To till or not to till, that is the question

Thanks to funding from the Australian Government’s Reef Rescue Initiative and support from NQ Dry Tropics, north Queensland sugarcane farmer Stephen Lando now knows the answer.

For the past six years, Stephen and his team have been learning how to grow cane with minimal environmental impact and maximum productivity.

One of the ways they’ve learned to improve water quality and reduce carbon emissions while at the same time reducing operating costs, minimising labour and maintaining high productivity is through a process called minimum tillage.

Minimum tillage is a farming term that essentially means disturbing the soil as little possible. In the case of sugar cane, this usually involves establishing permanent planting beds which grow crops for several years.

Stephen said minimum tillage was all about doing what was best for the soil.

“If you think about your soil as a biological system, it changes the way you look at the whole farm,” he said.

He found that minimum tillage reduced soil loss, increased water infiltration and retention in the beds, improved soil aeration and overall soil health, enabled better weed management and helped him save money by precisely applying minimum amounts of expensive pesticides and herbicides.

“My father would not believe that you could plant your cane in permanent preformed beds with such minimal effort and successful plant establishment – it’s phenomenal!”

Thanks to Reef Rescue funding, Stephen was able to purchase specialised equipment to help him implement a zero tillage farming system.

His new GPS system helps with precision fertiliser placement, his new bedformer provides a good seed bed for crops, and his new shielded sprayer allows him to reduce the amount of chemical he uses.

“We can knock out weeds early with low chemical rates and the flow rate controller enables precision control of identified weeds.

“Our dual tank sprayer can spray one chemical on the inter row and one on the cane, so we can save time, cut equipment running costs, and reduce carbon emissions by minimising our use of heavy machinery.

For Stephen, minimum tillage has led to a whole new method of farming. He plans to build a recycle pit to further minimise and improve runoff from his farm and his good work is extending to include his local creek where he is removing weeds.

“Thanks to our minimum tillage approach, the water coming out of our cane blocks is a lot cleaner,” Stephen said.

“It contains less sediment because our soil is now much more stable and it has fewer nutrients and chemicals as precision application has allowed us to reduce the chemicals we have to add to the crop.

“These days most farmers are making changes that are helping to improve water quality and reduce our environmental impact.

“We have to be efficient and productive in a sustainable way.”

Stephen and his team now plan to install owl nesting boxes along the local creek bank with the hope that predatory birds will help keep rat populations low

Stephen and his team now plan to install owl nesting boxes along the local creek bank with the hope that predatory birds will help keep rat populations low