In the 1960s, Neville and Des Loeskow bought 1600ha in the Bundaberg area so he could graze beef cattle. Twenty-odd years later, though, Neville’s son Jason was not so enthusiastic about the cattle, and with the future of the cane industry looking good back in the 80s, the shift began. Remarkably, the Loeskows have managed to turn the yield of their sandy, very marginal soil from an initial 50 tonnes/ha to an average of 104 tonnes/ha in 2015. These results got them the Incitec Pivot Cane Growing Excellence Award for operations greater than 60ha, given to cane growers who achieve high standards of farm efficiency and have implemented practices to ensure the longer term sustainability of cane growing.
But none of this happened by chance.
The first step towards increasing production was not depending so much on rain irrigation; as Jason says, ‘water is the biggest single factor in having a good yield’. When they started irrigating, their water allocation from underground supplies was 2-3 megalitres /hectare, and this went up to 4-5 Ml/ha when some surface storage was added. With an expansion in the 90s, however, water availability was again reduced to 2-3 Ml/ha. The shortage was addressed in 2007 by dedicating 100ha to storing 8000 Ml, which translates to a current availability of 10 Ml/ha, and irrigation has also become more efficient with a change from the initial overhead practice to flooding.
Water was only the start. In the 90s, the Loeskows began to rotate 20-25% of their land into peanuts. Cane production then went up from 60-65 tonnes/ha to 80 tonnes/ha, and there were numerous other benefits including fixing nitrogen, increasing organic matter in the soil, easier control of grass through herbicides, and nematode control. In addition to environmental benefits, Jason reckons that if they had to use nematicides now as they did in the early 90s ‘the cost would probably be in excess of $300,000 per year’.
The next step in reaching the 100 tonne/ha mark was adopting best practice farming. Jason has addressed the issue of soil compaction through a multi-faceted approached that includes controlled traffic on 3m centres, minimal tilling (although deep ripping was also adopted for a time to increase soil water content) and recent investments in new technology and equipment like TerraCutta software from Vanderfield in Bundaberg and an 18ft Notch boxblade. This equipment has reduced the tonnage of the equipment needed to level the paddocks and increased the covered area per pass.
‘If your paddock is not level, the effect of the increased water contents in the lower areas snowballs; it affects fungal control, use of equipment, irrigation efficiency... costs go up and yield down’, explains Jason. ‘We got the system going in July and have already surveyed and levelled 150 of the 250ha we need to do. With the TerraCutta, we have been able to do our own design and level the farm from one end to the other’.
When Jason first learned about the TerraCutta four years ago, he thought ‘it was out of a farmer’s league to operate’, and his impression was that GPS technology was complicated and impractical. Jason credits Stephen Frahm, precision farming technician in Vanderfield Bundaberg, with changing him from ‘a farmer who refused to use an iPhone to one who is now using a high technology system. Once you’ve got support, you are convinced’. And we are also convinced that the Loeskow’s can now look forward to a 115 tonne/ha yield in the near future.
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