Frustration to Irritation

Many irrigators would identify with Hugh Ritchie’s presentation title, “From Frustration to Irritation”, in which he related his 13 year journey from dry land to irrigated farming.

Speaking to 74 delegates at the LandWISE/Irrigation New Zealand “Going into Irrigation” conference, Hugh said irrigation was the key to unlocking profitability, allowing the farm business to develop significantly. Yields have increased across the entire crop range, higher value crops have replaced low value options, and consistent yields stabilised income and enabled development and growth.

Before irrigation, the Ritchies grew arable and ryegrass seed crops and ran some deer. Now the deer are gone, and a wide range of process and fresh vegetable, arable, and high value seed crops are grown, with some sheep in the mix.

Looking back, Hugh realises he has learnt an immense amount about irrigation. What would he do differently if starting again? He’d probably design the farm around the irrigation, not fit the irrigation to the farm layout he had. “My irrigators don’t like trees,” he said. “They always come off second best!”

Tony Davoren from Hydro-Services discussed supply reliability and volumes. He showed the seasonal requirement for water for a mixed cropping operation. Piling crop demand on crop demand across the season, he showed peaks where volume is needed at times when reliability is critical. Inability to meet peak demands will impact yields. “The first 90% of yield goes to pay your costs,” he said. “You cannot afford to lose yield through water-shortage: that loss was your profit. Access to reliable supplies is vital.”

When should you start planning your irrigation system? Stephen McNally from OPUS Consultants showed that, whether major scheme or on-farm system, the same planning is needed. And it takes a long time from start to finish. To start irrigating in four years, start planning now.

Stephen stressed the need to gather resource information to reduce uncertainty, to determine irrigation system needs and costs, and to constantly review them against the farm business plan. Stephen also cautioned against taking cheap up-front capital options. Cheap systems invariably have high running and maintenance costs, and these rapidly outweigh any savings made at the start.

Dan Bloomer discussed “Specifying an irrigation system”, one subject of new Irrigation NZ resources for potential irrigators and irrigation managers. These contain valuable information and checklists to ensure potential irrigators collect all the information needed for a designer to do their job.

Carolyn Hedley developed the theme in “Assessing a farm for irrigation”. Carolyn discussed irrigation system options, the critical role of soil, and the availability of soils information via Landcare Research’s website “S-Map”. The use of new soil survey techniques was also discussed.

California Water Resources and Irrigation Advisor, Michael Cahn, explained how fertigation can be used to manage nutrients. This is an important aspect of irrigation in California, and increasingly in New Zealand. As farming intensifies and environmental limits are reached, care with nutrients is vital. Fertigation allows “just-in time” application, minimising any risk of leaching or volatilisation losses – saving money and the environment.

Andrew Curtis outlined Audited Self-Management to support good irrigation practice and provide assurance to the community that the water, a common good, is being appropriately used. He noted the responsibility irrigators have to demonstrate excellence in irrigation, and that audited self-management could reduce the overall cost of compliance monitoring.

Farm visits followed.

Lindsay Smith discussed his choice of irrigation for dairying, and his concerns about access to groundwater and links with the proposed Ruataniwha Water Storage scheme.

Ian Annan described how MrApple is ensuring maximum use is made of limited water, and that all conditions are met.

The day wrapped up at Mike Rittson-Thomas’ buried dripline irrigation system. “It was put in anticipating a five year life. Thirteen years on it is due for replacement but I have to be happy,” Mike says. “Now I’m waiting to see if the Storage Scheme goes ahead. If it does my options open up. I currently have limited water, so if it doesn’t, I’ll be looking at this again to eke out what I have.”

LandWISE and Irrigation New Zealand partnered to present the John Deere, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council and FMG sponsored special-focus day. Seventy four people heard from eight presenters, then moved out to visit and hear the experiences of the three farmers; dairy with pivots, orchard with micro-sprinklers, and sheep/beef farmer with buried dripline in lucerne.


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