Russell and Cathy Pell run an 806 hectare property on the banks of the Goulburn River near Wyuna, Northern Victoria. They grow maize, lucerne, millet and pasture supporting a 650 head dairy herd.
Recent automation of their supply service meant their service point now delivered accurately measured, consistent high flows at short notice. This level of service meant the Pells could irrigate much more efficiently and effectively if they upgraded their existing manual surface irrigation system.
They were motivated to find a solution that would enable them to sustainably irrigate while maximising yield per megalitre of water applied. They also wanted to improve their lifestyle – like many other surface irrigators they found manually irrigating time consuming, laborious and sleep-depriving.
They looked at a range of options, including converting to drip irrigation. “I certainly considered going with drip and it’s certainly got its place but I’m very conscious of energy use and I’m very conscious of the cost of putting it in.” Russell said.
“I’ve certainly grown a better product and that’s what we’re really after and we’ve been able to achieve that by fast watering and controlled watering.”
After doing their homework, they installed high-flow gates and automated them using a FarmConnect High-Performance Surface Irrigation Solution. The solution involved installing five in-channel BayDrive™ actuators to manage water through the farm channel system and 49 BayDrive bay outlet actuators. Additionally, four soil moisture sensors and a rain gauge were installed to provide accurate information on crop water demand. Each device is connected to a farm radio network and remotely monitored and controlled by cloud-based FarmConnect software.
With high-flow gates, the Pells can apply water to bays at 22ML/day, twice the rate previously. Irrigation duration has reduced from around 6 hours per bay to around 1½ to 2 hours. This reduces infiltration below the root zone, runoff and waterlogging. Using FarmConnect software, gates open and close automatically to schedule, which is a big improvement on Russell having to go to site and open and close gates through the day and night. The software sends regular status updates and if there are any problems, the system will send a text message to Russell’s phone.
Accurate soil moisture data provides up-to the minute information on crop water demand so they can precisely determine the optimal time to irrigate.
The new system immediately had a huge impact on productivity in the first season. Precisely controlled high flows reduced waterlogging leading to significantly increased growing time. Closely monitoring soil moisture meant that the Pell’s millet and maize crops could be watered less often than they used to.
“The thing that I’ve learnt is that I watered twice as often as I needed to, Russell said. “By watering five times instead of 10, I got 10 extra days of growing time during summer — it absolutely bolted during December and January — so it was probably worth closer to 20 days of extra growing time given weather we’ve had lately.”
Soil moisture monitoring also helped determine the effectiveness of rainfall so they could avoid either irrigating too early after rain or stressing the crop by watering too late.
The result was higher yields and a better quality crop, while using less water. The Pells produced nearly 4.0 tonnes of maize per megalitre of water applied, which is double the average for the surrounding area of 1.9 tonnes. “Maize crops around this area average around 16 tonnes of dry matter per hectare. The result we got last year was close to 27 tonnes, and our ambition is to achieve even better. You need all these bells and whistles to be able to achieve these type of yields.” Russell said. This translates to a $1,000 per hectare increase in revenue compared to the farm’s 22 tonne average.
And the Pells enjoyed the peace of mind of being able to remotely monitor the farm while on holiday. “When we saw that moisture was required we could then engage and start irrigating, while we were on holiday – how good is that? I certainly would recommend FarmConnect to others. This type of technology is where the future of farming lies.”