This year’s sugarcane harvest in central Queensland may still be in full swing, but Allan Dingle is already looking forward to the potential spoils of next season.
“There’s an opportunity to have pretty well a bumper year next year,” the Canegrowers Queensland vice chairman said while trudging through his sugarcane fields near Bundaberg in the state’s Burnett-Wide Bay region last week
“We’ve had reasonable rain throughout the crush, we’ve got a good price projected, fertiliser has come back in price a little bit, fuel is reasonable, and if you know (through forward contracts) you’re going to get $600 a tonne whereas before you were only going to get $380 (a tonne), it’s a marked difference.”
Allan is about two thirds of the way through the harvest of 65ha of sugarcane on his 230ha farm, which has been in his family since 1871 and which he leased on his return from college in the mid-1970s until buying it in the early 1990s.
Allan, who is also a director of the Queensland Farmers Federation, said 112ha of the farm was cultivated and sown to irrigated crops, predominantly cane but also soybeans in rotation and oats and barley for fodder during winter. The remainder is used to fatten bullocks.
The farm receives about 1000mm of rain a year and comprises soils ranging from “fairly good alluvial flats” to heavier grey country.
GROW FOR IT
The sugarcane is planted in autumn (February-March) and spring (from mid-August to the end of September). Allan said it took about 8-10 megalitres of water to grow a hectare of sugarcane and most irrigation allocations in the district were four megalitres to the hectare, with the shortfall made up through rainfall or tailings run-off.
Allan applies fertiliser — a blend of nitrogen, potash and superphosphate — according to soil tests. He says he’s been “backing off my nitrogen a bit” in recent years in an attempt to increase sugar content.
While he tries to stay away from chemicals, Allan said pre-emergents to control grass and broadleaf were used as needed.
Harvest takes about 20 “dry weeks” from the third Monday in June to mid November.
Allan runs on a sugarcane-break crop-sugarcane rotation, which he said was common in the region. “There’s not very much plough out-replant done any more, people find they get better results and grow the same amount of tonnes with a long fallow rotation.”
Most of Allan’s crop is cut “green” as opposed to being subject to the traditional pre-harvest practice of being set on fire to reduce leaf matter and pest and disease problems.
The result is a “green-trash blanket” which remains on the ground for moisture retention and weed control.
“We’ve been cutting green for close to 30 years now,” Allan said.
This year, more country than normal was burned in an effort to curb the threat of soldier fly, which can’t be controlled by chemicals and can cause whole-crop devastation.
Allan said at harvest, farmers had their crops cut and delivered on a roster system as part of a harvest group (Allan’s group comprises 10 farmers but there can be as many as 20 in a group).
He expects to cut about 7500 tonnes of sugarcane from his 65ha this year, or 115 tonnes/ha (above the forecast local average of 90 tonnes/ha). He said the farm was “still in a bit of recovery mode” after floods in 2010 and 2013 destroyed crops and messed with rotations. His best-ever crop yielded 138 tonnes/ha in 1999.
Allan said harvest in the Bundaberg region this year was running about three weeks behind schedule due to early-season rain.
“We’d like to be finished about the second week in November, we won’t be finished until the first week in December and probably better than 50 per cent of the other mills won’t finish before Christmas,” said Allan, who supplies Bundaberg Sugar’s Millaquin sugar mill.
His sugarcane is delivered by truck to Bundaberg. Prior to the closure of Bundaberg Sugar’s Ferrymead mill in 2005, it would be delivered by the region’s cane-rail system.
Allan said sugarcane farmers were locked into five-year rolling cane supply agreements and paid on a formula based on the New York No. 11 sugar price.
As a rough estimate “if sugar is $600 a tonne, you get about $60 a tonne of cane”.
Allan said prices were on the up, with contracts worth $652.90 for this year, $597 a tonne for next year, $542 for 2018 and about $500 a tonne for 2019.
He cites electricity prices, which have risen 115 per cent in the past seven years, and perceived run-off issues regarding the health of the Great Barrier Reef as two major issues for local canegrowers.
“It’s a bit of a mug’s game, but it’s like fattening bullocks, you can’t make any money out of them if you haven’t got any to fatten,” Allan said.