving trees at all.
“It was because of the way they’d planted the trees and the time they planted them was wrong for the conditions. Some went underwater because the drainage wasn’t right. They just left them alone so it was bound to fail,” he explains.
“Other areas had trees up to three metres high but they were dead or dying, not cared for. The grass and weeds were up to three metres high in between the trees and it was full of pigs and rats.
“Some of it we could just mow down and the smaller bits will just break down as organic matter in the soil, which is a good thing. Where they were bigger we pushed them over with the dozer and stacked them up.”
The family purchased a bulldozer when they realised just how much work was involved in re-establishing the cane paddocks.
The dollars really start to stack up when embarking on such ambitious large-scale farm development work, so to help them bring as much new technology on line as quickly as possible, the brothers applied for funding under the Australian Government Reef Programme (formerly known as Reef Rescue).
After clearing the land and discing the residue into the soil, Herbert Productivity Services Limited surveyed the property using a GPS which talks to a local base station at Abergowrie. A satellite is then able to establish the land height of the entire block, correct to around five centimetres. The results were used to help computer-design the new cane areas to maximise drill length and optimise drainage. The Grottellis brought in contractors in to do the laser levelling and put in best- practice drainage lines to reduce potential impacts of farm run-off.
“Nowadays you can’t just go and plant cane. You have to do the right design work and surveying and get all of that right first. That’s a key factor; you can’t just plant how it was done 100 years ago. There was probably a thousand tiny cane paddocks in there originally, draining in a way that kept the water in the farm with a swampy area in the middle, and the tree guys didn’t change anything. They just put the trees in and they went underwater,” Joe says.
“Now we’ve got kilometre-long drills, good ground and it’s all going to drain perfectly,” he says.
The Grottelli brothers have just finished a Spring plant in their newly prepared ground.
Across all of the areas, they are growing Q208, Q239, Q228 and Q200 utilising clean seed cane. When everything is in full production, they aim to be cutting close to 30,000 tonnes of cane each year.
Soil health is very important to the Grottellis who have spent a lot of money and time getting this key aspect right for their farm. Prior to ripping and hoeing, they had their local productivity board soil sample different blocks to see what nutrients they needed to apply.
“This was especially crucial on these new blocks as we had no information at all on their current nutrient levels, and we needed to get the liming requirements established and identify exactly how much fertiliser we needed to maximise productivity and profitability for these new tracts of land,” Joe explains.
Controlling cane grubs is front of mind for growers in the Herbert River, and Joe and Gerard point out a Confidor applicator fitted to a stool-splitter fertiliser box, also partly funded by the Australian Government Reef Programme.
“This is a brilliant investment for our farm, which gives us the ability to do a one-pass Confidor and fertiliser application – not only saving us time, but getting the fertiliser and chemical application under the ground, right to where it’s needed,” Joe says.
“We went on and applied for a shielded sprayer through the Reef Programme. This has been another great investment for the farm because we can now target application of Roundup as a knockdown in between the rows, without any damage to the cane. This has really reduced our reliance on residuals.”
GPS has been fitted to their zonal hoe and tractors, with Joe saying it’s not just helpful for controlled traffic but it’s also great for record keeping – and their father who is aged in his 80s loves it for tractor work.
“We’ve got it set up to record all the aspects of work we are doing – whether we are fertilising, spraying, or hoeing. Whatever we are doing is being recorded and mapped,” Joe says.
“We can then go and pull that information anytime and know exactly what we’ve done on what dates.”
“I can’t wait until next year,” he admits looking across the newly prepared ground. “When it’s a standard, normal planting year with no clearing of trees or mucking around – it’ll just be straightforward.”