Reef health improving as farmers reduce fertiliser use

The need for draconian reef regulations being forced on the agricultural sector has been called into question following the release of a reef health report.

The Reef Water Quality Report Card 2019, released last week, shows dissolved inorganic nitrogen rates on the reef had dropped by more than 25 per cent since 2013.

Farmers in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions were the main contributors to water quality improvements in 2018-2019.

Queensland Environment and Great Barrier Reef Minister Meaghan Scanlon said improved farming practices, backed by federal and state government programs, had contributed to the result.

“The overall reduction in dissolved inorganic nitrogen, the reef’s highest risk marine pollutant, was 4.3 per cent in the 2018-2019 year alone,” Ms Scanlon said.

“The cumulative reduction of 25.5 per cent since 2013 is positive for the future of the reef.

“Sugar cane and banana growers in the Wet Tropics and Burdekin regions were the main contributors to 2018-2019 result with improvements in chemical fertiliser and irrigation use.

“Yet we must continue this trajectory.

“It has been pleasing to hear of increased compliance with 2019 reef protection laws which introduced chemical, erosion and other practice standards.”

But North Queensland-based Senator Susan McDonald used the results to slam the state government for ‘ramming through’ tougher reef regulations in 2019, saying the latest water quality results showed improvement had been happening for years.

“This drop in nitrogen runoff didn’t happen overnight, and it has to be pointed out that the results are from 2019, the same year Labor decided to ignore evidence and submissions from farming groups to make agriculture the scapegoat for reef water quality,” Ms McDonald said.

“This report is proof of what farmers had been saying all along: that they had been improving land use methods without the need for draconian new laws.”

Ms McDonald was instrumental in establishing a Senate Inquiry into the evidence used by the Queensland government to impose harsh water quality targets on cane and cattle farmers, which found runoff affected just 3 per cent of the total Great Barrier Reef area.

“We now have confirmation of what the Senate Inquiry found which was that the new laws wouldn’t have a significant impact on water quality because the work is already being done.

“The most recent legislative changes are now revealed as unnecessary overreach that ignored what farmers were saying.

“This report is compelling enough for the state Labor government to repeal the ridiculous new restrictions and trust that farmers are good custodians of the land and are quite capable of improving their practices without being demonised as reef killers.”https://83b9f3ad606347a11a04c5fc253a4a05.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Hinchinbrook MP Nick Dametto said the Burdekin and Wet Tropics regions recorded the largest increase in best practice nutrient management for sugar cane, up 6.3 per cent and 6.1 per cent respectively.

Mr Dametto said the report card showed the draconian reef regulations were not needed and said he was drafting a bill to have them repealed.

“Farmers are the real environmentalists when it comes to looking after the land,” Mr Dametto said.

“They don’t need Brisbane bureaucrats breathing down their necks like Big Brother telling them what they can or can’t do.”

Farmers say environment minister’s Great Barrier Reef claim is 10 million times wrong

QUEENSLAND farmers say Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch has again made the fake claim that 10.5 million tonnes of nitrogen is flooding into Great Barrier Reef receiving waters each year as a result of fertiliser used on farms.

Bundaberg Canegrowers manager Dale Holliss said the fake claim was also made in September 2019, just days before the Palaszczuk government pushed through the Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Act.

“We believe the minister, speaking on ABC’s Country Hour program, meant to say she believed 10,500 tonnes of nitrogen entered the GBR inshore reef catchments each year, but instead said 10.5 million tonnes,” Mr Hollis said.

“It has suited her to push the reef regulations onto farmers based on unchecked science, and on this 10 million tonne figure she knows to be blatantly untrue.

“To support ongoing misinformation being used to demonise Australian farmers is indefensible.”

The push back by farmers against the Palaszczuk government comes as a two day Senate inquiry into reef regulations begins in Brisbane on Monday (July 27).

To support ongoing misinformation being used to demonise Australian farmers is indefensible.– Dale Hollis, Bundaberg Canegrowers

The latest call for Ms Enoch to come clean on fake figure also follows a furore this week where the Palaszczuk government attempted to initiate one of the controversial clauses in the new reef regulations laws.

“This clause has given the State Government the power to acquire from anyone who works with or for farmers, records about farm businesses,” said Mr Hollis, who also is a director of the National Irrigators Council and holds a Masters of Science in Environmental Management.

“When questioned by the media, it immediately backflipped and withdrew a tender process designed to put the newly acquired power into action.

“The Reef Regulations Amendment Act 2019 delivers regulation by stealth, with a lack of parliamentary scrutiny built in and powers given instead to unelected bureaucrats and the executive.

“This is a very dangerous power the government has given itself, from the perspective of all Queenslanders.”

Fact check

Bundaberg Canegrowers executive officer Tanya Howard said detailed research proved Ms Enoch’s 10.5 million tonne claim could not be substantiated.

Bundaberg Canegrowers executive officer Tanya Howard says Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch cannot substantiate her 10.5 million tonne claim.

 Bundaberg Canegrowers executive officer Tanya Howard says Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch cannot substantiate her 10.5 million tonne claim.

“The total sales of nitrogen in Queensland as determined by Fertiliser Australia in 2017 was 187,414 tonnes, and this includes nitrogen used in grain and cotton cropping which are not significant players in the reef catchments,” Ms Howard said.

“This is more than 10 million tonnes away from the minister’s allegation that 10.5mt of nitrogen are flowing into waters that enter the fringes of the Great Barrier Reef.

Fertiliser Australia records for all fertiliser products used in Queensland in 2017 totalled less than 1mt.

“In addition, it has been made clear any reach would be limited to the tiny inshore reefs, which make up around one per cent of the 344,000 sq km of the Great Barrier Reef.

“To put some perspective on the amount of nitrogen fertiliser found in the waters of the inshore reefs of the GBR, 10,500t would equate to the weight of 5c to 10c piece in an Olympic swimming pool. It is so miniscule as to be almost untraceable.”

Ms Howard also pointed out that cane farms, strongly targeted by Labor over the issue of alleged fertiliser run-off, are on the wane.

“Australian Sugar Milling Council figures shows that in 2014 there was 363,339ha of cane harvested in Queensland, but by 2019 this has dropped by 13,257ha,” she said.

“This is just yet another sign of the Australian farmers who are putting 88pc of all food and drink on every table across the nation being pushed to the wall by the rising tide of unwarranted red tape. It has to stop now.”

Petition

Bundaberg Canegrowers is part of a consortium of farmer groups running a petition under the banner of #farmersfeedus. It wants the Queensland Government to revoke the 2019 Reef Regulations Amendment Act and establish an Office of Science Quality Assurance to check the science being used to make political decisions.

The petition, launched in State Parliament just last month, has already gained almost 5000 signatures from voters across urban and regional areas.

Soil Health Key to Reducing Fertiliser Rates

Ask cane grower Robert Bonassi how he’s slashed fertiliser rates without affecting yield and he has two words – soil health.

The third-generation farmer is focused on fallow crops, mill by-products and soil tests in his transition to cane that is less reliant on artificial fertilisers, and he says the journey has been both challenging and rewarding.

Mr Bonassi is one of 39 Wet Tropics growers to take advantage of the Australian Government’s Reef Trust IV tender program, delivered through the Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership. The program is helping to finance changes reducing fertiliser use on these farms, and potentially other farms in the future.

The Ingham grower cut his fertiliser rates by up to 20 per cent over four years – moving from 160kg of nitrogen per hectare to 120 – 130kg for plant cane and 145kg for ratoons.

He said the take-home message was simple – you need to maintain healthy soils.

“I’ve learned you can’t drop the ball – you’ve got to keep the soil healthy when you’re reducing nitrogen and phosphorous,’’ he said.

“We’d always taken soil samples but now we target every block we fallow on a yearly basis.”

The Bonassi family grows cane on 180 hectares over four parcels of land, with 25 of those hectares under fallow crops at any given time. They moved to mounded rows and zonal tillage to solve waterlogging issues in the wet season, manufactured a zonal ripper and mounder, and bought a bean planter last year.

soil health

They are also sold on mill mud and mill ash for its nutrient and soil conditioner properties.

“We apply sub-surface mill mud and ash in the fallows. Slowly, slowly it is building our soils up and helping us with reducing our fertilisers,” Robert said.

“Living 35km from the mill we needed to think about ways to reduce costs, so we get it bulk-delivered and we bought our own spreader. Now we can control the rate. We spread zonally at the end of every year, using about 80 tonnes to a hectare. We can target where we put it depending on the state of the ground.

“Within five years we’ll have gone across the whole farm with 80 to 100 tonnes per hectare of mud and ash and we should start seeing results. Then we’ll look at halving that and see if we can still meet the nitrogen levels.”

He said the regular soil tests also helped to maintain calcium and magnesium levels, with lime applied when needed.

“At this stage we’re not saving money but our yield hasn’t been affected and overall it feels like we are getting there,’’ he said.
“This is something I’ve always wanted to do – get the soils back up.”

His farm is 6km from the ocean “as the crow flies”. Two of the parcels of land have three creeks running through them and one shares a boundary with national park land.

The Bonassis constructed silt ponds a decade or so ago with the help of another Federal Government Reef grant and most of their drains run into them. They have spoon and grassed drains to slow the flow of water off the paddock.

“It’s all about getting a good balance – good returns on the soil while minimising run-off to the very best of our ability,’’ he said.

“I always remember visiting an older farmer on a trip in my late 20s as part of a Young Farmers group. That was more than 25 years ago and he had already moved to 1.8m rows. He told us if you’re making changes, give it 110 per cent. That’s what I do now. What worked well last year doesn’t always work well this year, so it keeps you on your toes.”

Wet Tropics Sugar Industry Partnership extension officer Jarrod Sartor said incremental change was the way forward for growers.

“An important message when reducing fertiliser is not to drop it by too much too quickly or without fixing other constraints, or you risk losing productivity,’’ he said. “By regular soil testing, ameliorating with mill by-products and lime and using legumes as a break crop, you can constantly improve the soil to better use the fertiliser being placed.”