Agriculture   September 24, 2021

Building a Precision Agriculture foundation:

Racecourse Projects’ sharp focus on farm data drives huge improvements

George Williams smiling in front of a tractor

Racecourse Projects, Operating Partner, and fourth-generation canegrower, George Williams.

Racecourse Projects at a glance:

Operation: Producing up to 300,000 tonnes of cane per annum

Markets: Supplying Racecourse, Marian and Plane Creek mills which produce raw and refined sugar for export

Location: 5000 ha of cane land between Sarina and Mackay

THERE is an old business adage that if you 'take care of the pennies the pounds take care of themselves', and it's a concept ringing true for Racecourse Projects where minute-level farm data is being used to grow production and profitability across 5000 ha of cane land in the Mackay region.

The partnership operation, owned by Proterra Investment Partners, Mackay Sugar and fourth-generation Sarina cane farmer, George Williams, uses the John Deere Digital Ecosystem to seamlessly connect key information collected by 34 John Deere machines, and 25-full-time staff, to monitor and improve efficiencies and make long-term strategic decisions.

The bank of information, collated within the John Deere Operations Centre, is vital to the business. As a priority, it's reviewed weekly during 6am planning meetings to direct work order, and is also a key tool used by the data-hungry Board Members making decisions on the partnership's long-term planning.

Mr Williams, who is Operating Partner to the company, said mastering data collection began with ensuring set up was correct — including carefully laying out field boundaries and guidance lines.

"When we started down this technological road, we were mostly using our technology to drive our machines in straight lines. Progressing from there, we knew the digital setup was absolutely critical, and we made sure we established our boundaries so we could later manage the business beyond the paddock level and dive deeper into our data," Mr Williams said.

"The correct setup also helped us to ensure the data we were capturing would be accurate, and useful at the end of the season.

"Today, this flow of information helps from an operational management perspective, as we can maximise our efficiencies during the day-to-day and make the most from our harvest."

Power of precision

Racecourse Projects has propelled through a rapid phase of growth since its inception in 2013, when it began as a 714 ha cane farm. Today, the sprawling 5000 ha operation is a major cane supplier to the Racecourse, Marian and Plane Creek mills, and part of the Mackay region's refined and raw sugar exporting network.

Mr Williams described the growth as being "horizontally and vertically" driven, given not only has the amount of land under cane increased, but the operation has also been able to bolster its performance, to now produce 300,000 tonnes of cane per annum.

A key driver of this efficiency gain has been the application of fertilisers, using information collected during the crushing season from the business's two John Deere CH570s and two 3520 cane harvesters, which are equipped with yield monitors, to create an effective Yield Map that is shared with an agronomist.

Using these insights, a tailored input approach is created to ultimately result in the need for less inputs, to slash the nutrient bill without impacting results.

"Ensuring we have a thorough variable-rate nutrient management system, means we are placing our nutrient exactly where it's needed and getting the biggest bang for our buck," Mr Williams said.

"In total, we have achieved a $65 per hectare reduction in nutrient costs*, without impacting yields, equating to a 12 per cent reduction in nutrient across our business. Our challenge now is to increase on this figure year on year."

Monitoring machines

The Racecourse Projects farming operation runs off a controlled-traffic GPS system, and the core fleet is connected through JDLink™, meaning almost real-time machine information is available in the John Deere Operations Center.

The information creates a snapshot of progress in the paddock, which Mr Williams can review on his mobile, to both provide overarching business information and to check equipment is performing at its best.

"Through reviewing this information and looking at our yields, we have noticed the link between the harvester's speed and the loss of cane between being cut and reaching the haul-out bin. We worked out we could lose several tonnes per hectare if the operator was rushing the job and driving too fast," he said.

"The only way we could address this loss was through the information we received from Operations Centre."

Data to drive farming future

As Racecourse Projects is located within the Great Barrier Reef Catchment area, all operations must adhere to the Queensland Government's Agricultural Environmentally Relevant Activity standard for sugarcane cultivation, so thorough record-keeping is mandatory.

This includes clear information on all inputs applied in the paddock, which Mr Williams said was streamlined through the John Deere Digital Ecosystem, as all information was recorded automatically.

"We do need to meet the regulations when it comes to our record keeping, but for us, we see keeping our records as vital as it means we can create efficiencies and ensure we are getting the most out of every dollar spent on the farm," Mr Williams said.

However, Racecourse Projects has taken sustainability, and its role in protecting the Great Barrier Reef a step further. In 2017, the company was granted Bonsucro accreditation, meaning the farm achieves an international standard of best practice management for sustainable cane farming.

Mr Williams said adoption of precision agriculture methods were critical to operating both sustainably and profitably.

"The price of sugar hasn't actually changed greatly over time, but the cost of producing sugar certainly has," he said.

"This means the Australian sugar industry has to become a world leader in sustainability and productivity to remain viable and competitive on the global market."

*Individual results may vary. For more information visit JohnDeere.com.au/GotWhatItTakes

Media enquiries:
Stacey Wordsworth
stacey.wordsworth@bluehillpr.com.au
0438 394 371

Hannah Hardy
hannah.hardy@bluehillpr.com.au
0421 196 004

About John Deere:
Deere & Company (NYSE: DE) is a world leader in providing advanced products and services and is committed to the success of customers whose work is linked to the land - those who cultivate, harvest, transform, enrich and build upon the land to meet the world's dramatically increasing need for food, fuel, shelter and infrastructure. Since 1837, John Deere has delivered innovative products of superior quality built on a tradition of integrity. For more information, visit John Deere at its worldwide website at JohnDeere.com or in Australia at JohnDeere.com.au.