Reef rounds reap rewards

By Megan Woodward

Lew and Lachlan with the stool splitter fertilier box

Lew Vella with grandson Lachlan with the stool splitter fertiliser box.

If you’ve driven the Bruce Highway between Townsville and Cairns, you’ve already seen Lew and Desley Vella’s cane farm. North of Babinda, their nearly 96 hectare farm stretches across both sides of the highway.

“It’s on show for all who go past,” laughs Desley. “There’s not a lot we can get away with, without someone noticing and passing comment.”

For the most part, the comments are positive. The Vellas have successfully completed two rounds of projects in the Australian Government Reef Programme (formerly Reef Rescue), are finalising a third and are about to start on their fourth, in order to systemically improve different aspects of their farming.

Their original focus in 2008 was on the rehabilitation and stabilisation of waterways which run through the property to minimise sediment and chemical loss.

“Our creek banks were always well vegetated but some had suffered with erosion from cyclone flooding in some places, so it was a good starting point to focus on these,” Desley says. “We also initially reshaped our drainage network to spoon drains in an attempt to reduce the run off rate and sediment losses.”

Along the creek, rocks were used to stabilise the banks before scores of trees, grasses and bushes were planted – all selected with the help of Terrain NRM because they were endemic to the area. Eight years on the replanted stretches are indistinguishable from the rest of the creek line.

Chemical management was enhanced with the help of a hooded spray rig purchased with funding assistance.

“This was such an important part of minimising chemical usage,” Lew Vella says. “We could target the timing and placement and volume of the chemical distribution, which was really good.”

Through 2009 and 2010 Lew and Desley looked at nutrient management, acquiring a stool splitter.

“This was such a successful project for us,” says Desley. “It had a huge positive impact on the farm and gave us more of an opportunity to put on more nutrients, too.”

Desley admits they’re always happily surprised when their applications for Reef Programme funding are approved.

“The work we’ve always wanted to do has never really fit into traditional high priority projects but the Reef Programme has really allowed the good, every day cane farmer to focus on the little things, and they all build up to big things.”

Their plans for the next rounds are big too. Laser levelling is being done in a number of areas ahead of this wet season and they’re purchasing a direct drill soybean planter to reduce cultivation in their fallow fields.

“We trialled soy beans a number of years ago using a planter borrowed through BSES but we didn’t have the machinery to continue it,” Lew explains. “We’re hoping the direct drill planter will mean less disturbance of the block.

The main aim is minimum tillage, as zero till isn’t a viable option in their corner of the world.

“It’s just too loose, it’s like trying to plant on bitumen, just impossible,” Lew says.

The Vella’s farm is in an extremely wet belt, right at the base of Mt Bellenden Ker. The average rainfall can be anywhere up to 7000mm, so nutrient, chemical and sediment management is a must.

“I think this is partly why we have been consistently successful in our Reef Programme applications,” Desley says. “We’ve really tried to take an integrated approach to our implementation of best practice in these three key areas.”

And it’s all contributing to good yields. Last year, Lew Vella was awarded the 2013 Productivity Award as the Zone 1 Champion for the South Johnstone Mill. He averaged 13.8ts/ha and 100 tc/ha.

The Vellas see a role for the Australian Government Reef Programme beyond farming.

“It’s been such a fabulous thing for the agricultural industry but I’d really like to see it broadened,” Desley says.

“It’s not just farmers potentially impacting the reef, there are plenty of other sectors that could work towards being more environmentally friendly with the right support and funding, especially in this area of Queensland.”