In a world first, sugarcane farmers in far north Queensland have a new app by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, that will help them manage fertiliser use and reduce nitrogen runoff onto the Great Barrier Reef.
Currently there’s no way sugarcane growers can tell whether fertiliser has runoff from their farm but the free app, named 1622WQ, shows the concentration of nitrogen in local waterways in real time.
It means that, for the first time, they will have easy access to water quality information and can relate their management practices to water quality in local waterways, for example immediately after it’s rained.
When rainfall washes nitrogen fertiliser into waterways, it both wastes farmers’ money and becomes a major threat to the health of Great Barrier Reef ecosystems.
CSIRO agricultural scientist and 1622WQ project leader Dr Peter Thorburn said the new app was co-designed with farmers to meet their needs.
“Sugarcane growers told us they wanted quick and easy access to water quality information, so they could find out what’s going on with their crops and make better decisions,” Dr Thorburn said.
“Although an app can appear simple, the smarts behind it are anything but. The chain of information between the water quality sensors in local waterways and what you see on your phone is complex and requires substantial innovation along the way.”
The app shows data on nitrate concentrations from high frequency automatic sensors deployed in selected coastal catchments.
It uses CSIRO’s advanced data analytics and state-of-the-art deep learning not available in other data delivery systems.
It also shows rainfall so farmers easily see how the weather is affecting local water quality.
Stephen Calcagno is a sugarcane grower and Chairman in the Cairns Region of the peak body, CANEGROWERS. He’s started using the app.
“This will be a great tool for farmers to see the impact of their farm management and help them improve their practises and the environment,” Mr Calcagno said.
“I look forward to seeing what happens over the coming wet season.”
CSIRO Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley said the app brought together decades of agricultural expertise and close industry relationships with advanced digital technologies.
“We’ve paired our deep domain expertise in agriculture with digital technology to provide a solution for farmers who want to remain efficient and competitive while also reducing their impact on the environment,” Dr Foley said.
“Solving complex challenges like protecting the Great Barrier Reef require deep innovation, but it’s also important that the end result is a simple and intuitive product like this app, that farmers can seamlessly integrate into their business.”
New ways to predict water quality in the days or weeks ahead based on artificial intelligence, something that’s never been done before, are in the pipeline.
CSIRO is also building other aspects of importance to sugarcane growers into a suite of 1622 apps, such as fine-tuning which parts of a crop might need more or less fertiliser, and comparing different fertiliser application rates on crop performance and environmental impact before they even plant.
The name 1622 comes from the height of Queensland’s tallest mountain, which is in the area where the initial app development work took place. WQ is for water quality.
“Sugarcane is the first farming system we’ve looked at, but we could deploy it in any area where real time water quality data could help inform agricultural practices,” Dr Thorburn said.