Bill's innovative cane farming methods boost yields and help the environment

October 31, 2023

On the banks of Sandy Creek, Bill MacDonald and his family have been growing cane for decades.

But something has changed over the past few years – and it’s meant an increase in production.

The rewards are there, I’m seeing them. I look at the cane I’m growing, and I can see my tonnes increasing. My father is 84 and has been here his whole life, he can see what I’m seeing too.

Thanks to a method of mound planting and minimum tillage after planting, Bill has seen improvements to yield, moisture retention, and weed management.

It’s a completely different way of growing cane than what we’ve been doing for the last hundred years. You’re conserving your moisture; you’re reducing the amount that you’re working it. Economically it makes sense: there’s huge savings. Don’t be frightened of lost production, because you will grow your tonnes. And it’s also good for the soil.

Collaboration is the key to mound planting success

Mound planting allows farmers to plant not far under the ground and then throw soil on top. Because the soil is not disturbed through tilling, it retains a better moisture profile and allows beneficial organisms to flourish. Bill has also found that he’s had fewer weeds.

I’ve never been able to grow the cane that I’m actually achieving now.

One of the things Bill likes most about this technique is that he uses his existing gear – with a few modifications to his planter and custom parts. To get started with mound planting, Bill was able to access matched funding from the Reef Catchments Major Grants program which supports growers to accelerate the implementation of activities that improve both on-farm productivity and the quality of water flowing from the region to theReef. He also relied on some help from a friend from up north.

It was only through the help thatI got from my mate up in Ingham, with phone calls and countless Facetimes: we could talk about different processes and methods.
He had a planter like mine, and I just went and took photos – they were happy to help me. And so I made my planter and away we went. My mate came down, we set it up, and the rest is history.
It’s not only that – I go up there every couple of months. I drive around and see what they do. I look at the cane they grow, I look at their ratoons.

In contrast, since mound planting is so much more efficient, some of Bill’s other gear has been gathering dust.

I’ve got six bits of gear here in the shed that I don’t even get out anymore since I don’t need to. I don’t need a weed rake anymore, I don’t need a cutaway anymore, I don’t need a machine to bust the centres up, I don’t need a roller.

Bill is keen to give credit where it’s due, so he will be the first to tell you he’s building on the work and ideas of others.

There’s a fair bit of research and work that’s gone into it before I did it, and now I’m just growing in confidence with it. These fellas … have been doing it for years and years and years. I just saw an idea and thought I’ll give it a go. I’m no pioneer.

A little knowledge goes a long way when it comes to water quality outcomes

Bill takes his responsibility to his community and environment seriously, dedicating his time as a CANEGROWERS Mackay Director, Deputy Chair of the Mackay Area Committee, and Chair of the organisation’s Environment and Sustainability committee.

His farm is SmartCane BMP accredited, and he encourages other farmers to make use of the tools, resources, and education available to them.

As growers, we’re not meant to know everything. We’re supposed to know a little bit about everything. And it’s pretty hard to retain all that sort of stuff.
So what it does is make you sit down and have a look at actually what you’re doing on your farm. It just makes you more aware of what you’re doing. It makes you start learning a little bit about chemical, water rates and droplet sizes, so it makes you read the label.

Bill is proud of the efforts that he and his peers make every day to make a positive contribution to water quality and environmental outcomes.

We’re all trying to do the right thing. I just think we get blamed for a lot, but the sugar industry is doing a lot. 40% of the cane production area in Queensland is now BMP accredited, so it’s not a bad effort. The farmers are getting behind it and it’s really good to see they’re supporting it now because it’s a good news story for us, for the industry.

It’s fair to say that when it comes to cane farming, Bill loves his work, and the way the industry is changing.

When it comes to cane farming, we need to be prepared to try different things to improve the way we manage our land.


  • Bill MacDonald, a seasoned cane grower, implemented mound planting and minimum tillage techniques, leading to increased production and improved moisture retention and weed management.
  • Collaboration with fellow farmers and funding support from the Reef Catchments Major Grants program facilitated the adoption of these techniques, allowing Bill to modify his existing equipment for the new approach.
  • By using mound planting, Bill reduced the need for various traditional farming equipment, leading to cost savings and more efficient farming practices.
  • Dedicated to environmental sustainability, Bill actively participates in various agricultural committees and promotes the use of resources and education available to farmers for better land management.
  • Bill's commitment to innovation in the sugar industry reflects the collective efforts of farmers to adopt best management practices, with a substantial portion of the farming area now accredited under the SmartCane BMP, signifying the industry's dedication to environmental stewardship.