Helping sugarcane farmers protect the Great Barrier Reef

StarfishProject vision: to help protect the Great Barrier Reef by enabling upstream sugarcane growers make better nitrogen fertiliser decisions

Nitrogen losses from sugarcane cropping are a major threat to the Great Barrier Reef’s health, and optimising nitrogen fertiliser management will reduce these losses. Despite substantial investment in improving agricultural management practices, the improvement in water quality is not yet on track to meet ecological targets for protecting the health of the Reef’s ecosystems. A new approach is needed.

We’re developing a suite of apps called 1622™, which combine data from diverse sources to help sugarcane farmers optimise their crop management, reduce nitrogen losses and help protect the Reef. For the first time, farmers will have real-time information on key factors for growing sugarcane.

Digiscape Postdoctoral fellow, Dr Yuri Shendryk, and the team in a cane field near Cairns

Dr Yuri Shendryk

Water quality: The 1622™WQ app displays nitrogen losses at multiple sites within an agricultural catchment. Growers can see information over a defined time period and can compare multiple locations within a catchment. It allows farmers to see, for example, the influence of recent rainfall on water quality, how water quality differs between locations, or whether management actions such as recent fertilising has affected nitrogen losses. They can also see other aspects of water quality, like creek height and turbidity.

Weather: Crop growth, crop management and water quality are driven by weather. The 1622™ app displays data from both existing Bureau of Meteorology weather stations and local on-farm weather stations to provide a more accurate picture on rainfall variability. The platform also shows the seasonal climate outlook to help farmers plan ahead.

Sugarcane farmers in the wet tropics region of north Queensland are already using the water quality and weather features of the 1622™WQ app, which was launched in Cairns in January 2020.

Other 1622™ apps still in development are:

Crops: Our drone-based LiDAR system is helping farmers use less nitrogen-based fertiliser without affecting their profits. The app shows information on sugarcane crop growth from a range of data sources including satellite and drone imagery, and crop modelling. Information is available through the growing season, so farmers can compare different management strategies in real time through the season.

A colourful image of sugarcane

See what the LiDAR sees: sugarcane fields surround a group of farmers in Tully, Qld.

What if?: The ‘What if?’ function of 1622™ allows farmers to evaluate the risks and benefits of changing nitrogen fertiliser applications on crop performance and environmental impact. For example, ‘what if I change my fertiliser rate, harvest date and/or fertilising date and how would that affect my crop yields and nitrogen losses?’

When complete, the app will bring together information on sugarcane production and environmental performance to help farmers:

  • evaluate their crop management
  • facilitate better decisions and
  • help them protect the Great Barrier Reef.

Acknowledgements: Some data used by 1622™ are sourced from the Queensland Government, Bureau of Meteorology, and NESP project 2.1.7. UAV features developed in conjunction with Hovermap.

For more information, see our media release and follow us on Twitter using #1622app.

This project is led by Dr Peter Thorburn.