Reducing nitrogen runoff without reducing industry productivity

Johanna Johnson
Led by: Dr Johanna Johnson, RRRC


Project Summary

Many NESP TWQ Hub projects have contributed to an improved understanding of nitrogen (N) management in sugarcane farming leading to reduced dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) losses via improved management advice and practical solutions. The synthesis project will bring together a range of approaches that are addressing mechanisms for reducing N-losses, with a particular focus on real-time water quality monitoring, detection of N- loss hot-spots, on-farm N management, reef credit trading and other economic levers that incentivise improved farm management practices.


Project Webinar – 3rd December 2020


Project Video



Project Publications
Synthesis Report
Fact Sheet


Project Description

Significant effort over the past decade has been directed at reducing nitrogen run-off to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) from catchments. A 60% reduction in anthropogenic end-of-catchment DIN loads by 2025 is a priority target of the Reef 2050 Water Quality Improvement Plan. The 2017-2018 Reef Report Card shows that despite this considerable investment, progress towards this target is limited. A wide range of projects, from subsidising new farm equipment to understanding psychology of behaviour, have been commissioned to engender on-farm practice change. Many of the initiatives are operating together in the same locations.

This synthesis project will draw on several TWQ Hub funded projects that have trialled on-farm nitrogen reduction activities, engaged farmers in real-time water quality monitoring at a catchment scale; and the economic implications for reduced nitrogen use by land managers. The synthesis will also include relevant information from other concurrent non-NESP studies, such as projects in other commodities and other research programs, e.g. Sugar Research Australia (SRA), for research outcomes that can strengthen the synthesis conclusions.


The objectives and outcomes of this project are to:

  • Synthesise the NESP TWQ Hub funded research that has informed nitrogen runoff reduction techniques for sustainable cane industry productivity;
  • Summarise practical information on the cost and effectiveness of practices, both economic and environmental; and
  • Provide a summary of future research and activities required for on-ground investment.

The synthesis project will have the capacity to draw together information from projects across the entire scope of the NESP TWQ Hub. Examination of findings and outcomes from other relevant initiatives will also be included. This may include the Major Integrated Project in the Wet Tropics, the Qld government’s RP20/RP161 programs and SRA projects. This project may, where identified as important, analyse existing data that makes a beneficial contribution to the synthesis, but won’t be collecting original data.


Outcomes from the following NESP TWQ Hub projects will inform the synthesis products:

  • Project 1.8: Sub-catchment scale monitoring, modelling and extension design to support reef water quality improvement.
  • Project 3.10: Benchmarking costs of NRM improvements for the GBR.
  • Project 2.1.7: Engaging with farmers and demonstrating water quality outcomes to create confidence in on-farm decision-making (Project 25).
  • Project 2.1.8 / Project 5.11: Improved water quality outcomes from on-farm nitrogen management.
  • Project 3.1.2: Improving water quality for the Great Barrier Reef and wetlands by better managing irrigation in the sugarcane farming system.
  • Project 3.1.6: Exploring trading in water quality credits as a cost-effective approach for managing water quality in the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Project 3.1.8: Exploring economic levers: a system for underwriting risk of practice change on cane-farming.
  • Project 4.8: ‘Project 25’ – farmers, water quality and on-farm decision-making.

This synthesis will make a significant contribution to the next Scientific Consensus Statement, of which nutrient management and reduction is a key component. It will also help inform investments in improved water quality required under the Reef Trust Partnership and this synthesis will be conducted in parallel with the Major Investment Project (MIP) being conducted in the Wet Tropics by Terrain NRM.


Key project deliverables:

  • Technical synthesis report;
  • Plain English summary for policy makers and managers;
  • Short video summarising the science and practical information aimed at enabling growers to assess implications of practice change; and
  • Workshop with end-users to deliver main synthesis conclusions and practical information.


NESP 2017 Research Priority Alignment

This project aligns with NESP 2017 Research Priority: Natural resource management improvements based on sound understanding of the status and long term trends of priority species and systems (Theme 2)

This project aligns with TWQ Hub 2018 Research Priority 3. Improving water quality emanating from catchments.


Project Keywords

Nitrogen; Runoff; Catchment; Sugarcane farming; Credits.


Project Funding

This project is jointly funded through JCU, GU, UQ, CQU, DES – OGBR and the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.


Project Publications