Ef­fi­cien­cies in ir­ri­ga­tion

Clever think­ing puts Doug ahead of game

Central Queensland News - - RURALWEEKLY - Wayne Grif­fin Aus­tralian Cane­grower editor

WA­TER, or rather lack of it, is one of the biggest chal­lenges fac­ing the Aus­tralian agri­cul­ture sec­tor at the mo­ment. Even where wa­ter is avail­able through ir­ri­ga­tion schemes, it can be a dou­ble-edged sword. Crops may flour­ish, but grow­ers are see­ing their profits eaten up by ever in­creas­ing elec­tric­ity prices.

That’s why some grow­ers, like Cane­grow­ers Table­land di­rec­tor Doug Rank­ine, have in­vested heav­ily in wa­ter and en­ergy-sav­ing tech­nolo­gies, such as low-pres­sure ir­ri­ga­tion, vari­able fre­quency drives and even so­lar power, in an ef­fort to keep costs down.

A heavy equip­ment fitter by trade, Doug is a rel­a­tive new­comer to the in­dus­try – in cane grow­ing terms, any­way.

He planted his first cane crop in 1995, al­most 30 years af­ter his fam­ily ac­quired a 1200-hectare Table­land prop­erty, 15 min­utes south of Ma­reeba. To­day he grows around 320ha of cane, av­er­ag­ing about 130 tonnes per hectare and even boasts an 11th ra­toon block that cut out at 109 t/ha in 2017.

“My fam­ily was orig­i­nally in the tim­ber busi­ness,” Doug said when Aus­tralian Cane­grower vis­ited his farm re­cently.

“We had the biggest sawmilling op­er­a­tion in north Queensland in the early-1980s, em­ploy­ing over 450 peo­ple, but when World Her­itage list­ing came in for Queensland’s rain­forests in 1986 it took away our re­sources and the sawmill busi­ness dis­ap­peared pretty quickly.”

Af­ter clear­ing the land at Ma­reeba, Doug’s fam­ily dry-land farmed peanuts, maize, sorghum and lablab, and also ran cat­tle. But in 1994, Doug de­cided it was time for a change and con­vinced his fa­ther and un­cles to in­stall eight cen­tre pivot ir­ri­ga­tors and make the move into the cane-grow­ing busi­ness.

“Right from the very be­gin­ning we looked at the en­ergy we were burn­ing and how much wa­ter we were us­ing and did what­ever we could to try to keep those in­ef­fi­cien­cies to a min­i­mum,” Doug said.

As well as in­vest­ing in wa­ter and power-sav­ing low pres­sure piv­ots, Doug also in­stalled a vari­able fre­quency drive on the main ir­ri­ga­tion pump, rais­ing a few eye­brows in the process.

“When we in­stalled the VF drive in ’95 our ir­ri­ga­tion peo­ple at the time told us we were mad and that we were wast­ing our money. It was $15,000 for the drive, which was a lot of money back then, but it ended up pay­ing for it­self in two years.

“I’ve only re­placed it once in nearly 25 years. The first one did 53,000 hours.”

More re­cently Doug has in­vested in so­lar as a way to keep his sky­rock­et­ing power bills un­der con­trol.

“Even with the low-pres­sure piv­ots and the VF drive, we were still fac­ing elec­tric­ity bills of over $60,000 a year,” he said.

“When the in­terim tar­iff that I’m on at the minute is scrapped in a cou­ple of years, I’m go­ing to end up on a high tar­iff, like a min­ing-type tar­iff, so that’s why I de­cided to put the so­lar in.

“I’ve got two 5kw sys­tems that feed power into the grid when I’m not us­ing that power. I’ve also got a 25kw sys­tem which doesn’t feed back into

We were still fac­ing elec­tric­ity bills of over $60,000 a year.

— Doug Rank­ine

the grid, it just sub­sidises my power.

“It wasn’t a cheap ex­er­cise, but we’re only look­ing at a four- to five-year pay-off pe­riod.”

It’s not just in the ar­eas of wa­ter- and power-sav­ing tech­nolo­gies that Doug has been an early adopter. He has also em­braced many of the prac­tices en­cour­aged by the in­dus­try’s best man­age­ment prac­tices pro­gram, Smart­cane BMP.

“We moved to a 1.8m row sys­tem about 10 years ago, maybe more, and we’ve been fully GPS con­trolled traf­fic for even longer, maybe about 15 years,” Doug said.

Doug is also a strict ad­her­ent to the in­dus­try’s Six Easy Steps nu­tri­ent man­age­ment sys­tem, although he says it’s the wa­ter that is the sin­gle most im­por­tant in­gre­di­ent in his im­pres­sive ton­nage.

“I put up to about 7.5ML of wa­ter on some of those pad­docks ev­ery year. It adds up to 11–12ML with the rain­fall.

“That’s a fair amount of wa­ter, but that’s why we’re av­er­ag­ing 130t/ha.

“Wa­ter is the sin­gle most im­por­tant thing in grow­ing cane,” Doug said.

“But we don’t just pour it on, we use En­vi­roSCAN probes to mon­i­tor the mois­ture lev­els in the pad­dock to en­sure we’re not un­der or over wa­ter­ing and we also work closely with our lo­cal ex­ten­sion of­fi­cer to sched­ule ir­ri­ga­tion events to max­imise the ben­e­fit to the crop.

“I don’t use any more ni­tro­gen over what Six Easy Steps al­lows me although some of it we put on through the ir­ri­ga­tors in fer­ti­ga­tion,” he said.

Doug dis­solves urea or am­mo­nium sul­phate in tanks and uses a small dos­ing pump to pump it in with the ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter.

“I also put a lot of trace el­e­ments on dur­ing the year through the ir­ri­ga­tor,” he said. “I put zinc and mag­ne­sium on. I just chuck a few bags into the dis­solver and pump it on.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, wa­ter and so­lar play a big part in Doug’s fu­ture plans, es­pe­cially as he con­tem­plates re­tire­ment.

In 1995 the fam­ily dou­bled their al­lo­ca­tion from Ma­reeba-Dim­bu­lah Ir­ri­ga­tion scheme, at a time when wa­ter was cheap. To­day, it’s a valu­able com­mod­ity and is likely to be­come even more valu­able as the years pass.

Doug is also in ne­go­ti­a­tions to lease out part of his prop­erty to a so­lar farm en­ter­prise.

“I have an agree­ment with a so­lar farm de­vel­oper to de­velop 162ha of non-arable land into a so­lar farm project that will gen­er­ate 60 megawatts when it’s fully op­er­a­tional,” Doug said,

“They’ve cho­sen here be­cause there is an ex­ist­ing power line run­ning through that they can hook up to, so the in­fra­struc­ture to feed into the grid is there.

“I’m just leas­ing the land to them. It’s all part of the re­tire­ment plan.”

PHO­TOS: CON­TRIB­UTED

PLAN­NING AHEAD: Doug Rank­ine, a sugar cane grower in North Queensland, has a so­lar project in the pipe­line to help set him up for re­tire­ment.

Cane grower Doug Rank­ine has in­vested en­ergy-sav­ing tech­nolo­gies to keep costs down. heav­ily in

Doug Rank­ine has low pivot pres­sures on his farm to help re­duce the bur­den of en­ergy costs.

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