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Hunter Smarter Farming: Irrigating for Profit

The Hunter Smarter Farming: Irrigating for Profit project aims to improve the capabilities of the Hunter’s dairy irrigators to increase profits by optimising dry matter (DM) production and utilisation throughout the irrigation season, concentrating on efforts to start irrigation at the right time and rate to avoid ongoing seasonal soil moisture deficit.

Research undertaken by the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA), as part of the national Smarter Irrigation for Profit project (2015-2018), determined that for each day irrigation start-up was delayed, pasture utilisation loss was equivalent to 105 kgDM/ha/day. Potential pasture not grown is pasture not utilised and milk not produced!

TIA researchers have termed this period of under-watering at start-up as “The Green Drought”. Figure 1 (below) is based upon data from a Tasmanian farm, however, it is highly typical of irrigation management practices across the industry.  By delaying irrigation start-up this farm has quickly dropped DM production under this irrigator. Once irrigation was applied, soil moisture had fallen below the root zone of the plant and subsequent irrigation applications, applied at the systems maximum capacity, were not enough to increase soil moisture to within the optimal zone for plant requirement for a prolonged period.

Figure 1 Starting-up irrigation too late will lead to Green Drought Source: Dr James Hills, TIA, 2018

Please watch Dr James Hills Dairy Research Foundation Video here.

At present, usual practice on many irrigating dairy farms in the Hunter region is to use visual inspection or historic management to make scheduling decisions.  But in today’s variable seasonal conditions, are there better ways to apply a more informed approach?  There is also a tendency to delay irrigation to postpone costs associated with water, energy and labour use or avoid maintenance outlay resulting in systems not being prepared to operate when needed or operate inefficiently.

But what is the true cost of not applying water earlier?

By not monitoring soil moisture early and throughout the season, irrigators become limited by the capacity of their systems. The water applied once start-up is delayed could possibly be ineffective if the system cannot apply irrigation at the required rate to increase, as appose to simply maintaining soil moisture, which is optimal for plant growth (called the Readily Available Water (RAW) range). Is the irrigation season ahead simply a battle to catch-up on the irrigation missed?

The most expensive water may be the water that was never applied.

How is the project assisting dairy irrigators?

The  project is:

  • Continuously updating a resource kit of system maintenance and efficiency check-lists for the main irrigation systems used in the region. This is improving system preparedness and increasing water and energy use efficiency across the region;
  • Sign-posting dairy irrigators to other resources to improve system preparedness and increase water and energy use efficiency;
  • Preparing e-learning opportunities for farmers, primarily as webinars, podcasts and short videos, to increase knowledge and understanding of the factors which influence irrigation scheduling decisions, including key terminology and interpretation of water balance information;
  • Extending seasonally relevant information from irrigation sites established to demonstrate the use of two irrigation scheduling fundamentals:
  1. Soil moisture monitoring using sensors to indicate depth of effective water (via rainfall & irrigation), logged in real-time to a web-based platform accessible via an App.
  2. Use of a freely available weather based irrigation scheduling tool so that a general water balance can be determined and maintained. This is a trial App called the Scheduling Irrigation Dairy for Dairy, developed by the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture, University of Southern Queensland & Dairy Australia; and
  • Communicating project learnings and undertaking basic economic analysis.

Tocal Dairy Irrigation Site

Tocal dairy is operated by NSW DPI. In early 2018 a major development of the irrigation system was undertaken resulting in the installation of three centre pivots and there are future plans to convert more of the irrigation system to overhead watering.

The dairy has partnered with the Hunter Smarter Farming: Irrigating for Profit project to assist with improved irrigation scheduling decisions and monitoring of production and profit impacts.

Hear from Tocal Dairy's managers themselves here

Read about Tocal Dairy’s plans in working with the project here.

Gloucester Irrigation Sites

The two Gloucester farms involved in the project are new to soil moisture monitoring. Their location and a timeline of their activities can be followed on Google Maps by Clicking here . EM 38 mapping and soil characterisation surveys were conducted to inform the most appropriate location of soil moisture monitoring equipment. Both sites have been installed with 80 cm EnviroPro capacitance probes with sensors located at 15cm, 40cm and 80cm depths which sample a sphere of about 100mm, however 95% of the measurement is within 50mm. Capacitence probes measure volumetric soil moisture content (mm). Each property has chosen a different telemetry systems (logging of data) to meet their particular requirements.

Tom Middlebrook- Bowman Farm, Barrington NSW

Milking herd: 450

Dairy farm area: 450 ha

Milking platform: 200 ha

Irrigated area: 100 ha

Irrigation System: 2 centre pivots, 1 lateral

Smarter Farming: 15 ha centre pivot, 5 span (270m) 1900

Figure 2: Bowman Farm: EM38 mapping identified variability in soil type to be considered in locating the probe.

Figure 3: Soil samples taken from 1m depth cores were sampled to characterise the various soils mapped by the EM 38 survey.

Moisture monitoring equipment:  Single 80cmEnviroPro capacitance probe with 3 sensor depths, Adcon NextG telemetry logger. System has capacity to accommodate multiple probes but these must be located within 60m of the logger. Automatic tipping bucket rain gauge also installed.

Hear from Tom himself by watching this short video.

Adam Forbes- Kywong Flat, Barrington, NSW

Milking herd: 700 ha

Dairy farm area: 700 ha

Milking platform: 180 ha

Irrigated area: 210 ha

Irrigation System: 2 centre pivots, bike-shift, soft-hose & hard-hose

Smarter Farming Site: 50 ha centre pivot, 7 span (450m) 1900

Figure 4: Kywong Flat: EM38 survey of one paddock under the pivot area identifies heavier and lighter soils.

Moisture monitoring equipment:  Two 80cm EnviroPro capacitance probe with 3 sensor depths located in two separate paddocks with field telemetry loggers. The loggers feed into a LoRa Gateway base station located in a near-by office. This system allows for multiple probes to be located around the farm. Automatic tipping bucket rain gauge also installed.

Hear from Adam himself by watching this short video.

Irrigation Reports

Follow the story of the two Gloucester Smarter Farming farms as they make critical irrigation decisions to optimise the production and profitability of their study sites. Gain an insight into how they are using the available information and weighing-up the compromises.

February - March Irrigation 2019 Report

Click here for the pdf report: Click here

Summer Season Irrigation Report (November 2018- January 2019)

Click here for the pdf report: Click here

Hear from Tom Middlebrook on his decisions at Bowman Farm: Click here

Hear from Adam Forbes on his decisions at Kywong Flat: Click here

Smarter Farming Resources

The Hunter Smarter Farming Project produces local resources to assist Hunter dairy irrigators to improve irrigation start-up and gate “Green Drought” production losses. These resources increase knowledge, understanding and preparedness to forward plan irrigation scheduling (especially timing) which will maximise yield potential under irrigation.

Videos & podcasts

Avoiding “The Green Drought”- a 101 video for all irrigators!

Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) dairy researchers, Dr James Hills & Dr Mark Freeman, explain the Green Drought phenomenon and provide practical information to avoid lost production by not commencing irrigation on time.  This is a 30 minute presentation which will be sure to change your approach to timing irrigation start-up.

Click here to avoid The Green Drought

Preparing your irrigation system to make sure you are ready to start!

A quick list for preparing your system.

Click here for a quick overhead irrigation check

Pumping Irrigation Water- efficient operation pays!

A Tamworth dairy farm was assisted by an external irrigation consultant to identify ways to more efficiently pump water to reduce costs.

Click here to reduce costs associated with moving water

Soil Moisture Monitoring

The Hunter Smarter Farming Project uses soil moisture monitoring at the Gloucester and Hunter Valley demonstration farms to better gauge when irrigation should commence. In this video, Brian Thomson of Porosity Agricultural Services explains why soil moisture monitoring is important in making irrigation scheduling decisions and provides a good insight into choosing and installing soil moisture monitoring probes.

Click here to learn about Soil Moisture Monitoring

Management and System Checklists

Hunter Smarter Farming Checklist Bike Shift

Hunter Smarter Farming Checklist CPLM

Hunter Smarter Farming Checklist K-Line

Hunter Smarter Farming Checklist Travellers

Hunter Smarter Farming Irrigation Development Decisions

Hunter Smarter Farming Soil Moisture Monitoring Check

Listen to a 15 minute podcast interview conducted by Hunter Smarter Farming Project Manager, Marguerite White, with Irrigation System Consultant, Peter Smith (Sapphire Irrigation Consulting). Peter outlines the main priorities when it comes to having irrigation systems ready for start-up and operating efficiently during the irrigation season. After listening, download the check-lists relevant to your irrigation system above- and get started, smarter!

Project Baseline Reports

SIP Soils Report 'Kywong Flat'

SIP Soils Report 'Bowman Farm'

Useful sign-posts to external resources

DairyNZ Irrigation Website- Click here

Practical guides, checklists and tips for maintaining and operating your irrigation system as well basic soil science and scheduling concepts explained simply. A good site to get you started, especially after watching the The Green Drought presentation above.

Irrigation New Zealand Practical Resources - Click here

This site provides essential foundational irrigation information- from the need to know soil science basics to detailed considerations when exploring advanced technologies in monitoring and application equipment.

Need to know more about soil moisture monitoring options?

Go straight to this Irrigation New Zealand publication- Click here for SMM Guide (Book 11)

Dairy Australia has a new short publication on options-  Click here for SMM Information Sheet

Contact

To find out anything further on the project, please contact Marguerite White, Project Manager, ICD Project Services at mwhite@icdprojectservices.com.au or  phone: 0447 500 415.