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Fertiliser management effects on dissolved inorganic nitrogen in runoff from Australian sugarcane farms

Fraser, Grant, Rohde, Ken, Silburn, Mark
Environmental monitoring and assessment 2017 v.189 no.8 pp. 409
Acanthaster planci, data collection, dissolved inorganic nitrogen, farms, fertilizer rates, liquid fertilizers, models, nitrogen fertilizers, rain, risk, runoff, sugarcane, water balance, weather forecasting, wet season, Great Barrier Reef
Dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) movement from Australian sugarcane farms is believed to be a major cause of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks which have reduced the Great Barrier Reef coral cover by ~21% (1985–2012). We develop a daily model of DIN concentration in runoff based on >200 field monitored runoff events. Runoff DIN concentrations were related to nitrogen fertiliser application rates and decreased after application with time and cumulative rainfall. Runoff after liquid fertiliser applications had higher initial DIN concentrations, though these concentrations diminished more rapidly in comparison to granular fertiliser applications. The model was validated using an independent field dataset and provided reasonable estimates of runoff DIN concentrations based on a number of modelling efficiency score results. The runoff DIN concentration model was combined with a water balance cropping model to investigate temporal aspects of sugarcane fertiliser management. Nitrogen fertiliser application in December (start of wet season) had the highest risk of DIN movement, and this was further exacerbated in years with a climate forecast for ‘wet’ seasonal conditions. The potential utility of a climate forecasting system to predict forthcoming wet months and hence DIN loss risk is demonstrated. Earlier fertiliser application or reducing fertiliser application rates in seasons with a wet climate forecast may markedly reduce runoff DIN loads; however, it is recommended that these findings be tested at a broader scale.