FINDING new opportunities, meeting challenges and embracing future technologies were the key themes at this year’s fertiliser industry conference on the Gold Coast.
Fertilizer Australia’s annual conference attracted 200 delegates from across Australia with a diverse speaker program followed by a field tour to explore the ‘More Profit from Nitrogen’ project, which is focusing on improving nitrogen use efficiency in intensive cropping and pasture systems.
Major sponsor of the conference, Incitec Pivot Fertilisers, was celebrating its 100-year anniversary, although president Stephan Titze was focused on the future and encouraging the industry to become ‘greener’.
He said there was no doubt climate impacts were increasing and recalled the major drought and flood events of 2019.
He added that the public perception of agriculture was also challenging the status quo, with consumers expecting cleaner and greener food.
“We need to do all we can to encourage better use of nutrients on the farm,” he said.
“We must encourage the use of new technologies like ENTEC that help growers minimise nutrient losses and be more sustainable with their fertiliser use.
“But what an industry to be involved in, with the Australian government backing a vision for a $100 billion agriculture industry by 2030!”
New opportunities and outlook
Among the new opportunities discussed at the conference was an update on the progress of new cotton growing developments across northern Australia.
CSIRO principal research scientist, Stephen Yeates, is working across tropical Australia with cotton investors and other research organisations to assist in the development of sustainable cotton farming systems.
Dr Yeates said cotton growing was expanding rapidly in the Ord River irrigation area, the Daly and Katherine Basin in the Northern Territory and in the Gilbert and Flinders catchments in Queensland.
Up to 15,000 hectares of cotton is intended to be planted across northern Australia in 2020.
“Cotton is a high value commodity, it is well adapted to the climate and cotton seed is valuable to the local livestock industry,” he said.
“In terms of how to grow the crop, we have had to throw away the southern rule book – it is completely different.”
Dr Yeates said the majority of soils for tropical cotton crops were inherently low in fertility and would require high nutrient inputs.
Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries principal pasture agronomist, Gavin Peck, gave the fertiliser industry plenty to think about with his presentation on productivity opportunities in the beef cattle industry.
He said the largest area of sown pastures in Queensland was in the Brigalow Belt, which supported 30 per cent of the northern Australian beef herd.
“Productivity was high in the Brigalow Belt post-clearing, but that has declined over time due to decreased nitrogen and phosphorus availability,” he said.
Mr Peck said adding legumes such as Leucaena, Caatinga stylo or Desmanthus to the pasture was a cost-effective management option for providing nitrogen back to the pasture and supporting better growth.
He said low soil phosphorus levels were common in the region, and although some legumes could persist with low phosphorus levels, the legumes suited to the Brigalow Belt showed better productivity and persistence with applied fertiliser.
“There’s potential for a significant fertiliser market here, with millions of hectares of low phosphorus soils and fewer than five per cent of producers adopting legumes or maintenance phosphorus fertiliser rates, but it will require a major change in attitude first.”
Western Australia Department of Water and Environmental Regulation Aquatic Science manager, Malcolm Robb, outlined the long history of water quality decline in south west WA, including in the Peel-Harvey catchment.
He said the agricultural component of pollution entering these estuaries had been established as significant, and in response, regional groups and partnerships had been established to work closely with farmers to optimise fertiliser use to agronomic need.
“Western Australian farmers always tell me WA is different, and we do have exceedingly low phosphorus retention soils and issues with high groundwater levels in winter,” he said.
They are taking a partnership approach with regional groups to optimise fertiliser use at the individual farm level.
“We’ve established lots of trials and have found that people really enjoy working together to come up with solutions, especially when it involves technology like drones, near infrared and X-ray fluorescence equipment,” he said.
“If we continue to be able to optimise fertiliser use this way, we may be able to avoid a regulatory pathway.”
One example of this is the uPtake project which is supported by the fertiliser industry through a technical reference group. The project was established this year and will include at least 36 trials across the South West.
Queensland Department of Environment and Science Office of the Great Barrier Reef director of reef policy, Louise Smyth, gave an overview of the threats to the Great Barrier Reef and proposed regulations.
She said while climate change was one of the biggest threats to the Great Barrier Reef longer term, sediment and nutrient run off from agriculture remained a major water quality threat, particularly for inner areas of the reef.
“We have been operating under a water quality improvement plan, with a suite of initiatives to improve water quality and while we’ve had a lot of amazing people doing great things, we won’t meet our 2025 water quality targets so the Queensland Government has decided to regulate in this space,” she said.
There will be a staged roll out of the new regulations, with sugar cane, grazing and banana industries first. Nutrient management plans and record keeping will be key components.
“There will also be a range of incentive programs, including a rebate of up to $1000 for growers to get advice from an Accredited Agricultural Adviser to assist them in their transition to compliance with the new regulations,” she said.
Agronomists already recognised as Fertcare accredited advisers will be able to take advantage of their status to quickly become accredited agricultural advisers.
Delegates at the conference heard an update on Soil CRC projects from its chief executive officer, Michael Crawford.
Dr Crawford shared progress on aspirational and ambitious projects involving the development of the smart shovel, rapid field-based soil testing using 3D printed chips and an electronic nose. Another project is looking at developing innovative techniques for recovering nutrients from organic waste streams.
Decipher Agtech technical sales specialist, Peter Brick, presented a compelling argument for using soil testing to improve productivity and profitability.
He said while there were many barriers to using soil testing, large gains were possible when it was done well and there are now products like Decipher to help make it easier.
“Farmers will continue to struggle to manage variability and the adoption of precision agriculture will not increase unless soil sampling is completed correctly,” he said.
Mr Brick encouraged agronomists to be aware of the purpose of the soil testing and use the tools available to them to select representative areas to sample, such as the Fertcare sampling guide, yield maps or NDVI maps.
“It’s time to add technology to your business now. Just get started!”
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