Cane Trials Over-Achieve Targets

TONS OF GOOD NEWS FOR THE REEF

6 OCTOBER 2022

38 cane growers have collectively reduced their use of nitrogen by over 1000 tons, overachieving their target by more than 15 per cent as part of a four-year program aimed at reducing nitrogen losses to the Great Barrier Reef.

The 38 growers from across the Wet Tropics took part in the Australian Government’s Reef Trust Repeated Tenders Program. The program supported sugarcane growers to trial land management practices that would enable them to reduce their nitrogen fertiliser application rates without impacting yield. Funding was allocated through a competitive tender process to growers offering best value for money.

The growers implemented and trialled a wide range of practices from building soil health with cover crops, biological fertilisers, compost, and soil ameliorants through to controlled traffic farming utilising GPS and soil mapping to closely match fertiliser inputs to crop requirements.

Trevor Parker, Project Coordinator at Terrain NRM, said the success of the Repeated Tenders program in reducing nitrogen use was due to growers being given the choice to trial practices and nitrogen application rates they considered most appropriate for their farms.

“Farmers are running business enterprises, so they need evidence before they make practice changes, and they also need the flexibility to decide what’s right for their particular farm” he said.

“The results from these trials are helping the industry to build knowledge about reducing N rates in different situations, which also helps growers save money. Collectively this group saved a total of approximately $1.3M through this program, which is a big saving.”

Greg Shannon, Cane and Productivity Manager at Tully Sugar Ltd, said that taking part in the project enabled the company to trial three organic-based biological products and soil ameliorants.

“We agreed to reduce our nitrogen rates by 15 kg N/ha on average using the SIX EASY STEPS best practice nutrient management toolbox. The results showed that yields were not affected by the reduced N inputs when coupled with the use of soil ameliorants. We think we can also reduce our N rates below 80 kg N/ha on fallow plant cane if we get a decent cover crop,” he said.

“There is always some risk involved with implementing new practices, so this program was an opportunity to trial ways to overcome the challenge of reducing N rates, while maintaining yields, and sharing lessons learnt with others so the whole industry can benefit.

“We were able to determine the ‘sweet spot’ for our N rates and the trials gave us the confidence to discount plant cane N rates on other farms we manage, when appropriate.”

Stewart Christie, Terrain NRM’s CEO said the Repeated Tenders program was popular with participants because it enabled growers to choose their own practice changes to suit individual farm conditions.

“The great thing about this project is that the Australian Government invested $4.7 million into backing growers to put their own ideas into practice. Farmers are natural problem solvers, so they have an important contribution to make in terms of finding solutions to poor water quality,” he said.

“The only way we will meet the Great Barrier Reef water quality improvement targets is through consistent long-term investment programs, which encourage new ideas and innovation, and shares the risk with farmers. This provides certainty, maintains momentum, and will enable us to accelerate progress towards the reef water quality improvement targets.”

Paula Perrett, Branch Head of Reef Policy and International Heritage at the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water said reducing nitrogen runoff was vital for improving the quality of water flowing to the Reef.

“We are proud to support projects like this through the Reef Trust because it demonstrates the great work farmers are doing to trial land management practices that help reduce nitrogen runoff,” she said.

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