Robert Quirk

Region: Condong, Tweed Valley, coastal New South Wales

Commodities: Sugar cane, cattle

Farming area: 106 hectares of sugar, 20 hectares for cattle

Rainfall: 1600 mm average per year

Email: rgquirk@bigpond.com

Phone: 02 6677 7227

 

"The climate’s definitely changing. We can deal with little bits of rain, but if you put another 300 mm on top of it, it’s massive. And every centimetre the ocean rises, we have to pump another 10 Olympic swimming pools of water off the farm, so natural drainage is disappearing for us. If the ocean continues to rise at about 1 centimetre per year, we probably have 30 years to farm in this area."

Robert Quirk

 

See what Robert has to say about:

  Watch: Adapting to, and being flexible in, an increasingly variable climate

 

Working a productive cane farm in northern NSW

I farm 106 hectares of sugar cane and about 20 hectares of cattle country in the Tweed Valley, New South Wales. There are about 120 other growers in Condong. Our place is about average size.

I work the property myself, and have someone who comes and helps me plant cane. My brother lives nearby and we share a lot of equipment: our cane harvester, planter and bins. Because we own the equipment together, we can do that work for 30 per cent of the cost of getting a contractor in.

The land is fairly productive for cane here, by world standards. Our 2-year-old crops would normally cut around 150 tonnes per hectare. Year-old cane in 2014 yielded 116 tonnes per hectare - the district average is very close to 100.

Our cane doesn’t have the highest sugar content because we get a lot of rainfall, and you need enough rain but a lot of sunshine to make sugar. If the cane’s growing a lot, it’s not making sugar.

We have a few cows and vealers, and sell the vealers each year; it's less than 3 per cent of our budget. It’s a common thing around here, if you have hill country where you can’t grow cane. Otherwise it becomes a weed-infested fire hazard. Using cattle is more to keep the land healthy, rather than to make a lot of money.

Robert Quirk's sugar cane

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Hotter and drier is better for sugar cane

Heatwaves are great - the hotter, the better for us. Any temperature in the thirties is ideal for growing sugar cane.

It’s a bit of a problem that we can’t really anticipate climate here. If the rain comes when your cane’s very small, it’s not going to grow. And it’s very difficult to recover from flooding. We lose cane in the wet.

If we’re looking at a La Niña year, we probably don’t plough out and replant cane, we will just try to get an extra ratoon out of our cane because we know it’s going to be very difficult to establish [new] plant cane.

[After being cut, sugar cane regrows from the same stems the following year; this is called ‘ratoon cane’. ‘Plant cane’ is a new stalk, or ‘billet’, that will be planted to grow sugar cane from.]

But sugar cane will recover from drought very quickly when rain comes. We grow our best crops in the dust. We had one of the best crops ever last year [2014] on 900 mm of rain [compared to the average of 1600 mm].

An El Niño year is when we catch up on everything. The dry years are when we can plough out as much cane as we wish, and we know we’re going to establish a good crop. The drier, the better.

We can plant new cane into dry soil - it helps that our soil’s very healthy. A billet may lay dormant in the soil for some time, and then when the rain comes, it really goes.

But it can’t sit in water. After 6 days, you lose 2.5 tonnes per hectare of yield per day, so losses can be quite massive.

We do get frosts, but it’s usually going to be 15 °C to 20 °C by lunchtime. So provided you have a good, healthy canopy on the cane, it’s not a problem. In this last year [2014-15] we got a few. The healthier the cane, the less frost damage occurs.

Robert's cane in water

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Expanding windows of time for harvesting and planting

Our harvesting and planting dates have changed a bit over the years.

When I left school about 55 years ago, no one planted sugar cane before the first day of September, and you had to be finished by the last day of September. Now we have a window that’s opened up, virtually from early August right through to the end of October.

This is because of newer varieties, newer technology, different systems, and that it’s not quite as cold as it used to be, by 2 or 3 degrees.

The window’s expanding for cutting, too. You couldn’t previously cut ratoon cane before August. Now you can cut it in July. It’s warmer. And the varieties help some of the best cane I’ve got this year [2015] for this coming season was cut in July last year.

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Increasing profit by extending rotations of cane

We tend to rotate through 4 years of cane, 1 year of beans, and back to cane. If you have a good variety of cane that’s still producing, you would probably let it run for another year.

We try not to do very much ploughing out and replanting cane, so sometimes that extends the cycle to 5 or 6 years.

But it’s really important that we get as much productivity as we can. You don’t make much money out of the first ‘plant’ crop - you make your money out of the ratoon crops, because they’re very cheap to grow.

We plough out the cane which has too many weeds in it, or gaps between stools [the stalk of the plant].

We also usually look for the worst 20 per cent of our paddocks each year and plough them out. If you don’t replace about 20 per cent per year, you might have a year when you have to do 40 per cent. That is really expensive.

Robert Quirk's cane roots

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Ensuring good drainage and healthy soils on flood plains

In March [2015] the water was over the road here, on our soybeans and in the cane. It’s not doing very well now because it was planted late, then we copped really bad rain in December [2014], and another 2 lots in the next 2 months.

We have been told that what we’re getting now, we should expect for the future. The climate’s definitely changing.

We can deal with small rainfall events - in the latest event, we got about 200 mm and it didn’t do a lot of damage. But if you put another 300 mm on top of that? It’s massive. It just kills everything.

We are only half a metre above sea level, so drainage is a problem. Every centimetre the ocean rises, we have to pump another 10 Olympic swimming pools of water off the farm, so natural drainage is disappearing for us. It’s our biggest issue.

If the ocean continues to rise at about 1 centimetre a year, we probably have 30 years to continue to farm in this area. After that, it just wouldn’t be possible. The size of the pumps that would be required to stay in business just won’t happen.

This land shrinks as it’s drained, by about 1 centimetre per year. So, with sea level coming up at 1 centimetre per year, in the next 30 years they’ll most certainly meet. But by retaining the organic matter in the soil, the soil is more moist and healthy. That’s how we think we’ve been able to arrest the shrinkage.

We also try to keep the heavy machinery off the fields. All our harvesters are on steel tracks, and the bins in our area have 3 axles instead of 2.

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Boosting drainage potential by planting on mounds

Only working the top of the mounds and planting on the mounds is something that took about 10 years to get it right.

I still use a set of boards that were developed in Mackay for mounding in the early 1970s/1980s, so they’re getting a bit ragged by now, but still do the job!

A difference we have is that most people in the world plant below the ground and then, as the crop grows, they fill the trench that the plants are in, and mound a little bit of soil over the top of that.

The mounds here are 20 centimetres higher than natural ground level - I can drag my planter across the cement and it’s not touching the ground. Even though it mightn’t sound a lot, it gives us about another 200 mm of drainage by raising the ground surface.

It means there’s a lot of oxygen there, and bacteria that convert the nitrogen to nitrous oxide [a very potent greenhouse gas] only operate in anoxic conditions [without oxygen].

Some people worry that the cane’s going to fall over because they’re so high - but not so! - and as your soil gets healthier, a lot of the pathogens and grubs that affect the crop just don’t exist anymore.

 

Robert Quirk

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Improving drainage by increasing the size of the tidal channel

It’s a tidal system here; water flows to the river through flood gates. There’s tidal flushing of about 200 mm. Each day at low tide, we get a little bit of saltwater in, then the gates close.

Our drainage channel used to be quite small - Dad and his brother used to clean it by hand. We made the decision to make the drainage channel bigger in 1974. It was part of a flood-mitigation program and we widened it by 5 metres.

It’s made a big difference for us.

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Using break crops to build organic matter, feed microbes and reduce inputs

We use either soybeans or lupins as break crops, to build organic matter, to feed the microbes in the soil, to reduce chemical nutrient inputs, and to make the soil more friable [easy to crumble].

There’s such a massive root system on both lupins and soybeans - they make the soil so healthy and friable.

We had a major flood in 2013, which wiped everything out - and the forecasters were saying that was coming. I didn’t plant any beans that year, and just waited until winter to plant lupins. Because they mature about the same time as we plant the cane, we cannot harvest them.

  • If we’ve planted them as a winter legume: 6 weeks before the cane’s planted, we plough them in with a rotary hoe, re-mound the soil, and use them for organic matter and nitrogen.
  • If we’ve planted them in an intercropping situation: we can’t cultivate, so we spray them out.

But we always harvest our soybeans. Researchers have bred some soybean varieties that are acid- and water-tolerant; Asgrow is the main variety that we plant here. It’s tough as nails: it seems to be able to survive pretty much whatever you throw at it.

This year [2015] because of the rainfall, a lot of our soybean crops have been lost on the lower country. I was a bit fortunate; my beans were just out [of the ground], so the water didn’t really hurt them, even though they were under water for 4 days.

Now with this third major rain event [February 2015] we’ve had of 200 mm, they’re struggling a bit. But the nitrogen that they produce for the soil is a bonus.

Robert uses soybean and lupin break crops to increase soil health and nutrients.

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Reducing cultivation to boost soil health

Another technique we’ve used to avoid breaking down the organic matter is reducing cultivation. Doing that, we’ve been able to build the organic matter here in the last 20 years by about 2 per cent - which is pretty incredible.

We’ve recently had 80 soil tests done on the farm as part of winning the Carbon Cocky of the Year award.

One of the world’s leading soil scientists came to do those soil tests. He explained that what I’m doing is encouraging white wood rot fungi, which keeps organic matter in a very stable form, so it’s there for next year. You can actually see it on the surface of the leaves as they start to break down.

The crop then feeds off the organic matter. Per hectare, it’s equivalent to about 50 kilograms of nitrogen, 20 kilograms of phosphorus, and up to 150 kilograms of potassium. And all the micronutrients are much more available to the plant if they’ve been broken down in the organic matter.

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Managing residue to save on nitrogen costs

There had been research in New South Wales 20 years ago which showed that if you retained your residue from the cane harvest you would have a yield loss.

But by planting on the mound, raking the top of the mound and spraying with nitrogen, I have been able to eliminate most of the problems.

Leaving residue on the ground feeds white wood rot fungi and many other different species of bacteria (or microbes and fungi). Earthworms also feed on the residue, so it has broken down by next season.

We couldn’t always leave the residue. By the third season it was impossible - there was so much, we were going to start burning again.

But a leading scientist from New Zealand once told me, ‘Why don’t you just spray it with a minute amount of nitrogen?’ - about 5 kilograms per hectare. It was enough to activate the microbes and fungi. There’s a little bit of sugar there which helps balance the carbon/nitrogen ratio for better breakdown.

The sooner after harvest you spray with the nitrogen, the better. It’s been a win–win for me.

I know my crop gets about 40 per cent of its nitrogen through mineralisation of the organic matter. I use about 90 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare - the norm is about 120. And when you translate that to $700 per tonne of nitrogen, it adds up.

Improving soil health is a crucial part of Robert's operation.

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Stopping the landscape expelling acid into waterways

Our problem here is not leaching, it’s an expulsion of the acid if the watertable rises.

There’s about 50 tonnes of oxidised sulphuric acid in the landscape for every hectare, which equates to about a 2-litre milk bottle full of pure sulphuric acid every square metre.

Before our acid sulphate soil work, the banks of the channel would be covered in dead fish, almost every year.

The farming techniques we’ve developed now keep the acid in the landscape. Growing up, we never had any fish living in our drains at all. Now there are 7 ocean species in our drains.

Very similar to the trees in the Murray Darling Basin, the sugar cane draws the watertable down and doesn’t let the acid rise with the watertable and expel into the drain.

Without the sugar cane, it immediately starts to discharge into the water. If we go back to returning the tide to these flood plains, that acid will come out every day, causing a chronic acidity problem for the whole flood plain.

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Planning spraying and harvesting using forecasts

I very closely watch what’s happening with the long-range Bureau of Meteorology forecasts, and the updates each month for climate briefings that go to government.

If you have information and you don’t take any notice of it, I think you’re not going to be around for long. It’s really important that farmers use what’s available.

Day to day, I mainly use wind forecasts. I look every day at the 8-day forecast, especially when we’re spraying. We wait until we have a window of 3 or 4 days when at least the mornings are going to be fairly calm.

On the wish list is more accurate long-term forecasts, to give us a bit more flexibility. It’s partly because we are a little bit different to most other crops - we share a harvester so we do 5 rotations in 5 or 6 months. Every month we’re getting some cane cut, so you need to plan ahead which fields you’re going to be harvesting at what time of the year.

The more we know about the climate and what’s coming, the better. But what the scientists are telling us is that we’ll get longer dry periods, broken up by bigger rain events.

We can deal with the dry by retaining some of our residue in the field. We can deal with the wet with the pumps and planting on the mounds. If we’ve got a wet period coming up next week, we wouldn’t cut the wet paddock - we’d cut somewhere different instead.

But there’s a lot more I can do, and we’ll continue to grow cane as cheaply as we can. We don’t have to work quite as hard as before, but we have to be a lot smarter about it. I really enjoy what I do and I’ll continue to do it.

 

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Interview dates: September 2010, February 2015

 

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