REALIGNING our property into bankless irrigation system is a step enough for most farmers, but one not large enough to accommodate the long term designs of NSW irrigator, Dallas Stott at Whitton,
The third generation Murrumbidgee Valley farmer initially became involved with bankless irrigation in his early farming days and the early days of the system - about 2004, when one block on the family farm was trialled.
With a mid-decade drought kicking in gear not long after, that trial went on the backburner.
Now in more recent years with allocations on track, the development of the bankless system across the property has continued apace - including on land added to the family farming portfolio more recently.
It is a system that has delivered results and gone some way to repaying the significant capital outlay involved in adopting it.
But now, the bankless irrigation method represents just one one element of a broader focus on water efficiency.
Mr Stott, together with brother in law, Andrew Bell, has stepped the system up a notch developing and building a unique computer controlled irrigation system to remotely manage their bankless bays.
It’s bankless irrigation given a technology makeover.
The objective is to maximise performance from the available water and minimise labour and other costs typically associated with irrigation.
While a bankless system eliminates the need for siphons and a considerable labour component, Mr Stott’s aim is to layer technology over the top and centralise irrigation control.
They also decided to research and develop their own system rather than adapt the farm to the features of an off-the-shelf automation product.
Thus far - and Mr Stott still considers the plan to be in early stages, remote control and automated channel control and pumping manages much of the irrigation of the 1400 hectares switched to bankless.
“This is the game changer,” Mr Stott said.
“This whole system can be completely automated and we don't even have to come to the bay.
“However, it is not based on being able to do nothing; it is about maintaining control 24 hours a day, but without having to be there 24 hours a day.”
Like the bankless program, the technology overlay is designed to improve water efficiency.
Mr Stott felt they were probably over watering and not moving water around bays to satisfy plant growth needs as readily as they should have.
“We’d set bays up overnight that we didn't come back to until the next morning and you might have held water in a bay for five hours longer that it should - and that wastes time and water.”
Putting their heads together to find a better way saw Mr Stott combine his experience with the electronics skills of his brother in law and co-farmer, Andrew Bell, and another school friend with the requisite software coding capabilities, and design an automation solution - hardware and software included.
When the project started in late 2012 the availability of off-the-shelf automation solutions were only being developed and were limited in scope.
Cost was also a contributing factor with proprietary systems likely to add serious money to a irrigation scheme with more than 250 channel stops - each of which requires automation.
Currently the system automates one 180ha block using 12 volt solar powered motors to raise and lower stops together with a range of sensors to monitor water flows and levels between bankless plots as well as drain and supply channel heights.
Those sensors provide the critical data allowing them to manage irrigation in each bay by automating the flow.
“All the sensor measurements come into play because we are not here watching,” Mr Stott said.
“You need to be able to check heights and drainage levels that you would normally visually check - we don't want to do that, so we need this to takeover.”
That doesn’t mean they’ll be farming via the Gold Coast anytime soon.
Rather, they won't have to attend each irrigation run every hour, and know they won’t have to do anything when they do get there.
They’ve also got the main pump running remotely having also coded that software.
Down the track the objective is to have the entire irrigation component of the farm represented on the desktop showing every measurement in an easy to use, graphically based interface.
That will deliver a more elegant level of control and there’s also talk of configuring an app to manage tasks on the go on mobile devices
The system they are designing is also scaleable.
“I don't see why you couldn't double your capacity without doing anything to this system - you might have more tractors, but Andrew and I can still stay in control of the water,” Mr Stott said.
The real costs involved in the project lies in phase one - the bankless development
That has ranged from $1600 to $3000 a hectare depending on the remediation required, but in itself is an effective tool.
It has allowed the Stotts to successfully irrigate blocks with a tough red clay based soil.
Mr Stott and father, Peter before him, had tried all manner of techniques and tricks to get irrigation water to ‘sub’, or infiltrate, the plant mounds.
“We had all different sizes of siphon to try to slow the water down to allow it to infiltrate, and we used to rip furrows in front of watering to try to slow it down,” Mr Stott explained.
The bankless system allows them to apply more frequent irrigation which helps build plant health, according to Mr Stott.
He thinks that translates to yield but acknowledges it is hard to quantify.
“The faster we irrigate the block the better it works.
“Get it in, get it on and get it out,” he said.
“We can get these block ‘subbed’ - or fully irrigated in hours, and the idea is to not fully wet the profile because the root zone is only in the first metre in cotton,” he said.
The water use efficiency is also evident in the scale with a 180 hectare block formed of a sequence of bankless bays each set fractionally lower than the last, able to be irrigated with about 50 megalitres of water - and still run eight megalitres back into the final drain.
“This is the most efficient we’ve got, but we shifted quite a lot of dirt to make it work,” Mr Stott said.
“It was better spending an extra 10 days building the system than running another supply channel and drainage to do the bottom block,” he said.
“By the end of the season, even if you didn't use any less water, you get a better response because you water more frequently.
“You are not fully saturating or ‘blacking’ the soil and slowing plant growth,” he said.
Like any farming capital expenditure, the systems can be costly when they can’t be used.
“You've got to hope it never gets that bad, but be prepared that it might and then you have to condense your program.
“Concrete is concrete - it doesn't go anywhere and it is no different to buying a $500,000 machine and then having three dry years - it is the same sort of risk,” he said.
“When we got fully into bankless after drought, the first thing we noticed was we could stretch our watering.
“We could get an extra day or two because we were holding water and subbing properly - we were filling the whole profile not just the top or leaving it dry in the centre.”
The technology investment is less of a capital outlay than the bankless phase and the farm’s scale makes it attractive.
The key investment in the technology side of the project is time.
“We’ll have to do a proper R&D calculation at some stage to work out what it cost from whoa to go including our time,” Mr Stott said.
“It won’t be cheap, but it will be exactly the way we want it.”
While much of the thinking around bankless pads and automation is fuelled by a goal of water use efficiency, there is also a driving motivation that may be characterised as generational.
Both Mr Stott, 33 and Mr Bell, 29, are extremely technology fluent and stimulated by the advances it can offer their business.
They are not farmers getting their kicks out of driving tractors.
Truth be told, they’d rather not have any of those things.
It is the technology that keeps both excited about farming.
“It is the tech side that drives us to be better,” Mr Stott said.
“If I had to get in the tractor and pull up beds like my father used to do it, I’d be over that by yesterday.
“We are driven to continue development, to continue to change things to find those efficiency gains,” he said.
“You can see the results.
“If I wasn’t doing this maybe I’d be doing the same as everyone else, but not with as big a smile on my face,” he said.