Four years ago, Ashley and Lisa Mezenberg, Denison, Victoria, signed up for the modernisation scheme in the Macalister Irrigation District (MID), which led them to consider what type of automated watering system they would invest in for their farm.
They wanted a system that enabled them to spend more time involved in family activities, without limiting production on the farm. They also wanted to reduce the risk of overwatering. They needed a system that incorporated two farms.
It led Ash Mezenberg to take a plane trip to the Elmore Field Days, three years ago, specifically to investigate automated irrigation systems. It was a day out well invested.
Mr Mezenberg chose the WISA automated irrigation system and it was user-friendly enough that he was able to install it himself.
"I installed it over a few days. WISA technicians were on the phone, available to assist," he said. "It saved me about $5000, installing it myself."
WISA technicians visited the farm to test the system was operating correctly before they commissioned it. "Even now they're only a phone call away for support, even on weekends," Mr Mezenberg said.
He was aware of the WISA system before the trip to Elmore; and it was one of the systems he wanted to investigate further.
"I knew my cousin at Katamatite had been using it for a few years," Mr Mezenberg said.
The Mezenberg dairy business operates two farms, milking 600 cows; a self-replacing, predominantly Friesian-cross herd, with infusions of Normande, Aussie Red and Brown Swiss. The herd produces 3.5 million litres annually.
The farms include 365 irrigated hectares and an 80ha leased block. Grazing is on 25-day rotation, which also enables silage and round bales of hay to be harvested each season. In late October 2018, Mr Mezenberg harvested 330 tonnes of dry grass into one silage pit.
He also grows a maize crop to support autumn calving. "This year, we'll grow an additional eight hectares of maize for winter grazing, to offset higher hay prices," Mr Mezenberg said.
Southern Rural Water introduced the rationalisation program and encouraged farmers to decommission the old-fashioned Dethbridge wheels and modernise their irrigation systems.
Earthworks undertaken on the Mezenberg farms included installing siphons, new channels, delvers and doors to optimise water flow. New SlipMeters use solar-powered meters and computer technology to order and measure flow and volume.
Eight Dethbridge wheels were de-commissioned on farm one, with nine wheels decommissioned across both farms.
On the second farm, modifications included building a 10-megalitre capacity re-use dam. A centre pivot and fixed sprinklers are fed from two bores, irrigating 40ha. An underground pipeline from the bores was integrated into the initial earthworks.
About 220ha is irrigated with flood, with 30ha converted to automated irrigation via a SlipMeter.
All the excess irrigation water goes into the re-use dam and is returned into the system for flood irrigation. The re-use dam reduces environmental damage in the MID system by minimising nutrient outflow ù all fertiliser and nutrients stay on the farm.
"We graded some paddocks and installed drains and siphons to catch excess water and divert it into the re-use dam," Mr Mezenberg said.
"By undertaking the paddock renovation works and de-commissioning the Dethbridge wheels, we received a subsidy of about $100,000 from SRW for adopting the rationalisation program.
"More than 60 gates flood irrigate about a third of the farm."
The farm business contributed $400,000 to complete the work to date and Mr and Mrs Mezenberg said water volumes had reduced by 25 per cent. That has led to more opportunities to irrigate, which means increased pasture production, in an industry where on-farm cost variables are measured by how much grass is grown by a dairy farmer.
As their business equity grows, they will have the opportunity to invest in more irrigation efficiencies.
The entire system across both farms is controlled by a WISA automated irrigation system, installed on the farm's computer and accessible through smart devices, sharing through cloud technology.
The Mezenberg dairy business is one of two farm businesses in the MID to be early adopters of the WISA system, and it makes for a more efficient working day.
"The WISA system enables us to monitor soil moisture and schedule irrigations," Mr Mezenberg said.
The software receives information from radio-frequency antennae and sends alerts to mobile telephones and other devices, so irrigation, soil moisture, weather impacts and other variables can be monitored 24 hours a day. Mr Mezenberg chooses to keep the system on his desktop computer. His experience so far is there is no problem big enough that he needs to be disturbed from sleep or other work.
Tweaking the bugs out of the system
"I need to ensure each bay is inputted into the program," Mr Mezenberg said of the WISA software.
"It's a fairly simple program, so it's just a matter of spending the time learning to do it."
Some of the power boards in the WISA boxes became damp during a rain event and needed replacing. The technicians checked the system, analysed the problem, then visited the farm and made the changeover.
Getting rid of so many Dethbridge wheels and changing to SlipMeters was not without its management challenges.
"SlipMeters initially gave us bigger flows, so we had to learn to change the timers to accommodate that," Mr Mezenberg said.
"Now we water when we need it. We grow a lot more grass and we're a lot more productive."
With more grazing opportunities, the business is looking to increase herd size and milk production, growing their business to be a more sustainable enterprise. Irrigating more efficiently and eliminating overwatering has done more than use less water volume. Mr Mezenberg has also noted reduced water runoff in the paddocks, which means the re-use dam is used less, which has lowered pumping use and maintenance costs.
More water to grow the farm
As part of the rationalisation program, Southern Rural Water has been able to continue its environmental water flow commitments while delivering greater efficiencies across the entire system. This enabled more irrigation water volumes to be made available to farmers in the MID, across several auctions.
Ash and Lisa Mezenberg took advantage of the offer and bought additional water parcels, which means the entire farm is now under irrigation. That, too, has increased their production capacity and business sustainability.
In drought and dry weather conditions, as the district is experiencing this season, Mr Mezenberg said the ability to apply more irrigation had made the difference to the dairy farm's production.
As well as being able to grow grass, the cheapest form of feed for dairy cows, the farm was still producing all the hay and silage the herd needs.
There are also lifestyle improvements from the improved irrigation system. "Because I don't have to get up during the night to turn timers on and off, I get more sleep," Mr Mezenberg said.
"That means I'm not tired and more able and keen to do the work around the farm that needs to be done."
After 20 years in the dairy industry, he is also able to spend more time with his family. Irrigation is pre-programmed and can occur while the entire family spends a few hours away from the farm. D