The Bundaberg region in Queensland is synonymous with sugar cane, which is under increasing pressure in the area due to low sugar prices.
So when in Queensland in January 2020, the Irish Tillage and Land Use Society (ITLUS) tour visited many farms in the area and paid particular attention to the cane crop with a visit to Bungaberg Sugar.
The region is also well known for its rum.
It was interesting to see firsthand the changes that were taking place in the region as farmers opted to replace their traditional sugar cane with a range of different crops which offered higher profit potential.
Bundaberg Sugar is a sugar processing and farming business.
Simon Doyle works for Bundaberg Sugar and he explained the simple workings of the cane business and the many other ventures the company was now engaged in.
With a name like Doyle, there was at least some chance that he had some Irish roots and indeed he had.
He told us that his father, Laurence Doyle, had come from Rosslare, Co Wexford, in 1948.
The Bundaberg Sugar business is approximately 20,000ha, with 8,400ha producing sugar cane.
There is also 1,000ha of macadamia nuts now, several other smaller crops and the balance of the area is mainly bushland for cattle.
The business is also involved in sugar processing and it operates two plants to process cane sugar.
An evolving landscape
At one point, it was a cane-only business, but this has evolved to reflect the changes taking place through the years.
The business purchased 90ha of macadamia plantation in 2010 and the move into macadamia nuts has continued since then.
They had 1,000ha of orchards when we visited in 2020.
Simon told us that there were no macadamia trees in the region in 1990.
By 2020, there were 8,000ha in macadamias in the region and this was increasing at the rate of 1,500ha per year. So the change has been rapid.
Sugar cane is basically a grass that looks and grows somewhat like miscanthus.
It needs lots of water and the normal rainfall in the region is approximately 1,000mm per annum. However, in the two years preceding our visit, the rainfall amount averaged only 430mm per annum across the two years.
Simon told us that a sugar cane crop is harvested one year after planting and then every year for the next four to five years. Then it is killed off and the land is given a break for six to 12 months. Normally tomato and/or watermelon fill this gap.
The business also now grows some sweet potato, ginger, soya beans and maize.
Simon explained that they sample the juice in the sugar cane leading up to harvest to select the most appropriate harvest date for each crop.
The cane is milled between June and October and it is common to have sugar content increase and then fall again when the cane is in storage.
Growers have five delivery dates to adhere to between June and November.
In the past, Bundaberg Sugar grew about one-third of its own factory needs, but this is now gone up to 45%.
This is because so many others in the region produce less or no cane for reasons based on relative profitability.
The average yield for the district is about 80t/ha, with about 14% total sugars in the crop.
The byproduct of cane crushing, the fibre known as bagasse, is used to generate electricity to power the processing mill. All other waste produced during processing is also applied back on the land.
The company is not responsible for harvesting the sugar cane - this is done by contractors.
Cane is cut into billets (short pieces) and put into small rail bins or carts and taken on rail to the mill. Each cart holds around 6t and there are 60 carts per train.
So, one train hauls 360t and these are worked 24 hours per day and six days per week during the busy harvesting season, with the light rail infrastructure laid throughout the farm.
Interestingly, Simon said that the company had tried producing sugar beet in the past. It yielded quite well, but harvest was challenging because of the high local rainfall.
Harvesting and water are the major costs in growing cane. A crop costs about $3,000/ha to grow to the point of harvest.
Water alone is about $1,000/ha. They spend about $200/ha on chemicals and Simon commented that farming regulations in the area are strict because of the measures in place to help protect the Great Barrier Reef off the coast to the north.
Water and irrigation
Given the importance of water for cane production, much of the land needs to be irrigated.
The preferable rain-type irrigation systems cost in the order of AUS$12,000 to $14,000/ha to install.
As a result, they have stayed with flood irrigation systems, which are cheaper to install and run, but less efficient and increase the risk of soil erosion in wet periods.
Electricity prices had doubled in the region in the previous 10 years, so pumping water had become much more expensive.
To put this in perspective, Simon said that fine droplet application systems cost about $120 per million litres to pump, while the equivalent amount of water applied by flood irrigation cost $20 per million litres.
They apply 25,000 million litres per year on the farm, so electricity can be a huge cost.
The area of sugar cane grown in the region has decreased dramatically in recent years.
Simon said that there was 3.5mt produced 12 years ago, but this was down to 1mt in 2020. Sugar price is the major reason for the decrease, especially as order crop options become more attractive.
They grow 100ha of sweet potato, which yields about 60t/ha, so they produce about 6,000t per annum. This crop also needs irrigation.
Production starts by planting a vine, which grows to produce a plant and then come the vegetative tubers.
Quality of the seed material is very important with this crop. It is processed locally after harvest.
Depending on the season, planting to harvest can take between four and eight months.
Soya beans are also grown. Normally sown in early December, Simon described this as a cheap crop to grow at about $800/ha.
The crop is frequently ploughed down as a green manure, but it was destined for harvesting in 2020 because sugar prices were low and farming depends on income.
They were also trialling blueberries and raspberries on a part of the farm that is not normally used for cane.
They grow ginger in their nursery and Simon described it “as a crop looking for an excuse to die”.
Having good healthy seed material is key to having a healthy crop. Ginger costs about $50,000/ha to grow, so it is critical to plant good seed stock.
Farming systems seemed to be far more integrated in this area that other regions and there seemed to be a far greater awareness of soil organic matter.
Simon said that cane used to be burned in the past in preparation for harvest, but this is seldom done nowadays. The preference now is to let the dead leaves go back into the ground as a source of organic matter.
Simon commented that few young farmers in the region are staying with cane, opting instead to get into new crops. This is partly for the challenge, but mainly for economic reasons.
However, youth are entering cane production further north, where yields are naturally higher and costs lower. Higher rainfall there means less irrigation and that means a very significant cost saving.
However, more integrated farming business models still have an advantage in the longer term and they are more sustainable.
Simon said that there are now 55 different crops grown in the Bundaberg area, including tree crops.