June 28, 2018

NxtGen Farming: making every drop matter 

How much water is too much or not enough? Using innovative technology to farm for the future by finding the irrigation sweet spot 

In Canterbury, one of New Zealand’s most drought affected areas, irrigation is among the most critical and challenging parts of farming.

The critical part is cows need grass to make milk and grass needs water to grow. The challenging part is that because water is a precious and often scarce resource, farmers need to juggle how much they need to run a productive and profitable farm.

Irrigation can be a hefty on-farm expense, installing and maintaining a lot of infrastructure. But the water also comes at a price, whether it’s electricity to power the pumps that draws it from bores or purchasing water from an irrigation scheme.

Now, new technology is on the verge of changing all that. The NxtGen Farms team was established to help farmers explore on-farm technology and digital tools that can help improve sustainability, productivity and profitability.

A trial with a group of Canterbury farmers using soil moisture sensors set at various depths in different areas of the farms has shown real potential to significantly improve the way water is managed.

Installing the sensors is simple and farmers can do it themselves

Fonterra Sustainable Dairying Programme Lead, Chris Appleby, says the sensors provide information on how wet the soil is and if there is enough moisture for optimal grass growth. All the information is easily accessed on a PC or smart phone.

“The data, combined with weather forecasts, can help farmers make more informed decisions about whether they need to irrigate on a particular day or not, and if so, just how much water is needed”, says Chris.

“Like dry soil, over saturated soil can have a negative impact on grass growth. It can also increase the risk of nutrient loss or nutrient runoff into local waterways. While the soil might look dry on top, the sensors operate at multiple depths below the surface, picking up the variation in soil moisture at different levels. Farmers might think they need to irrigate but if the sensors show they don’t then that’s a saving of water and also a saving for their pocket.”

Installing the sensors at various depths provides more accurate data

Before the trial some farmers were a little sceptical about the technology and Fonterra’s involvement in the tech-space. However, when the technology was explained to them and they saw the value of the data they were converts.

The trial has helped farmers keep irrigation management top of mind and now, for some, looking at the data from the sensors is the first thing they do each morning, even before bringing the cows in for milking.

The trial is now being extended, including into Waikato. That trial will be more about effluent management, giving farmers soil moisture data so they don’t apply effluent to pasture when the soil is near saturation, avoiding the risk of nutrient runoff.

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