Joint media release: Sweet victory for sugarcane growers

A unique pilot project involving more than 100 canegrowers in North Queensland has delivered a solution to reduce the amount of nitrates that end up in the Great Barrier Reef by at least 15 per cent.

The successful trial funded by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program (NESP) saw scientists and canegrowers working together across the Russell and Mulgrave river catchments south of Cairns to install hi-tech telemetry and water quality sensors close to their properties.

For the first time, farmers were able to access year-round and real time measurements of nitrate amounts in their creeks and rivers using a specially developed mobile phone app.

This showed that if landholders can hold back the first flush of Wet Season rain using the existing farm drainage network and let it settle for a few days, it can significantly reduce runoff into the reef.

Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley said giving growers access to real time data had helped to build trust and provide confidence when making on-farm decisions that support the environment.

“This is an example of farmers and scientists working closely together to improve ecosystem health, ensuring farmers are fully informed and can have faith in the data they are receiving,” Minister Ley said.

“Protecting our waterways means cleaner rivers, larger fish stocks, resilient marine life, healthier coral and stronger coastal tourism.

“To do this we need to work closely with growers and maintain their trust. The project has partnered with local farmers to design the program and carry out the research.

“Being able to accurately track and reduce dissolved inorganic nitrogen flowing onto the reef, and work closely with communities, is key to meeting our water quality targets under the Reef 2050 Plan.”

Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef and Federal Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch said the pilot showed how farmers were part of the solution to help the reef thrive.

“Projects like these are building relationships and goodwill between farmers and scientists, allowing landholders to be closely involved in planning discussions and scientific trials.

“Growers have been able to have a say about methods that are acceptable to improve water quality without having financial and practical repercussions on their farms and families.

“This study represents an inspiring commitment by canegrowers to do what they can to help the reef, and how positive these efforts continue to be for the environment, industry and local communities.”

North Queensland-based Senator for Queensland, Susan McDonald, who recently took part in a Senate Inquiry into farming effects on Great Barrier Reef waters, said the Morrison Government was leading the way in showing collaboration as the best way to achieve positive outcomes for all stakeholders.

“One of the glaring revelations in the Inquiry was the lack of on-farm engagement undertaken by the Queensland Labor Government when they drafted their anti-farming Reef regulations,” she said.

“This federal program is giving farmers the tools and information they need to make sound decisions on how they manage their land, but more importantly it shows them the results of their efforts.

“Farmers are the first to say that caring for the environment is a top priority, but they should be encouraged and helped by governments, not dictated to with harsh laws and endless paperwork.”

The project was funded by the Australian Government’s NESP Tropical Water Quality Hub through the Cairns-based Reef and Rainforest Research Centre (RRRC) and delivered by scientists from CSIRO and James Cook University.

SRA to build industry knowledge on interactions between on-farm practice and water quality in the Central Region

Sugarcane growers in the Mackay and Plane Creek areas of Central Queensland will have the opportunity to gain a clearer understanding of the complex relationship between farming systems and water quality, through a new project that is about to commence.

This new project is led by Sugar Research Australia (SRA) and is an addition to SRA’s work on the “Cane to Creek” series of projects, bringing this work to multiple sub-catchments in the Central Region.

Regional Coordinator for the Central Region, Phil Ross, said that the Mackay-Whitsunday Cane to Creek project would work closely with productivity services organisations, Farmacist, and growers on adaptive learning through demonstration sites.

“Through Cane to Creek in several other regions, SRA has worked hand-in-glove with growers to look at locally-specific issues that are relevant to them,” Mr Ross said.

“Growers are continually changing and improving practices to improve productivity, profitability, and sustainability. The industry also operates in a very complex system, which means we are always looking for new and practical information to help implement new practice.

“Through this project, we will be working with growers to better understand these various factors in their own local conditions.

“This will lead to increased adoption of improved practices that meet the goals of improving productivity, profitability and sustainability, including nutrient and pesticide management strategies that contribute to achieving the dissolved inorganic nitrogen and pesticide load reduction targets for the region.”

Mr Ross said that along with the work already underway in other regions, this project will provide a platform for growers, researchers and advisors to agree on and test potential solutions to better match nitrogen and herbicide application to their specific requirements.

The Mackay-Whitsunday Cane to Creek project is funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF), with support from SRA.

It will run over the next three years and will leverage decision support tools such as the SRA SIX EASY STEPS Toolbox and the forthcoming DAF Queensland Pesticide Selection Tool. In-field surveys of liquid imidacloprid applicators and sampling for imidacloprid in runoff water will also contribute to our understanding of this key chemical control for cane grubs.

“We will be working with growers on crop nutrition, pesticide stewardship and water quality science, as well as breaking down the barriers to bring science and industry to the same table.”

Sugarcane farm weeds to be targeted with robot to reduce herbicide use

A weed spraying robot which can detect and spray priority sugarcane weeds is being developed with a view to reducing herbicide use in North Queensland.

James Cook University is overseeing the development of the robot, in a bit to cut herbicide usage on cane farms in Great Barrier Reef catchment areas by at least 80 per cent.

The two-year project is a collaboration between JCU, Sugar Research Australia who will assess water quality improvements the technology promises, and AutoWeed, a start-up agricultural technology company developing smart spot spraying systems.

AutoWeed co-founder and engineer Jake Wood said the new system would use stored images of weeds to detect and spray them without hitting non-target crops.

“Extending our AutoWeed spot spraying technology to sugarcane requires significant new research and development.

“We aim to reduce knockdown herbicide usage on sugarcane farms by at least 80 per cent.

“This will incentivise water quality improvements in reef catchment areas by reducing weed management costs for farmers while also lowering the concentration of herbicides in runoff to support a healthy reef.”

In the first year of the project, hundreds of thousands of images of sugarcane farmers’ crops will be collected, labelled by a human expert, and fed into deep learning models to train the weed and crop detection system.

Every time the spraying system is used it will collect more data, so the deep learning models can further improve their performance over time.

The second year will focus on developing and trialling the herbicide delivery component of the project.

Mr Wood said their AutoWeed technology had previously targeted weeds in cattle farm pastures and broadacre crops, but sugarcane presents unique challenges.

“The project will use deep convolutional neural networks – the very same used by Facebook to detect faces and Google to optimise image searches – but it will be the first time it’s been applied to sugarcane,” he said.

JCU senior engineering lecturer Mostafa Rahimi Azghadi, who is leading the project, said the group was aiming to design, develop, and trial the spot spraying method and fit it to a 24-metre wide, high-rise, self-propelled boom.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation managing director Anna Marsden said poorer water quality caused by land-based runoff was a significant threat to the health of the reef.

“We know that there is a high calibre of work being undertaken by farmers and the agricultural community to safeguard the future of the reef, however, if we are to reach the targets set out by the reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan then we need to stimulate new ideas and out of the box solutions,” Ms Marsden said.

“This innovative project will add to the more than 60 Reef-saving projects we are delivering right now with over 65 project delivery partners.”

The two-year project started earlier this month and will run until August 2022.

It will be funded by a $400,000 grant through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation and the Australian Government’s Reef Trust.

AquaTill Demonstration

The Bundaberg AquaTill, how Bundaberg gets through cane trash!

The AquaTill demonstration implement is now ready for action and its ability to slice through cane trash has been proven.

In the 2020 harvest season the Landcare and SRA funded project will focus on proof of concept to:

1. Placement of product at the required depth. (Liquid insecticides to control cane grubs are required to be placed at 100mm below the soil surface and the application slot to be sealed).
2. Planting and growing a viable legume crop into cane trash with ZERO tillage.

If proven, the AquaTill will demonstrate to industry that there is technology available that has the potential to reduce input costs and maximise profitability, increase soil biology, reduce loss of fine sediment and reduce loss of pesticides to the environment and to effectively place pesticides.

SRA will keep you posted on its progress!

For more information please contact:James Ogden-Brown: SRA Southern Region Coordinator

Sclerotial Sett Rot Disease

SRA has published a new information sheet on our website on a recently identified disease of sugarcane – sclerotial sett rot (SSR).

SSR was first identified in 2016 at the SRA Woodford Pathology Farm on sugarcane setts sent for disease resistance screening trials. Up until now, it has not been reported anywhere else in the world. 

SSR affects sett germination and kills young plants, but it is unclear whether SSR is present in commercial sugarcane farming systems in Australia.

Information is currently being sought on whether SSR has been observed in commercial sugarcane crops in the Australian sugar industry.