All-in-one planter, bed former saves costs at Ingham
By Bill Kerr
A group of inventive Ingham growers has developed a revolutionary all-in-one planting system that cuts farming costs, minimises labour and reduces machine hours, fuel usage and wear-and-tear by combining bed formation and planting in one fast controlled traffic operation.
Last year Daryl Morellini and his parents Peter and Audrey, trading as PAD Farming Company, planted 60 ha using a prototype bedformer/planter constructed with the support of other progressive Ingham farmers, financial assistance under SRDC grower group innovation project GGP036, and the invaluable mechanical skills of fulltime employee Ryan Andersen.
The clever profiling attachment device the Morellinis have fitted to their GPS-guided HBM billet planter eliminates five of the six passes previously required before and after planting. Now they do not have to cultivate after planting and only minimal weedicide spraying is needed in plant and ratoons.
The family grows around 35,000 tonnes of cane on 325 ha on two farms at Braemeadows and Macknade. They are key members of a group of Herbert growers who wanted to see if they could significantly reduce costs by farming smarter. Farmers in the Total Concept Sugarcane Planting Group who have contributed ideas are David Pearson, John Pedruzzi and Carmellito Lenzo. This year planting trials will be conducted on some of their farms, which are scattered throughout the district.
Group members consider that the existing planting system in the Herbert needs to be changed to minimise fuel and labour costs (a natural consequence of excessive cultivation), stool losses, soil compaction, and crop losses from wet weather during planting. Falls of 5-10 inches overnight are not uncommon and growers must take advantage of any window of opportunity for planting. Mounding can make a big difference to planting results with beds emerging high and dry after heavy rain.
The project began in August 2007 when grower group members agreed on design parameters. Daryl and Ryan did most of the hard physical work in the machinery sheds at Braemeadows after spending many hours chalking out designs on the floor.
Although the Morellinis still conventionally prepare for planting by ripping and rotary hoeing, the new all-in-one system eliminates five of six passes previously required including one with a 2-leg ripper, two with a weeder rake, one side dressing with fertilizer, one grubbing and a hilling-up. The patent pending idea called the ‘profile attachment device' forms a bed profile of apex shape and height to suit wet conditions and to match the harvester basecutter blades, aligns billets and gives them desired soil cover of up to 100 mm to minimize stool tipping. The end result is better germination and substantial cost savings.
Additional modifications this year have boosted performance further. Visitors who have seen the machine, including some Proserpine growers, have been impressed by its ability to reduce production costs through fewer passes, produce better ratoons, free-up time for other tasks and improve quality of life. Environmental benefits include less compaction, emissions and soil loss, and the potential for fertilizing ratoons to be brought forward, thus avoiding N loss during heavy rainfall on late ratoons.
If necessary, planting can be done later than usual because less working of soil is required after planting. For instance, within weeks of finishing last year's planting the Morellinis were able to fertilise ratoons. Normally they would need to concentrate on fertilizer side dressing and then later hilling up soil around plant cane and getting rid of weeds conventionally.
Latest modifications will help hold soils together better regardless of whether they are heavy loam or powdery sands. A floating front utilises depth wheels to keep the device level with the ground. Parallel arms ensure all mounds are consistent. Another tractor with an angled ‘camel' press wheel rollers roll the hump in dry soils to conserve moisture if needed. The only working required after planting is spraying at strike stage and fertilizing then waiting for the cane to reach harvesting stage.
Daryl expects to be able to plant faster this year - 9 km/h compared with around 7 km/h last year.
PAD Farming Company has done harvester modifications at their own expense involving differential cut, rubber rollers, elevator floors to reduce billet damage, and flow divider to achieve more even roller speed and longer billet length.
Daryl considers the device has application for other cane areas, not just the wet Herbert, and it may even have application in other row crops such as cotton. He hopes billet planter manufacturers and planting contractors will be interested in the concept. The relatively simple design makes it suitable for use as a bolt-on kit.
The device can be adjusted for wider row spacings although Daryl has been planting 500-600 mm wide single rows on 1.83 m wide centres, a format now being widely used in the district. He thinks this spacing is best for the Herbert and he will progressively convert to 1.83m wide single rows over the next 5-6 years. He believes that adoption of standardised row spacing and bed profiles would benefit growers. "We have changed from 5 feet to 6 feet and that's a saving of 20% less drills and turning around".
The Morellinis bought a new multi-purpose tractor fitted with GPS and front end loader for the project and will sell several tractors no longer required. Daryl is enthusiastic about GPS which proved its value last year when dust clouds limited visibility on sandy paddocks.
He wants a farm that is easy to manage so more than 95% has been laser leveled and block layout has been progressively improved to streamline farming and harvesting. Two years ago the family won a local productivity award for improved farm layout. The smut incursion has restricted trials of the system using different cane varieties and he expects it will take some years before full benefits of the change.
It is not the first time the family has been associated with clever inventions since Daryl's grandfather came to the area in 1920. The family hasn't burnt a stick of cane or lit a trash fire since 1979 when Peter, Daryl's father, now 72, became the first Herbert grower to cut green and go trash blanket farming using a Claas harvester and nil cultivation in ratoons. In the 1970s he built a stool trimmer with a ratooning disc that incorporated cane tops into the soil and in the 1980s he built a double-row billet planter.