2018 Ambassador Network Conference in review

30 August, 2018

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It was a gathering like no other, as 80 growers from across the Australian cotton industry converged for the 2018 CSD Ambassador Network Conference. Held over the two days prior to the Cotton Conference, the Ambassador Network Conference was a meeting of the minds as dryland and irrigated growers reviewed and assessed the 2017/18 season, as well as four years of data from the Ambassador Network.

On day one, the CSD Extension and Development agronomists took the growers through an analysis of the season, breaking it into dryland and irrigated systems, and each key growth stage. Establishment discussions focussed around rotations and planter set-up. The broad range of planters used by the Ambassadors highlighted the fact that well-maintained older equipment can still be just as effective as the newest technologies, however almost half of the Ambassadors had updated their planters in the last few years. Planting date for dryland cotton was a hot issue – most Ambassadors agreed that they plant when they get the opportunity, but some will hold off for a late plant to avoid flowering in the heat of January. The Ambassador Network data has shown this to have the better outcome, particularly in the last two years.

First flower posed some interesting discussion around managing retentions, particularly in irrigated systems. While a few Ambassadors agreed that they would be happy with lower retentions at first flower as long as they had good plant architecture, most aim to hold as much fruit as possible early, particularly in the shorter season regions. The cut-out data in dryland crops highlighted the importance of planting date and variety choice, with the later crops being more water use efficient through February when compared with January, and the Sicot 748B3F dryland crops growing on after this rain performing well.

The Ambassadors had a lengthy discussion around nutrition, with an array of different application methods and products used throughout the network. The split of Nitrogen applied up-front and in-crop varied, primarily in accordance with the Ambassadors’ farming system and their ability to apply product. A couple of Ambassadors are using biosolids and chicken manure in their nutrition programs, which sparked interest around the room. The general consensus around Phosphorus was that most growers now needed to apply P in some form, and this is increasing.

Day two of the Ambassador Network Conference featured a number of guest speakers. CSD’s partnership with CSIRO in the Genetics x Environment x Management (GxExM) Project was the focus for the morning. Dr Tim Weaver explained how CSIRO have taken the four years of Ambassador Network data and undertaken analysis and modelling. Tim explained that the project is focussing on analysing the variables that most impact on yield, with the aim of modelling these regionally – even to a field by variety level. While some of the key variables coming out of the data seemed obvious, such as nodes to first fruiting branch at first flower, and boll number and weight at the end of the season, the Ambassadors turned the discussion to what can be done to manage for these key parameters. Of particular interest was the water use efficiency data – growers in the south posed the question of how are some exceptional dryland yields being achieved on the Downs, whereas applying 11ML may only produce 12 bales/ha? What can the data tell us about improving water use efficiency in the future?

About halfway through Dr Kavina Dayal of CSIRO’s presentation, the room of Ambassadors seemed to lean forward. Kavina’s work using Machine Learning sounded daunting and high level at first, but the Ambassadors quickly grasped just how powerful statistical analysis with super computers could be to the industry. The concept of Machine Learning is of prediction – the computer learns the relationships between the data sets and applies it to future work. Kavina explained that with all of the 230 variables collected at each Ambassador site thrown in the mix, the Machine Learning can tell us which are contributing the most to yield. Not only can it tell us this, but the relationships can be applied to models that are coupled with forecasts to predict yield at different points throughout the season. While other models are generally based on averages, the Ambassador data looks at actual crop physiology.

The rest of day two allowed the Ambassadors to split into two smaller groups and hear from, as well as ask questions of Jon Welsh (AgEcon), Dr Warren Conaty (CSIRO) and Tom Luff (Monsanto). Jon provided a refresher on which climate models to focus on at which times of the year, and what the outlook is for the coming season. He provided some optimism, indicating that models are signifying a higher chance of medium rainfall, but a decoupling of ocean and atmosphere are making it very hard to predict.

Given the extreme heat of the past two seasons, Ambassadors were keen to hear from Warren Conaty on his heat stress and plant physiology work. Warren explained the difficulties associated with the dryland breeding program – the program experiences the same tough years as everyone else and essentially loses a year of data, so watering up is necessary. Discussions focussed around keeping the plant cool during these very hot seasons and managing irrigations to do so.

Tom Luff opened the floor for questions on the XtendFlexTM system and how the Ambassador growers see it fitting into their farming system, as well as challenges they expect. Tom provided learnings and insights from the US experience and how the Australian cotton industry can improve on this. Conversation quickly shifted to the spray drift issue and all were in agreeance that this is an ongoing and complex issue that can’t be solved only with a product.

The aim of the CSD Ambassador Network program is to boost the identification, extension and adoption of crop growth and management practices which assist the delivery of CSD’s strategic plan goal of increasing cotton lint yields by two bales per hectare by 2020. The learnings from the Ambassador Network are for the benefit of the entire Australian cotton industry, and the 2017/18 key learnings and season summary can be found at www.csd.net.au/resources