Towards farming-systems change from value-chain optimisation in the Australian sugar industry
The supply chain of the conventional Australian sugar industry is characterized by horizontal separation between the stages. Often antagonistic relations between segments, particularly farmers and millers, led to each developing their systems for their own segmentâ€™s benefit, without reference to the wider industry interests. Cane growing developed into a monoculture, reliant on material inputs and technological solutions, whose low labour intensity afforded substantial lifestyle benefits to growers. Such a system worked well while the industry was the worldwide cost leader, but it has contributed to stagnating yields and left growers exposed to the industry downturn caused by Brazilian competition. Over the past few years, CSIRO and BSES research aimed at securing industry-wide cost savings included the logistical optimisation of the harvesting and transport segments, harvest scheduling to maximise sugar yield, optimisation of the length of the harvest season, logistical aspects of export marketing, and inclusion of climate forecasts in industry decisions. Our results indicate that while costs and benefits of such system changes fall unevenly on various segments of the supply chain, there is scope for industry-wide benefits from changed practices in individual segments. Some opportunities for downstream improvements identified in our research rely on changes in the farming system. The collection of most plant matter for electricity co-generation means an end to burning before harvest or green-trash blanketing. This, in turn, affects plant nutrition and water management by farmers. Sugar production can be improved by variety selection for location and soil types. Farm-layout changes can facilitate efficient harvesting, reducing not only harvesting costs but soil compaction and stool damage, in turn increasing yield. Crop rotations with legumes have promise for agronomic improvements and growing sweet sorghum may supply the mill outside the sugarcane season. The paper describes a number of such interactions between farming systems on cane farms and the rest of the sugar supply chain, including implications for segment-by-segment profitability.
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