As a nation-wide, multi-sector collaboration with cotton, rice and sugar, the Smarter Irrigation for Profit project has resulted in unprecedented knowledge and understanding of ways to increase water, energy and labour efficiencies on irrigated dairy farms.
The dairy research and demonstration components of the three-year project, which started in 2015, aimed to increase annual enterprise profit by $20,000-$40,000 by improving water, energy and labour use associated with irrigation practices.
Under the dairy umbrella, a number of sub-project approaches have been undertaken. Some of these sub-projects are discussed below.
Optimised Irrigation Dairy Farms
Activities such as system checks, energy audits and catch-can testing have successfully identified inefficiencies across trial sites located on commercial farms at Warwick in Queensland, Tamworth and Aberdeen in NSW, the Macalister Demonstration Farm in Victoria's Gippsland region, Mt Gambier in South Australia and Benger in Western Australia.
The detail of what has transpired on each of these sites can be found on the Dairying for Tomorrow Website or by searching for Smarter Irrigation for Profit on Facebook.
The NSW Optimised Irrigation Dairy Farm site, as an example, has demonstrated some true energy and cost savings by tightening irrigation scheduling and overhauling equipment where inefficiencies were identified, including the installation of a new power meter, which replaced one proven to be inaccurately recording peak and off-peak usage.
There are many statistics that can be presented from this research, but the telling one is that as a percentage of annual farm milk income, power costs to pump and place water on the site reduced from 2.93 per cent to 1.8 per cent in one year.
In 2015/16 the business was paying $15.74/1000 litres of milk produced for power to irrigate, in 2016/17 this figure was calculated at $8/1000 litres.
The Macalister Demonstration Farm in Gippsland has a range of irrigation types from surface to fixed sprays. Agriculture Victoria's irrigation team are working with farm manager Mahesh Singh to optimise the systems.
As part of this process, five automated irrigation timers have been bought for Mr Singh to use on the surface irrigation bay outlets.
Mr Singh said he was impressed with the ease of operation, as well as the time that he saves when surface irrigating.
Out of every 24 hours of surface irrigation, he estimates that he saves 15 hours through use of timers, which he can use to get other jobs done at the farm, or even better, get a decent amount of sleep.
The irrigation team have also installed soil moisture-monitoring systems, which are also proving easy to operate and provide Mr Singh with additional confidence in his decisions on when to irrigate.
Smarter Irrigation, Tasmania
The results from the first two seasons have shown that using variable rate irrigation (VRI) could reduce water use by as much as 30 per cent, creating significant savings for farmers.
By installing a VRI on the trial site at Montana, Tas, the team saw a 29 per cent reduction in water use. On a pivot of 55 hectares, this could potentially save up to 70 megalitres across the irrigation season that could be used elsewhere on the farm to increase productivity.
The project has also shown that effective irrigation scheduling can lead to significant increases in productivity.
The monitoring on one farm found that improving scheduling increased pasture production by more than 20kg DM/ha/day.
Using this information, the farmer has now made adjustments to the irrigation schedule for this season and pasture growth rates are averaging about 60kg DM/ha/day compared with 40kgDM/ha/day at the equivalent time last season.
Starting Smarter Sub-project
The scale of loss is not easy to see when the grass is still green, but yield penalties of 105 kg/DM/ha/day of delay have been measured on trial sites. This means that on a 50ha pivot a five-day delay in start-up can result in an estimated loss of $8650.
These costs also apply when timing the restarting irrigation after a rainfall event so cumulatively the potential losses are considerable over a full irrigation season.
Starting Smarter will use technology to match the start of irrigation to plant requirements. Apps, soil moisture, and weather sensors enable farmers to identify the rate of soil drying and predicted future crop requirements enabling better matching of water applications to crop requirements.
Measure to Monitor Sub-Project
Matched with productivity monitoring by drones and smartphone cameras and the capacity to change irrigation rates across the pivot through the use of variable rate technology, Measure to Monitor aims to demonstrate the use of information enabling farmers to achieve optimal irrigation productivity.
James Mann, of Donovans Dairying at Wye in south-east South Australia, is participating in Measure to Monitor.
"Our aim is to optimise productivity on our VRI-equipped centre pivot, regular feedback from the monitoring equipment and the support of researchers will assist us to adapt our irrigation through the season," he said. "Rising energy prices mean that this year we will completely alter our irrigation program to avoid energy penalties.
"To do this and also ensure we maximise our productivity it is essential that the pivots are also closely monitored. By improving the technology we can have information readily available on our smartphone informing each irrigation decision".
Integrating Technologies Sub Project
Five farmers from the NSW Hunter region are using the app this season to explore its potential to improve their irrigation scheduling and provide feedback to the research team to upgrade its capabilities.
Michael Scobie from the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture said: "This project will provide a testing and feedback loop to our work on the app that will improve its value to farmers who are looking for a simple and intuitive irrigation scheduling tool."
The benefits of SID are that it can generate an irrigation schedule to show that areas of the farm that require irrigation, how much, and when.
It can generate summary data at any time throughout the irrigation season, including total crop water requirement, total in-season rainfall and total irrigation applied, at the push of a button.
The iPhone and Android app shows which areas of the farm need irrigation and how much water (mm) is needed to refill the applicable soil profile.D
Follow the Smarter Irrigation for Profit project locally through a demonstration site or through the webpage http://www.dairyingfortomorrow.com.au/tackling-specific-issues/water/smarter-irrigation-for-profit/.
Contact: Monique White, email or Marguerite White email@example.com.