Grant money enabled faster on-ground results for farmers

January 22, 2018

Most of Paul Mizzi's farm fringes mangroves and “is the last port of call before the Great Barrier Reef”.Paul Mizzi Reef Programme

Paul and his son Adrian are third and fourth generation cane farmers.
They manage 420ha in the Herbert catchment. Paul says:“Having that pristine environment at my doorstep is a big incentive to farm smarter and farm sustainably. There’s a great fishing avenue right next to my house, and my farm delivers runoff into that area. If we do something wrong, the detrimental effect can be vast.”

He says that many farmers upstream are conscious of doing the right thing because of their close proximity to this valuable environment.

With an engineering background and degree qualifications, Paul places a lot of focus on design and prototype work. Mr Mizzi jumped at the opportunity for funding under the Australian Government’s Reef Programme, delivered by Terrain NRM and industry partners. He has used the grants to continue to improve his land management practices.

He says it is a win-win situation with motivations linked to both environmental and economic gains through improved farming practices: “The grants allowed us to work quicker to get the results on the ground”. An all-in-one ground preparation unit was designed and built with the funding with the aim of reducing both working of the soil and runoff. Because the ground is readied in one pass prior to planting, it also minimises the chances of runoff with a rain event.

Another project was a high rise spray unit, which Mr Mizzi designed after identifying a need for more precise herbicide application and rate control. “We’re minimising losses, doing bigger areas with it, and we’re doing it more efficiently.”

He also manages a harvesting group (Group 123 HBT), and the installation of GPS guidance on their haul out equipment (currently the only ones in the Herbert) has meant they are able to implement a controlled traffic system for planting, growing and harvesting.

Controlled traffic farming is a management tool used to reduce the damage to soils caused by heavy or repeated passing of the land by agricultural machinery. The system confines all machinery loads to the least possible area of permanent traffic lanes. Mr Mizzi says it has resulted in an increase in productivity on the 1300ha of the Group’s contract.

He says it all comes back to smarter farming, and acknowledged that grants can support this by allowing you to stretch your dollar further.

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Digging Deep for the Great Barrier Reef

An innovative Ingham cane farmer will dig deep for the Great Barrier Reef by creating new farm machinery.

Third-generation sugarcane grower Paul Mizzi is designing a prototype ripper to reach soil more than 1m beneath cane farming land – and he hopes the end result will be a win-win for farms and the Reef.

The 2017 Herbert Grower of the Year has received an innovation grant from the Australian Government under its Reef Trust III programme to design and manufacture the zonal ripper which will break through compacted layers of soil and ideally reduce water and fertiliser run-off.

Mr Mizzi grows cane beside Victoria Creek, several kilometres from the ocean.

“We all like our fishing and boating here, and we’re right on the mangrove fringes,’’ he says.

“Working towards environmental and productivity outcomes is a win-win for everyone.”

His engineering background will come to the fore now as he moves from design to manufacture stage in the next few months. Conventional cane farming rippers turn over the soil to a depth of just over half a metre.

“Over the years cane haul-out machinery has got significantly bigger and heavier,’’ he says. “We use 30-tonne instead of 12-tonne machines now and as a result soil compaction in our paddocks has gone through the roof.

“The roots of the cane can only get down so far before hitting a hard pan. If we can loosen that soil at depth, it’ll increase the area for healthy root growth and create an artificial sump for water and nutrients. It’ll also decrease run-off, and ideally improve fertiliser usage.”

Joe Marano, Chair of the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership, says soil compaction caused by heavier machinery is affecting much of the sugarcane industry.

“It is adversely affecting productivity and increasing water runoff - this was a finding of the Sugarcane Yield Decline Joint Venture,’’ he says.

“Interest is increasing in zonal tillage to address compaction, improve soil water-holding capacity and hopefully improve productivity.

“There are a range of soil conditions to manage so zonal tillage practices, including deep ripping and incorporating controlled traffic practices, need to be considered for each soil type.”

Mr Mizzi says deep ripping has been used in other agricultural industries.

“The issue here is that our depth has always been limited by the amount of linkage lift of the tractor to get it from the ‘down position’ to an ‘up position’ for turning the tractor and for travelling,’’ he says.

That is what the new design will address. Mr Mizzi has two cane farming blocks set aside for the trial where soya beans have been planted in the lead-up, and where the soil will be monitored through sampling and electro-magnetic mapping.

He says he came up with the idea for the project many years ago when drainage trenches were dug on the farm at a depth of 1m and he saw the effects on cane directly above the digging work. He has since been working to reduce soil compaction levels through a series of initiatives including using GPS or global positioning system technology for planting and harvesting in order to introduce a controlled traffic system throughout the farm. Mr Mizzi says it has noticeably increased cane productivity.

The long-time innovator - who has successfully designed and built new machinery in the past including a two-row harvester, a zonal ripper rotary hoe and a high-rise spray unit - says the financial and technical support of government and industry bodies is helping the industry to improve land management practices.

“These kind of grants give you the opportunity to accelerate things,” he says. “There are many unknowns at this stage and a bit of road ahead of us but if all goes well this (project) will lead to both environmental and productivity outcomes.”

The Australian Government’s Reef Trust III grants in the Wet Tropics region are being delivered by the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership, an alliance of 17 partners from across the industry including millers, industry bodies, natural resource management, sugar research, productivity boards and government organisations.

The Reef Trust project aims to improve water quality in Great Barrier Reef catchment areas through improved land management practices.