The Smarter Irrigation for Profit (SIfP) Project was a successful three-year partnership between the dairy, sugar, rice and cotton industries that investigated and demonstrated practices to optimise water, energy and labour efficiencies, resulting in greater profits to irrigating businesses.
For dairyfarmers in NSW's Hunter and Mid-Coast regions, it has taken little time for key learnings to be snapped-up and proactively applied at a more local level by the Hunter Starting Smarter Project, led by Hunter Local Land Services (Hunter LLS) supported by funding from the Australian Government's National Landcare Program.
"In NSW, the national project's two demonstration farms showed that delayed start-up to irrigation at the commencement of the season, or for extended periods after a rainfall event, resulted in lost opportunities to optimised dry matter yield," Hunter LLS senior land services pastures officer Peter Beale said.
"The legacy of not applying irrigation at the right time was ongoing throughout the season. Soil moisture levels were extremely difficult to raise as higher temperatures and evapotranspiration rates escalated, meaning soil moisture deficits remained and plants were not receiving their water requirements.
"As an organisation, evidence provided by the SIfP Project indicated tangible profitability gains could be made by local dairyfarmers by concentrating on starting irrigation on time, and so the investment was made by Hunter LLS in this relatively small but highly effective project."
At the SIfP Tamworth, NSW, demonstration farm, conservative figures from a lost ryegrass planting in early 2016 cost the farm about $21,000 (3.7 per cent of farm milk income) when irrigation was not applied early enough. The effects upon soil moisture levels and cost implications were not fully realised until soil moisture-monitoring was put in place over the 2016/ 2017 irrigation season.
In the Upper Hunter, the irrigation SIfP study area of 13.5ha was demonstrated to have missed an opportunity to yield a further 43 tonnes of dry matter in the 2017/2108 irrigation season, worth about $16,000 to the dairy business.
Soil moisture monitoring installed on the site reported that there were two extended periods when soil moisture dipped into significant deficit, below the lucerne crop's water requirements, but irrigation was not applied. Had the required calculated 10.8 megalitres of water been applied at the right time, it would only have cost the business a further $813 in power and water.
These types of scenarios are certainly common across irrigation businesses of the dairy industry.
The phenomenon was given the term "the green drought" by researchers of the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) during delivery of the SIfP Project.
Led by Dr James Hills, three years of intensive monitoring on four dairy farms in Tasmania's north demonstrated significant increases in dry matter production, while also increasing water and energy efficiency, when farmers started irrigation three to four weeks earlier than previous years and before other farmers in the region who were not monitoring their soils.
The Hunter Starting Smarter Irrigation Project manager, Marguerite White, who also led the SIfP Project for dairy in NSW, directly discussed outcomes of the national project with dairyfarmers at local workshops in February 2018. The workshops provided an opportunity for farmers to exchange information on current irrigation-scheduling decisions and what they believed it would take to embrace identified opportunities to optimise the yield potential of irrigated areas on their farm.
"Many farmers admitted that irrigation decisions were primarily made by visual inspection, or fundamentally guesswork," she said. "This is the mistake many have made for a long time ù the green on the surface doesn't really factor what is actually happening with soil moisture levels below the ground.
"There is a thought that delaying irrigation will save on water, energy and labour but by the time plants begin to wilt, it's too late and the most expensive irrigation becomes the irrigation that was never applied."
In response to the farmer input, the Hunter Starting Smarter Project has delivered an intensive five-month project to increase the knowledge and understanding of local service providers and farmers in being better prepared for the season ahead. This includes having the irrigation system operating efficiently to avoid unnecessary use of water, power and break-downs during irrigation, and the benefits of making more informed scheduling decisions by monitoring soil moisture through installing reliable sensor technology and using a weather-based soil water balance tool, such as the free Scheduling Irrigation Diary (SID) smartphone app, developed by the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture.
"Ideally a combination of both in-situ and weather-based water balance monitoring should be used and is a good foundation on which most irrigators can make more informed irrigation scheduling decisions, including start-up," Ms White said.
The project has established two "scheduling decision" demonstration sites in the Gloucester, NSW, region on the properties of Tom Middlebrook and Adam Forbes.
The experiences of the two young farmers are being closely followed, via a "live" Google Map and YouTube videos, as they undertake baseline at-depth soil mapping/testing to install capacitance probes in representative soils of their centre pivot areas and schedule irrigation based upon data from automatic loggers and the SID.
The project has also developed a series of checklists to assist dairy irrigators to have systems in order before season start-up, assist in soil-monitoring equipment purchase decisions and adequately design irrigation system upgrades or new developments for greater reliability and efficiency. Videos and podcasts have also been developed to provide some technical background to the check-lists.
"Again the Hunter project has responded to outcomes of SIfP and local farmer needs by preparing quick and simple resources, which encourage irrigators to operate their systems more effectively and efficiently," Ms White said.
"Irrigation systems need to be maintained and operated according to specification to optimise efficient use of water and energy from the outset, including the pumps involved. The NSW Tamworth site improved its energy efficiency from 364.7 kiloWatt hours per megalitre pumped to 257kWh/ML in one year, whilst at the Upper Hunter site it was an improvement of 415kWh/ML to 279 kWh/ML.
"The main issues identified and addressed at both farms were sprinkler systems installed that weren't as specified, panels not calibrated correctly resulting in under-watering, and pumps over-worked resulting in performance inefficiencies of between 30 per cent to 100 per cent. The checklists highlight components of the system which need to be working efficiently to reduce power and water wastage."
Things have already changed in the short period the project has been running.
Tom Middlebrook said: "I started-up my irrigation in April three weeks earlier than previous years on my oats. Although the sensor wasn't in yet, the SID app was telling me it was time to get going, so I did.
"Things were going well, until we had the pump break-down. From now on pre-season checks will be a no brainer, and we will be training the staff in using the project checklists.
"The sensors have been in for three weeks and they are telling me we are dry, dry, dry ... already playing the catch-up game because of the break-down."
The project website provides a platform for the developed resources and continues to communicate the experience of local farmers, irrigation system consultants and irrigation agronomy advisers as they pursue "Starting Smarter" in the Hunter region. D
programs/smarter-irrigation-fo r-profit-hunter-starting-smarter- project.
Contact: Marguerite White, email email@example.com or phone 0447 500 415.
This project was supported by the Australian Government's National Landcare Program through a Dairy Australia and Hunter Local Land Services partnership.