The sugarcane industry targets to raise yield by 2024 to 75 metric tons (MT) per hectare, up by 27%, as it taps Australian-inspired irrigation and sensor technology amid climate change challenges.
The sugar sector can further increase its present P87 billion contribution to the economy by augmenting application of irrigation, according to Armando N. Espino Jr., Water Resources Management Center (WRMC) head.
In a seminar series hosted by the Southeast Asian Regional Center Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), Espino said irrigation will be a major key to raising sugar productivity.
"Water is a major limiting factor for productivity (especially) in changing climatic conditions and weather patterns. The industry expansion depends upon efficient water use," said Espino in the SEARCA seminar.
The project of WRMC (of the Central Luzon State University) installed an automatic weather station (AWS) at the Luzon Agricultural Research and Extension Center (LAREC) of the Sugar Regulatory Administration in Floridablanca, Pampanga.
The project is under the Smart Water Management Strategies for Sugarcane (SWMS) financed by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and natural Resources Research and Development.
The installation of the AWS is with the vision to adapt a technology inspired by Australia's National Center for Engineering in Agriculture (NCEA). Australia itself has an average cane yield of 91 MT of cane per hectare (with yield reaching to 120 MT per hectare), and its sugar export hit $1.8 billion in 2015-2016, making Australia world's third largest sugar exporter.
Australian farmers use Internet-enabled sensing technologies and can turn on or off irrigation system from their homes as they monitor farm data and give remote instruction on irrigation.
"Technology is already in the hand of farmers in Australia. They have a soil-crop-weather simulation model where farmers can expect this amount of growth response in plant when you give this amount of irrigation," said Espino.
The WRMC project has developed an Optimum Irrigation Scheduling Systems of Sugarcane using soil moisture and weather monitoring systems in an experimental work in Floridablanca.
The irrigation scheduling system maximizes use of water—delivers water to plants only when it is needed—when soil moisture is already low.
In the Floridablanca pilot farm, the WRMC project installed drip lines in that are 30 CM (centimeter) below the ground. It also installed soil moisture sensor around 50 CM below the ground – under the seedpiece.
This way, the sugarcane farms barely had weeds because water is underneath the ground.
The concept of automated irrigation involves the sensor's ability to detect low soil moisture underground. When needed, water may be delivered to the root system via the driplines when a certain low soil moisture level (as programmed) is hit.
As Australian farms already use solar powered pumping system for irrigation, Espino said the Department of Agriculture may soon have an extensive program to introduce solar-powered irrigation systems too.
"As researchers we should open our minds, so we can find solutions on how to improve farm operation in order to efficiently use resources, and for farmers to have higher income and increase yield for food security," he said.
WRMC found out that smart irrigation technologies will easily raise sugarcane yield by 30%. Non-irrigated lands give a yield of just 65 MT per hectare compared to 100 MT for irrigated lands. Moreover, its field experimentation showed that furrow irrigation gives the best yield and irrigation efficiency compared to drip irrigation.
Furrow irrigated sugarcane land yielded the highest range of 189,580-199,250 kilos per hectare. Harvest from drip irrigation only ranged at 145,460-173,080 per hectare. However, drip irrigation saved 68% of water compared to furrow irrigation.
The sugar sector is implementing irrigation programs in light of a development plan called "Strategically Diversified Sugarcane Industry by 2024" adopted under the approved Sugar Industry Development Act (SIDA) of 2015.
This industry roadmap is a grand vision to develop sugarcane as input to the following:
Highly efficient sugar mills
20 bioethanol distillers supplying 20% of the country's bioethanol requirement
Sugar mills that generate 500 megawatts or MW of electricity
Specialty Sugar, biowater, and bioplastics
The project revealed that there is a significant 45-60% increase in sugarcane yield in irrigated sugarcane farms compared to non-irigated ones. This is based on a baseline study conducted by WRMC involving 120 respondent-sugarcane farmers from Pampanga , Tarlac, Batangas and Negros Occidental.
The Australian sugarcane industry is a world leader as a result of the research and development (R&D) aid of Sugar Research Australia (SRA) that enhanced farmer-entrepreneurs' competitiveness. It provides funding for R&D and facilitates dissemination of technology to farmers. SRA promotes "targeted application of fertilizer, irrigation, agrochemicals, soil ameliorants or crop ripeners, and selective harvesting," said Espino.