By Jasmine Hunt
Towering above the cane fields at Murray Upper, just south of Tully Township, is a contraption that has allowed sugarcane grower Peter Vecchio to save time and chemical use.
This contraption, also known as an over-row sprayer, is going a long way in assisting Peter to save money and precious time on his cane farms, scattered across the Tully region.
Built from the ground up by Peter and employee Kevin O’Kane, the spray rig has its base on a John Deere 6400 tractor, and is fully GPS automated, rate controlled and auto-steer.
Part Reef-Rescue funded, the over-row project is not the first time the Vecchios have been involved with the Australian government program.
In the first year of funding, through natural resource management group Terrain, they set up their tractors for GPS and also set up a chemical tank with a boom for rate controllers and individual spray sections (swath control) – reducing chemical use.
“With this, it means you’re not spraying the whole 15 metres across the end of a block,” says Peter. “With angled rows, when you’re spraying, each row might end one metre outside the paddock. Now, as long as your farm is mapped, which ours are, the GPS sees it and activates the spray only over the row area, using the GPS and maps.”
“It saves us on chemicals as it stops right on the end of the row.”
Peter says this is important, as although it was possible to complete this task the same way by flicking different switches, it means now there is no human error.
As Peter explains, the GPS computer program also helps with record keeping.
“The program records everything,” he says. “It records all tasks we do on farm using the GPS, including the name of the operator, the wind speed, temperature, how much chemical and fertiliser went out and what you’re applying.
“I can now bring up a field summary for the year, for that paddock. The records will show how much chemical and fertiliser for example went out, where it went, and it also shows the average for the year.”
Peter says they also put a rate controller on the fertiliser box the first Reef Rescue year.
The Vecchio’s 513 ha farm is spread across six properties, and as all of the farm lots are differently sized; have different climatic conditions, soil types and land set up, the spray rig had to be able to adapt between the farms.
They also have different row widths across the farms, including 1.5 m (5ft 2), 1.7 m (5ft 6) and 1.9 m dual rows.
As Peter explains, using dual rows started as a trial.
“It was part of a Terrain project – we did 100 acres [40.4 ha] on 1.9 m dual rows. Some of it was on one farm, then another part on another farm,” he said.
At the moment, Peter and his older brother Frank do the farming side of the business, while full time employee Kevin does the harvesting. Peter’s son Cameron has completed his electrician’s apprenticeship at Tully Mill, and helps on farm when he can.
All hands were on deck for the finalisation of the over-row sprayer, which they actually started building before Cyclone Yasi hit, in early 2011.
“We started the build and then the cyclone hit,” says Peter.
“After Cyclone Yasi, we had six weeks without power and our shed was damaged, so we couldn’t progress the project.
“They [Reef Rescue] gave us an extension,” said Kevin.
“After the cyclone, we were all busy tidying up our own affairs,” said Peter.
“It takes five years to re-establish the farms after a cyclone event.”
Peter says the build didn’t actually finish until 2012, and the Vecchios were able to use the sprayer during some of the 2012 season – where it was used to spray 80 hectares (200 acres).
“We sprayed the Murray Upper farm – it was absolutely unbelievable,” says Peter. “We averaged about 115 acres [46 hectares] a day – it went really well.
“We managed to spray 450 acres [182 hectares] comfortably in four days – in daylight hours.”
Built for multiple row widths to suit the farm’s various layouts, the tricycle over-row sprayer improves on their previous over-row, and as Kevin says it has the ‘best parts of all of them’.
The new over-row includes flotation tyres and air-conditioning, is fully automated and is more efficient than previous over-rows used by the family, especially with the GPS.
Kevin has built over-rows before – in fact this one is the fourth, so he has been able to take ideas from each of the builds and expand on them.
Another important facet of the over-row is its ability to be transported by road. Because the Vecchio’s farms are spread across the region – split between Syndicate, Murray Upper, Feluga and Euramo – the over-row sprayer has to be able to be transported easily and efficiently.
“The over-row is registered and we have pilot vehicles,” says Peter.
“It is the maximum width for pilot vehicles – if you go wider you need a police escort.
“The booms also had to be able fit under powerlines.”
To do this, the booms fold twice in the arms and slide down the back of the machine, to ensure there’s nothing protruding out over the top of the cab’s roof.
The over-row is the newest in a string of on farm improvements third generation farmer Peter and his brother Frank have put in place since the early days.
GPS is also used by the Vecchios for planting and harvesting, and currently 75% of their harvesting contract is using GPS.
In addition to the base station the Vecchios have on their shed at Euramo, Honeycombes has implemented John Deere base stations across the region.
“We just change channels and frequencies depending on the region,” says Peter.
The benefits of GPS are many – including less cane loss.
“Since we’ve put the GPS on the harvester – this year is the first year – we’ve found there have been better harvesting jobs, even though the bin tractors don’t have [GPS],” Peter says.
“When the harvester’s operating dead straight, the haul outs tend to drive dead straight. We’re very happy with it.”
Peter says that the haul out operators have also noticed the difference.
With a long history in the area, but with a young innovative outlook, new farming techniques and operations, the Vecchio’s farm can only go from strength to strength.