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AC farmers look for cross-sectoral learnings at GRDC Moama Irrigated Cropping Update

A number of Accelerating Change participants attended the GRDC Grains Research Update on irrigated cropping in Moama on 28th July. Researchers from government, universities and sector organisations spoke on a range of topics under the theme Informed decisions – driving change.

Many of the learnings to come from the presentations were directly applicable to dairy farms in our region. Faced with uncertain and varied climatic conditions, water availability and market volatility, grain farmers are chasing efficiency and looking to lower costs of production where it is sustainable and profitable to do so. Coupled with best management practice to get the basics right, farmers were encouraged to use a range of information tools available to them to identify where those extra 1-2% gains could be made.

Technology to drive efficiency: Moisture probes, drones and satellites.

A focus on lifting water productivity came through in technical presentations on irrigation scheduling and soil moisture monitoring through the use of moisture probes, weather data and satellite or drone imagery.

Adrian Hayes, of AGnVet Services, presented Lessons learnt from using soil moisture probes in which he demonstrated how probes could be used as ‘another tool in the farmer’s tool box to better understand the interaction of soil and crop water use’. He outlined that the advantages of probes include enabling the user to:

  • to see where the plant is taking water from and how much moisture capacity there is in the soil as the crop develops

  • check the effectiveness of irrigations and fertiliser applications by measuring uptake in the active root zone

  • record and retain information from year to year that could aid users in decision-making down the track

For those with probes, he stressed the importance of:

  • appropriate site selection for the probe by picking a spot that is representative of the most uniform type of soil in your management zone,

  • a good relationship with your supplier and agronomist, for support and information,

  • an end-of-season review of soil moisture probe data, to understand the structure and behaviour of the crop over the season and the effectiveness of your irrigation management

Rob O’Connor, of DEDJTR (and a familiar face to Accelerating Change farmers), presented Evapotranspiration service helps lift farm water productivity in which he highlighted the value of using ET data in conjunction with other tools, such as probes, to refine irrigation management. Evapotranspiration (ET) provides an objective estimate of plant water use and irrigation requirement.

Rob sends out a weekly email of forecasted ET for irrigators in the region which helps them to plan irrigations and order water in advance. Like Adrian, he highlighted the value of using historical ET data to review irrigation management and its effect on crops or pasture.

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The last of the presentations on irrigation tools, Decision making from above – using satellite and drones for water and nitrogen management, was presented by John Hornbuckle of Deakin University. John spoke about the types of information that could be obtained through remote sensing and imagery to offer insights for irrigation and fertiliser management on unprecedented spatial scales.

Low-cost drone-based platforms that use multi-spectral cameras to measure of normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI) and normalised difference red edge (NDRE) for agricultural monitoring are becoming increasingly affordable. NDVI and NDRE redings can be used to calculate a range of crop characteristics including nitrogen content, vigor and growth. IrriSAT technology uses satellite data in conjunction with ET data from on-ground weather stations to calculate daily crop water use. For further information on IrriSAT technology, see this write-up from our cotton tour. Like any technology that adds to the volume of data about your farm, the challenge comes from interpreting what the data means and translating that into changes in management practice on your farm.

Old technology new innovation!

An example of innovation in on farm practices was a presentation from agronomist Annieka Paridaen from Premier Ag Consultancy on winter canola for grazing and grain production. Dual purpose (grazing and for grain) canola crops are well established in mixed farming systems in southern Australia. However, Annieka has been working with farmers in Western Victoria to utilise canola for grazing over the summer period, rather than the traditional late autumn/winter window. As winter canola requires a period of cold weather (vernalisation) to initiate flowering, it can be sown in spring and not enter flowering after the following winter. Early sown canola crops have been shown to provide significant periods of grazing (up to 3000 sheep grazing days/ha) and still produce a good grain yield. This is due to the longer grazing window available before vernalisation kicks in, and also due to stronger and deeper root development.

Experiments from last summer also showed that the canola cultivars used demonstrated an ability to survive harsh summer conditions. Anecdotal evidence from participating farmers was backed by research findings that demonstrated that grazing management and timing of livestock removal were critical to maximise grain yield.

This project was an excellent example of how a proven management strategy of grazing canola was adapted to in a farming system in a different way, and demonstrated how research on commercial farms added value to farmer decision making.

Grain industry perspective on upcoming fodder demand

Also of interest to dairy farmers was the forecast for domestic and international hay markets. Colin Peace, of JumbukAg Consulting, discussed some of the key current and future price drivers for these markets.

  • To the grains industry audience, he explained the relationship between pasture and home grown feed production in the dairy industry; and our subsequent demand for cereal hay

  • He felt the dairy sector would be less inclined to stock up on hay in the 2016-17 season due to likely increase and reliance on home-grown feed and lower cash flow than previous years

  • He suggested that demand and hay price could potentially increase due to relatively drier weather in south-eastern Australia in 2015, equating to lower production of silage and pasture for the 2015-16 season. Having also had a wet winter, most hay stocks have been depleted.

  • Export hay is likely to be a high paying market in 2017 (due, especially, to increased demand from growing agricultural industries in north Asia and the Middle East)

All drivers considered, Peace indicated that the hay price was likely to fall due to hopefully strong production in hay growing areas and less demand from dairy and other livestock sectors as they take advantage of good home grown feed conditions. Provided they have adequate storage options, dairy farmers should look for hay at the start of the season when supply is high, after doing due diligence in calculating what they need, how much they can afford to pay for feed and the cost of equivalent home grown feed given water price over summer.

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