Project Catalyst gets results

April 30, 2019

A group of innovative Wet Tropics cane growers collectively reduced their bagged fertiliser use by 613 tonnes last year – the equivalent of 25 semi-trailer loads.

Thirty-three growers from the Daintree to Ingham are trialling new farming practices to improve productivity and sustainability as part of Project Catalyst, a program that supports cane growers to find ways to improve the quality of water leaving their farms.

Changed farming practices range from no-tillage crop planting to using biological stimulants, mixed-species cover crops and sub-surface mill mud as ways to improve soil health.

Terrain NRM’s Project Catalyst coordinator Michael Waring said the group’s growers had collectively reduced nitrogen use by more than 120,000kg and phosphorous use by 70,000kg in 2018.

“This is the ninth year that the program has been running in the Wet Tropics,’’ he said.

“Over that period, 45 growers have been part of it and they’ve run 80 trials on their farms.

“Many are still underway but some are already helping to more widely change farming practices in the cane industry.”

Mr Waring said growers’ trials of mixed-species cover crops and sub-surface mill mud application were leading to positive results that were gaining the attention of the industry and external research bodies.

“Mixed-species cover-cropping is the next step on from planting one species such as soybean or cowpeas on land that was traditionally left bare in the fallow period,’’ he said.

“This is something that Wet Tropics growers are pioneering for the cane industry, to improve soil health for the next cane crop through diversity and, in doing so, reduce the need for inorganic fertilisers.

“Results have been positive and these trials will now be backed-up by two external research bodies, one of them with funding for a 10-year project to examine the effects of different species mixes on soil health.”

He said trials of sub-surface mill mud were showing potential for improved soil health and water quality flowing to the Great Barrier Reef. The mill by-product, which is high in organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorous, is traditionally spread on top of the soil.

“Applying it beneath the surface means reduced potential for loss in a high rainfall event, and the cane roots benefit from the nutrients more quickly,’’ he said.

The Project Catalyst program also supports Mackay-Whitsunday and Burdekin growers, and is a partnership of the Australian Government, WWF, The Coca-Cola Foundation and natural resource management bodies Terrain NRM, NQ Dry Tropics and Reef Catchments.

Ingham cane grower Michael Reinaudo said Project Catalyst gave growers confidence to innovate. The fourth-generation cane farmer has trialled variable-rate sub-surface fertiliser application to improve productivity and environmental outcomes.

“We have access to people with different skill-sets throughout the trials and it’s also about networking at a grower level, talking with other people who are trying new practices, seeing what they are doing and seeing things starting to be picked up around the area.”

Mr Waring said research was ongoing. “You can’t measure big changes to soil health in two or three years,’’ he said. “It takes six years for a sugar cane crop cycle, so a lot of work goes into practice change.”