Efficient Irrigation in the Northern Mallee
A case study of five irrigators in the northern MalleeWhat does an efficient irrigator look like in 2012? To find out, we gathered stories from five typical and progressive horticulturists managing four properties within pumped irrigation districts of the Victorian Mallee. These stories show the changes in both land and water use over time, and reveal the aspirations and motivations of these five irrigators as they contemplate the next stages in the life of their properties.
These stories explore what successful and productive on-farm irrigation management in the Victorian Mallee looks like, developing insights which will both assist policy makers to understand the realities of irrigated horticulture production, and inspire other motivated irrigators with what is possible.
The selected irrigation properties covered three different parts of the Victorian Mallee irrigation region. These properties were predominantly managed by males; however one was managed jointly by husband and wife. They had differing crops, property sizes and management structures (Figure 1.).
Figure 1. Crop types, property sizes and management structures.
By co-coincidence, all the irrigators we interviewed had either inherited or bought their properties from family. Two of the properties had been originally planted during early allocations in 1910; one had been allocated during solider settlement of the region in the early 1920s; and one had been purchased after post-war migration from Italy in the 1950s. Three of these properties had been expanded since the irrigators took over from family, and were now part of multiple property holdings in the same area. One was original, without expansion.
The selected irrigators were seen to be united in working towards greater efficiency. Half had changed away from the original crop on their properties, with the others maintaining crop type but completely changing varieties, trellising and harvest methods. Four of these irrigators felt an emotional attachment to their land because of its history, though most now imagined a time when the property would not be owned within the family. Four felt they were “doing OK” financially and one indicated financial stress. Two of the irrigators we spoke to felt that they were “trend setters” and that they irrigated differently to their neighbours. Three had diversified (harvest contracting/nursery); two were slowly expanding; all were considered proactive in seeking innovative ways to operate.
Working towards greater productivity
Research now tells us that irrigators who use drip irrigation and scheduling equipment do significantly better than those who don’t, and that drip irrigators achieve higher yields per megalitre and higher application efficiencies (ie. less through drainage and hence waste) than any other irrigation system. Our stories confirm this, with improved productivity achieved by these irrigators through: their changing from flood irrigation to pressurised systems such as drip and sprinklers; the planting of newer and higher yielding crop varieties; greater knowledge and understanding of their soils; and their use of soil moisture monitoring equipment and specialised computer programs to schedule irrigations.
Key common traits for efficient and productive irrigation management
1. Use of pressurised irrigation systems…
All interviewed irrigators had upgraded the irrigation systems on their properties since taking over. This change involved all moving from flood irrigation to the use of pressurised drip and sprinklers.
Figure 2. Changes in irrigation systems since taking over property management.
2. Use of monitoring equipment to schedule irrigations…
Three out of four properties had monitoring equipment (either automated capacitance probes or electronic tensiometers) to schedule watering, the irrigator on the other property used an augur to dig down and see how much moisture was there.
3. A good understanding of soils...
The irrigators on the three properties with monitoring equipment also had a good knowledge and understanding of their soils. They had had soil surveys done and made decisions based on these surveys.
4. Proactive irrigation management...
Individual irrigation records (either electronically or in hard copy) were kept on three of the properties, with these irrigators recording details each day that they irrigated. One did not keep records and relied on the data collected and stored by Lower Murray Water. Two properties were current participants in Department of Primary Industries (DPI) Victoria irrigation benchmarking programs.
5. Accessing assistance to change...
All of the irrigators stated that government incentives and grants had enabled them to make the changes in their irrigation systems, and that this assistance allowed them to “change more quickly” and without it they would “cut corners”. Other influences on their ability to change were described as: talking to other irrigators (all); DPI irrigation training (3); being part of industry associations (2); searching the internet and using YouTube (2); and talking to local horticulture service providers and consultants (1).
6. ‘Changed rather than less’ water use...
All of the irrigators described water use on their properties as being “not necessarily less” in volume than it had been in the past. Most felt that they used similar amounts of water to that used by their fathers/grandfathers (two felt that their fathers had been quite efficient flood irrigators), but that they now had better control which resulted in healthier plants, increased yields and less waste and drainage. The changed water use also had the benefit of opening up opportunities to grow crops that couldn't be grown on flood irrigation.
All of the irrigators described water use on their properties as being “not necessarily less” in volume than it had been in the past. Most felt that they used similar amounts of water to that used by their fathers/grandfathers (two felt that their fathers had been quite efficient flood irrigators), but that they now had better control which resulted in healthier plants, increased yields and less waste and drainage. The changed water use also had the benefit of opening up opportunities to grow crops that couldn't be grown on flood irrigation. Changes in water use over time are illustrated in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Changes in the nature of water use over time.
7. Preparing for unpredictable and extreme weather...
Irrigators on two of the properties stated that they had begun to make changes to reduce risks from unpredictable and extreme weather. These changes included: planting new varieties which were drought/rain tolerant and that mature at different times; and factoring evaporation from wind into irrigation scheduling. The irrigators on one of these properties also expressed their intent to "reduce the carbon footprint" of their property by using tractors as little as possible.
Motivation and aspirations
Motivation to make change on their properties was described as: to maintain or improve their lifestyle (all); for increased financial profit (3); to reduce labour (2); drought (1); and the personal challenge of working out how to make things work more efficiently (1). None of the irrigators were motivated to make change just to reduce water use.
Increased automation was an aspiration of all the irrigators we spoke to. This was desired for varied reasons: to allow more time to be spent away from the property and to improve lifestyle; to be able to manage multiple properties more easily; to enable greater efficiencies in water and power use. Automation was described by two as "robotics" and "GPS" driven systems; by two as being systems controlled by “smart phones”; and by two as being "computerised systems which allow the scheduling and operation of the system while I am not here". This imagined system would have "real time data feedback" and would also include automation of monitoring equipment.
Changes in knowledge and cultural practices
Understanding of soils
One of the main identified changes over time was knowledge about soils. It was thought that in their father's/grandfather's day the impact of soil type on yield, plant health and water use, and irrigation scheduling was not known. The understanding this generation of irrigators had of their soils (water holding capacity etc.) was thought to be a significant factor in their ability to better manage their properties, although for some it made them question the wisdom of their forbears in choosing their property site: "there’s…a better understanding…of what we are actually growing in – as in the conditions…up until we did the soil survey I thought we had good dirt but then you put a back hoe into the pit and get the soil report back and you think ‘Why in the heck did they pick here? Why didn’t they pick a nice sandy hill somewhere… ?" (laughs).
This increased understanding of soils was thought to be driven in part by the requirement for a soil survey to be done to access government incentives and grants:"…to be quite honest if it wasn’t for the incentives we would never ever have done the soil samples and tests because we would not have considered that it would have been a beneficial spending of funds…but…It opened up our eyes…and the courses [training]…it was very revealing…it was a big step forward for us…to understand what was what and all of a sudden things made sense …why when you grew up and people had a roster irrigation system where flood irrigators would irrigate six times a year and overhead spray irrigators would irrigate 12 times per year…and a lot of properties did well on that regime, and some properties did not…and you couldn’t really work it out and the fact of the matter is that you can sort of look there now and if a person was lucky enough to have a soil type to hold that soil water then that property would do well…and no one knew that, it was just ‘Oh that’s a good block!’ you know…it’s just like God looked down at that spot or something…there were reasons behind it that we didn’t understand…"
Changes in cultural practices
The irrigators observed changes in their cultural practices as compared to the methods used in the past. These changes were described as: minimising cultivation on the property (no-till, less erosion from normal wear and tear); finding ways to cut back on the manual work required; reduced chemical use and use of different chemicals. The nature of plant and equipment on the properties was also observed to have changed with increased mechanisation.
Advice for other irrigators
When asked the advice they would provide to other irrigators in the Victorian Mallee region responses included: be business oriented and make sure your decisions are not just based on the imagined lifestyle of farming (3); keep up with developments and come up to today's standards - have efficient systems that allow mechanisation and automation (3); talk and share with other irrigators (2); participate in training (1); be big enough to be able to employ people to do the component tasks in property management, so that you don't have to do it all yourself (1).
Their individual stories
The individual stories of these irrigators highlight the challenges currently facing irrigators in the northern Mallee, and reveal the aspirations and character of these irrigators and their approaches to, an often difficult, horticultural life. The four individual stories are:
- "Listening to the trees…" Neale and Deb Bennett (Merbein almond growers)
- "Ingenuity through necessity…" Graham Nice (Red Cliffs wine and table grape grower)
- "Seeing the bigger picture…" Bruno Costantino (Robinvale table grape grower)
- "Building on tradition…" Stephen Bennett (Merbein dried grape grower)
Irrigation training in the northern Mallee
DPI runs a number of irrigation management courses in the northern Mallee. Topics include: Irrigation management; Pump maintenance and efficiency; Drip irrigation management and maintenance; Sprinkler system maintenance; Soil water interpretation; and Fertigation.
For further information contact DPI Mildura on 0350514500.
Incentives for improved irrigation management in the northern Mallee
There are financial incentives available to irrigators in the northern Mallee to improve irrigation management and systems. For further information contact DPI Mildura on 0350514500.