Irrigating inland crops while sitting on the beach probably sounds too good to be true, but it’s the way of the future, according to researchers.
- Smart sensor technology allows inland crops to be irrigated and controlled by farmers while they are on holidays
- Water saving and labour saving are the major benefits of the smart technology
- The tech is yet to catch on in a big way on the mainland, but is growing in popularity in Tasmania
Deakin University associate professor John Hornbuckle has been involved in developing smart sensing automation technology, which he said was a game changer for broadacre irrigators.
He said the technology involved sensors and satellites being placed within a field which then allowed irrigators to control the automated watering system remotely.
Dr Hornbuckle’s research was being conducted in rice and cotton fields in New South Wales.
“The two major benefits of this automation technology is the water savings, as you can make the right decisions at the right time when to irrigate, and also the better lifestyle it allows for,” he said.
The trial, which has ben running for 18 months, is being funded by the Smarter Irrigation for Profit program and is part of a partnership between the federal government, AgriFutures Australia and Deakin University, and commercial provider Padman Stops.
Nice for rice
Dr Hornbuckle said rice growers in particular would benefit from the automated system.
One of the main trial sites was at the Rice Research Australia Pty Ltd farm near Jerilderie, in southern NSW.
“Rice has some slightly different challenges around water management as there are periods where we pond water,” Dr Hornbuckle said.
“So it is working well with bankless channel layouts for rice, as people don’t have to manually start siphons … that can be done with an automated inlet and outlet, as there are sensors to control that automatically.”
He said growers could save water because they were irrigating at optimal times and crops would not become waterlogged thanks to sensors that would automatically shut off the water supply.
Dr Hornbuckle it could cost between $200 and $600 per hectare to implement the smart sensing automation technology, depending on the irrigation layout.
An app on a phone could be used to control the systems and alert the operator of any in-field or connectivity issues.
“It’s all cloud-based and can be accessed on a number of phones, which also suits larger operations that may have a number of irrigation managers,” he said.
With more pressure on water availability and rising power bills, dairy farmers are also looking to optimise their water use.
The Russell dairy farm at Jellat Jellat in the Bega Valley is one of 10 dairy optimisation sites across Australia selected to demonstrate the Smarter Irrigation for Profit Program.
Will Russell said farmers needed to adapt.
“Historically we’ve had good access to water in the Bega Valley, but the climate has certainly changed and in the 2019-2020 season we were unable to access water in the peak of summer,” he said.
Mr Russell has been experimenting with technology to improve productivity on the farm.
“We’ve put in quite a few soil moisture probes over the last couple of years,” he said.
“They’ve really helped us identify when the when the plants starting to stress, and we can get that water on before it goes too far.”
Over a six month period, Will Russell said he grew an extra one to two tonnes of dry matter per hectare when compared to other irrigated paddocks on his farm.
One of the benefits of soil moisture probes is that they can take the guesswork out of irrigation, according to site coordinator Kym Revington.
“I think one of the key findings is after rainfall farmers were maybe a little bit hesitant to restart their irrigation up too soon,” he said.
Worth the cost
James Hills, the centre leader at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture at the University of Tasmania, said the adoption rate of high-tech irrigation was quite low on the mainland.
But in Tasmania farmers were embracing the technology in increasing numbers and Dr Hills estimated 20-30 per cent of dairy farmers were using tools to schedule their irrigation.
“I think the clear message is that it is worth putting in the effort to get it right,” he said.
“A good system that can send the [soil moisture] data into the cloud and send that to your phone might cost around $2,000, but it’s a no brainer if it can save you $60-70,000 across an area of 100 hectares over the course of the irrigation season.”
The Smarter Irrigation for Profit program is funded by the federal Department for Agriculture, Water and Environment and Dairy Australia.