Regional scale application of the precision agriculture thought process to promote improved fertilizer management in the Australian sugar industry
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Nitrogen (N) fertilizer management in the Australian sugar industry is guided by the ‘SIX EASY STEPS’ (6ES) advisory program, for which the potential yield and amount of N that is potentially mineralizable from the soil are key input parameters; the latter is estimated from soil carbon (C) content. Whilst 6ES is not prescriptive about the scale at which it is used to deliver advice to sugarcane growers, common practice is to use the ‘district yield potential’ (DYP) to guide N fertilizer recommendations at the farm and block scales. Analysis of yield variation at the block scale, using sugar mill records over 7 seasons (2009–2015) from the Herbert River district, showed yield to be markedly spatially variable, with the patterns of this variation stable across seasons and crop class. Accordingly, DYP is sub-optimal as an input to 6ES. A block yield potential (BYP), derived from a map of the estimated maximum block-scale yield of first ratoon cane achieved over the 7 seasons, is suggested as a better alternative which can be readily updated as more data become available. Further refinement of the application of 6ES is possible with access to soil C data, derived from either regional soil survey or local soil testing. The present study suggests that use of BYP rather than DYP could lead to a total annual reduction in N applied of approximately 1700 t N over the Herbert River district without negatively impacting yield. Whilst the value of this to growers (A$23/ha) is a minimal proportion of the costs of production, a reduction in the risk of N loss to receiving waters of this magnitude could be of significant benefit to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. Since data similar to those used here are collected by all sugar mills, similar analyses could be conducted in other sugarcane growing areas. The approach may also be of value in other cropping systems which use central points of delivery (e.g., grain silos).
KeywordsDistrict yield potential Block yield potential Sugarcane Spatial analysis
This work was jointly funded by CSIRO, Herbert Cane Productivity Services Ltd (HCPSL), Sugar Research Australia Ltd (SRA) and the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection through SRA Project No. 2015_070. However, it was made possible by the willingness of Wilmar Sugar Pty Ltd to make the mill records that underpin the study available. We are also grateful to Wilmar for providing access to the data which enabled generation of Fig. 2a. In addition, we thank Lawrence Di Bella, Michael Sefton and Rod Nielson (HCPSL) for their support and assistance in the work. Tony Webster and Roger Lawes (CSIRO) kindly made helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
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