SUSTAINABLE FARMING TOP PRIORITY FOR BONSO’S
CASE STUDY: STEVE & LEO BONSO
6 OCTOBER 2022
Steve Bonso manages a 1,132 hectare sugarcane farm in Mirriwinni with his father Leo, who first started cane farming in 1953. The farm is on old palm swamp country with about 12 different soil types ranging from granitic sands and clays to shallow peats. It needs regular soil sampling and varying management, but their biggest challenge is the weather – big rain events and a lack of sunshine at times limiting growth and yields.
The Bonso’s number one priority is to maintain a sustainable farming enterprise that is profitable, environmentally sustainable and uses best management practices. They are Smartcane BMP accredited and enjoy participating in trials and learning about new technologies and research to improve their business.
As part of the project, the Bonso family committed to reducing their N application by an average of 21 kg N/ha. Their current applications are below the regulation rates. If they grow a good crop of beans, they can reduce their N inputs to 60-80 kg/ha on plant cane.
Steve works on the premise that getting soil health right maximises cane growth. He also uses clean seed to maximise crop health right from the start.
Funding from the Reef Trust IV Repeated Tenders program was used to purchase a bean planter and GPS for their harvester and two tractors. This has enabled them to use a direct drill bean crop fallow rotation with a seven-year cycle, to widen their row spacing to 1.8 metres and adopt controlled traffic farming. They are also using banded mill mud and ash and have installed underground drains in problematic blocks.
Steve uses his bean planter to drill directly into the stool immediately after harvest, and then uses a selective herbicide to kill the cane if it starts to impede bean growth. This approach maximises moisture availability for his bean crop, which is later sprayed out and ploughed in using a speed tiller instead of a rotary hoe, to further protect his soil structure and health. They use under five passes to prepare for planting. He says this has improved his soil structure.
While it’s a little more expensive, the Bonsos are big supporters of liquid fertilisers, which they inject about 5cm below ground. They find liquid fertilisers less labour intensive and more efficient to handle, while also enabling them to include trace elements.
Steve says these new practices have increased his yields and they are growing cane above the district average. And while the practices may cost more, the benefits outweigh the costs – improved soil structure, less compaction, good yields and bigger stools.
Adoption of these new practices has enabled the Bonsos to increase productivity while reducing their application of N fertiliser. Steve says the Reef Trust IV Repeated Tenders project has enabled him to establish new farming practices much faster, improved his decision making and made him a better farmer, in particular because of his increased knowledge of soil health. Having seen the benefits of adopting beans as a fallow crop he is now looking at trialling mixed species including sun hemp as well as using satellite, drone imagery and yield mapping to map crop variability and further refine his nutrient management. He is also considering investing in new equipment such as a bed renovator, to improve drainage and increase strike rate, and a spray applicator to go behind his harvester.
The adoption of these new sustainable farming practices has enabled the Bonso’s to increase productivity while reducing their application of N fertiliser. Steve is confident that he will continue to reap the benefits into the long term. On a personal level, he also says participating in the project is helping him work towards being in the top 10 in the district.