Reef Trust Tenders – Burdekin project
Sugarcane growers commit to using less nitrogen… without sacrificing the quality or quantity of their crop
Pilot Round Results (2016-2018):
Tonnes urea saved:
Tonnes nitrogen saved:
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Growers in the project
Less fertiliser a win for farmers… and for the Great Barrier Reef
An innovative project has supported Burdekin cane growers to dramatically reduce fertiliser use whilst maintaining yield.
Between 2016 and 2018, the Reef Trust Tender – Burdekin (pilot project) resulted in 702 tonnes less nitrogen (N) being applied to 16 farms, covering a total area of 5,890 hectares.
This represents on average a 20 per cent reduction in fertiliser applied and cost savings to growers of $46/ha per year.
An additional 35 growers were contracted to make N reductions during 2017-2022 in the Repeated Tenders.
Natural Resource Management group NQ Dry Tropics delivered the $3.1 million pilot project, funded by the Australian Government and delivered through the Reef Trust.
In 2017, following one year of successes in the pilot round, a further $7.1 million was invested in three rounds of the Reef Trust Repeated Tenders.
An additional 35 growers were contracted to make a further 757 tonnes of N reductions during the 2017-2022 period.
Under the project, growers proposed trialling ways to reduce fertiliser use, and put a price on the cost of making the change.
Trials included matching fertiliser inputs to crop requirements and using technology to only apply fertiliser precisely where it was needed.
Participating growers received grant payments to mitigate the perceived risk of lower cane yields from reducing nitrogen application rates.
A number of market-based competitive tenders (reverse auctions) were used to allocate funds to bidders offering the best value for money projects across a number of years.
Reducing nitrogen application helps to minimise the risk of Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (DIN) from entering waterways and impacting the Great Barrier Reef.
A high level of DIN in water has been linked to outbreaks of crown of thorns starfish on the reef, and provides ideal conditions for weeds to thrive in rivers and wetlands, which reduces habitat for native fish and migratory birds.
Farmers such as Eric Barbagallo and Jim Richardson, who participated in the pilot round, had the flexibility to determine which practice changes to implement on their farm to improve nitrogen management.
The project provided them with a great opportunity to increase farm sustainability, reduce costs, and refine their nitrogen use.
Eric reduced his rates below the SIX EASY STEPS regulated rate.
“It doesn’t matter that you’re being paid to trial new practices if your yield declines, because you’re just going to lose more money,” he said.
“SIX EASY STEPS is fine if you follow Best Management Practice. You’ll grow cane as long as your irrigation schedule, weed management and fertiliser placement is managed – you won’t lose yield.”
NQ Dry Tropics Project Officer Shakira Todd said Eric was an easy grower to work with.
“He provided accurate and organised data for analysis,” she said.
“It can be challenging refining fertiliser rates when other factors such as seasonal variability can significantly impact yield.
“Eric said he would continue to refine his fertiliser application in years following the project to optimise nutrient use efficiency.”
During the 2016-2018 seasons, Eric reduced the amount of N by 13 tonnes, equivalent to 28 tonnes of urea, a cost saving of more than $16,000.
This represents a significant cost saving, and all inputs impact profit.
Even at $600 per tonne of urea the savings stack up, but as Eric points out it’s not all about the money if results are achieved.
“As farmers we’re environmentalists, that’s the best way to describe us,” he said.
“It’s about the environment, but if you save money as a farmer it’s a win-win. That’s the way I did it anyway.”
Jim Richardson, 74, who’s been farming since the 1970s, had concerns about yield decline when the government began to regulate fertiliser application to 240kg N/ha.
He joined some of the early trials and was surprised by the results.
“Where I used my original heavy rates of nitrogen it showed that the extra nitrogen may as well have been dumped on the road somewhere. There was no difference,” he said.
“In fact, in some blocks, the heavy rates were actually producing less sugar.”
As an experienced Project Officer, Shakira feels Jim’s involvement in the project shows that age is no barrier to change.
“The project supported Jim to make significant changes to his farming practices, and the confidence that any risks were being well-managed so there would be no negative financial impact,” she said.
Jim saved eight tonnes of N during the 2016-2018 fertilising seasons, with savings of approximately $9,808.
In 2018, the average rate for Jim’s farm was 160kg N/ha.
“That was a big reduction even on what I was using before,” he said.
“We cut it down previously, following SIX EASY STEPS and now, even further, without any effect on our crop, because with everything considered, we’ve increased our production.”
Shakira said growers had been able to reduce their rates on average by 35kg N/ha, with one grower achieving a 56kg N/ha reduction.
“Growers were able to apply nutrient at the regulated rate using the SIX EASY STEPS methodology, and further refine nutrient applications by implementing a detailed nutrient management plan and improving farming practices,” she said.
“This included discounting nutrient rates for existing fallow legume crops, matching nutrient rates to block yield potential, GPS for precision vehicle control, and enhanced efficiency fertilisers.
“The results suggest that previously, growers were applying N at rates above and beyond what the crop could utilise.”
Shakira said she was proud to be involved with the project and was looking forward to seeing results of the repeated tenders.
“The project aims to build on the success of the pilot round where a number of farmers benefited from reducing their input costs and maintaining productivity through whole-of-farm nutrient plans. This has been validated in the data,” she said.
“During the first three years of the repeated tenders, we have seen additional reductions, where growers applied even less N than they proposed in their competitive bid.”
As a result, expected outcomes for the repeated tenders will be almost double the reduction for which growers will be paid:
Tonnes urea saved:
Tonnes nitrogen saved: