2 March, 2021
Racecourse Projects: Aiming to be efficient and sustainable
George Williams is a fourth-generation cane farmer who grew up on the family farm at Dawlish, just north of Sarina.
George Williams is a fourth-generation cane farmer who grew up on the family farm at Dawlish, just north of Sarina. After school he became a fitter and turner at Plane Creek Mill with the aim of eventually going back on the family farm. He finally did this full time in 2011, after successfully running a distribution business in Mackay for several years.
For the past eight years he has worked as Operating Partner for Racecourse Projects but he still runs the family farm under a share farming agreement with the company.
While George doesn’t get to sit on a tractor much these days he oversees four farm managers who do. They also make the day-to-day farming decisions for the company about what to spray, what to fertilise, what to fallow, and so on. There are some very well-known local farming names among them. George sets the framework and the overall direction for the operation. Then, throughout the week the team gets together to discuss the big picture. The farming decisions change, of course, from one day to the next due to weather conditions and the other challenges on the ground every farmer faces.
Racecourse Projects began operation in October 2013. Today, the majority shareholder is Proterra Investment Partners, an American private equity company which invests in natural resources – agriculture, food, metals and mining. Racecourse Projects is their only sugar investment in Australia, but they also own sugar mills in Brazil.
Mackay Sugar is also a major shareholder and Company Secretary Peter Gill sits on the Company’s Board.
The company has invested in more than 5000 ha of caneland in the Mackay/Plane Creek districts. More than 400,000 tonnes of cane were delivered last year by the company's four harvesting groups to Mackay Sugar and Wilmar Sugar mills from three areas: Marwood/Dawlish (two farms), Blue Mountain area at the top of Eton Range (three farms) and Claireview (two farms). George estimates that the harvesting team has more than 200 years of experience between them.
The total tonnage was made up of 300,000 tonnes from Racecourse Projects’ own farms and 100,000 tonnes cut for surrounding farmers. The company also undertakes other contract work such as spraying, laser levelling and earthmoving for local farmers at farmer friendly rates.
Racecourse Projects employs up to 50 staff during the season and as a result has invested heavily in health and safety initiatives. SafeAg (www.safeagsystems.com) is an app that all staff at Racecourse Projects use to report hazards, incidents and daily prestarts.
Over the past eight years, the farms have all been converted to a 2.4 metre, 800 mm dual row, controlled traffic system.
“It’s an efficient system. There is less compaction than traditional methods which will lead to improved water retention over time. We only cultivate the ‘grow zone’ and our harvesters only have to travel 4,166 metres per ha, saving over 2 km per ha in travel compared with a 1.6 metre row farm setup. That's 10,000 km per year,” said George.
"This system also reduces the amount of turning at the end of the paddock. It has given us huge savings in fuel and labour. Using less horsepower by travelling slower also means a better quality cut with less damage to the stool giving us improved ratoons."
The farm machinery runs on GPS, all chemical and nutrient records are electronic and come directly from the tractor. For the past three years the harvesters have had yield monitors fitted. The data the yield monitors provide allows inputs to be matched with yield potential within the paddock.
“We now have enough yield monitors to cover our entire property. This technology ensures we are not applying fertilser, where there are yield limiting factors like water logging, grubs or just poor soil,” said George.
“We believe that matching inputs to yield potential is good economics for the business and benefits the environment by maximising input utilisation.”
George has an accountant in the office next door to his and they talk numbers daily.
“We are constantly looking for something that will reduce our cost of production by 10 or 20 cents a tonne. Our aim is to make Racecourse Projects the most efficient, sustainable cane farming operation that we can be. We have the same challenges as every other cane grower in terms of crop yields, sugar prices and milling performance, of course – we are not different to anyone else there. We all want to see the Indian subsidy go and for electricity and water prices to be lower.
“Our principal limiting factor here is not always being able to have the right person at the right place at the right time when things get busy.On an average sized farm there is one farmer farming about 100 to 150 ha. For us to do that we would need to employ 50 farmers. We can’t afford to do that and keep everyone gainfully employed all year round, so we get around it by having bigger, more efficient equipment to be able to cover more hectares per day. What used to take my Dad and me a month to do on the family farm now takes us only a couple of days.
“For instance, Dad and I used to have one planter and one tractor to plant 40 ha a year, but Racecourse Projects uses one planter and one tractor to plant 2000 ha a year. That economy of scale means the equipment is not so expensive when calculated on a dollar per ha basis," George said.
Cane is ratooned for six years, with a 15 per cent fallow factor. The variety selection is up to farm managers with only limited input from George. They work with MAPS and an agronomist to determine the selection based on soil types and early/late harvest factors.
Soybeans are grown in rotation with the cane to reduce nitrogen requirements for top dressing and plant cane. The soybeans have been sold to market in previous years but where this has not been possible, they are ploughed back in as a green manure crop.
Two trials are under way on Racecourse Projects farms. The first is a multi-species trial over 12 hectares. This has looked at seedling viability and efficiency using an air seeder on a harvester during harvesting compared with using a wavy disc cultivator. Soybean crops have been planted in the trial as a control.
The second trial has involved using an app, 1622-WQ (https://research.csiro.qu/digiscape/961-2/), developed by CSIRO agricultural researcher, Dr Peter Thorburn, to look at reducing nitrogen rates late in the season for ratoons cut in October, for instance.
“For me, the ratoons we cut in October don’t have the same yield potential as the ratoons cut in June, so why are we putting on the same amount of nitrogen?” said George.
“How far can we cut the nitrogen rate back in October without having an impact on yield? The initial results are looking good."
Racecourse Projects’ farms are in the Sandy Creek, Fitzroy and Styx Basin catchment areas. Environmental scrutiny in past years from local conservation groups has been intense and the company has been regularly audited by the government.
“We are in constant communication with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Department of Environment and Science. We have positive relationships and have found them good to deal with," said George. “Coming out of any audit process there are always things to learn and things to improve. An auditor wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t find something. I look at the audit process as an opportunity to improve and be better in the future.
“Whether we like it or not, this is not only a government expectation of us but a community expectation. The community expects Australian farmers to be the best in the world, so we need to show the community that we ARE actually the best farmers in the world.
“We are proud to be producing a food product. It is not enough to say, ‘oh, trust us, we are the best in the world’. At some point we have to prove it.”
The first priority for the company was obtaining Bonsucro accreditation in 2017. Now the company is working with CANEGROWERS Mackay’s agricultural economist, John Eden, to obtain Smartcane BMP accreditation this year.
“For an operation our size, it’s not easy, which is the way it should be," said George.
"We need to do the work to prove to people that we have best management practice by keeping the records. And like all farmers, it’s finding the time to do it. We’re all a bit busy! The actual farming practice in the paddock is the important part of BMP and we’ve been very focused on getting that right, rather than the certificate on the wall We are constantly improving drainage and creating spoon drains and recycling pits as we fallow paddocks. But our stool can be in the ground for six years. It can be a decade before we can work on a bit of ground again to get it right. Then we might have a one in 50 year weather event with half a metre of rain over night and we have to start again."
George says the operation has the same issues as others in the industry and has to play strictly by the rules when it comes to minimising sediment runoff on slopes: “We have sediment control plans in place and our spray operators do training every year to make sure they are meeting the requirements around buffer zones and slopes. We work very closely with our agronomist to make sure we comply with chemical label rates and government requirements for chemicals."
George says he believes the sugar industry is more beneficial to the environment than it is given credit for: "When I look out over our caneland I see 5000 ha of solar panels converting energy into sucrose, bagasse and molasses. Mackay Sugar produces one third of Mackay’s electrical energy needs renewably from bagasse. For every kilowatt hour the sugar industry produces, that’s a kilowatt hour not produced from other sources. We also produce the feedstock for making ethanol. For every litre of ethanol we produce we are using less fossil fuels. Cane is also a crop that should be getting credit for carbon sequestration. I talk to people in Brisbane about these things and they are blown away. They have no idea of our effort and investment into the renewable energy sector. I think the future for the industry is bright, not just for Racecourse Projects but the industry as a whole. Of course, we’d love to strike a year when we have both a good crop and a good price, like every other grower, but I think the Nordzucker investment has restored some confidence in the industry and the next few years will bring real improvements for all."