FOR Maryborough cane grower Ashley Petersen, soil health has become something of a passion.
So committed is Ashley to improving the quality of his soil, that he has spent 20 years trialling different farming systems and adopting many of the industry’s evolving best practices.
In some cases he has led the way with innovations of his own.
A fifth-generation farmer, Ashley operates a 1500 hectare cane, cattle and pineapple business with his brother David, son Leyton and nephew Nathan.
His father Lloyd also still helps out on the family farm located at Hervey Bay, on the Fraser Coast.
The family also runs a successful contract harvesting business, cutting around 1500ha of cane a year.
“We are kept pretty busy all year round,” Ashley said, when Australian Canegrower visited the Petersen family farm recently.
“We normally cut 500ha of our own cane every year and on top of that there’s the 100ha of legume fallow, mainly soybean, which we take through to harvest.
“So all up we have about 600ha in cane rotation and we’re expanding some more each year into our cattle country.
“Only 200ha of that is irrigated, so we’re pretty well skewed towards dry-land farming, which hasn’t been good for us this year.”
The Petersens also farm approximately 40ha of pineapples, from which they harvest 2000 tonnes per year.
Half of this goes to the Golden Circle cannery in Brisbane, while the other half goes as fresh fruit to supermarkets and shops around the country.
In addition, the farm runs 350 head of cattle, which they purchase as weaner steers and take through to the feedlot stage.
Unsurprisingly, between cane, cattle and pineapples, there is not a lot of free time.
But this has not stopped Ashley pursuing his passion for improved soil health.
It’s a 20-year quest that began with a BSES controlled traffic, raised bed and high density trial in the 1990s and has culminated in the Petersen’s completely changing their farming system.
One of the most important aspects of this change – the one that took the longest time to perfect and remains the most controversial – is the row spacing.
“For the last 17 years we have been on 2m row centres, with dual rows at 800mm apart,” Ashley said.
Row spacing is a pivotal thing for the industry. It takes up a lot of energy and causes a lot of debate and arguments, many of which have been going on for 20 years.
“But we’ve tried all of the different systems and this is definitely the best system we’ve had,” he said.
“It’s the best because it’s the sweet spot for plant density. Our plant cane yield has been 8-10% higher than under any other system we’ve tried, and we have tried them all from 1.5-2.4m.
“When you do the economics on it, it’s pretty impressive. As contract harvesters we harvest 1500ha of cane a year, 20% of that, around 300ha, is plant cane.
Ashley Petersen said investment in new equipment is important to business success.
CANE BRAIN: Maryborough cane grower Ashley Petersen.
A bird’s eye view of the Maryborough property.