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The Future of Overhead Low Pressure Irrigation in Australia

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Written by Martin Porter |

As we move into the future of agriculture in Australia, we will see a need for reduced production costs such as labor, chemicals and water, and also an increase in crop yields.

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This will be affected dramatically by climate change and the population growth within Australia and the world. Technology will be developed to reduce the inputs within these businesses moving into the future.

Low-pressure overhead irrigation has been used in Australia since the early 1960s, however it was never all that successful as the evaporation figures and development were USA-based. In some areas of Australia, the daily evaporation figures exceed 10 mm per day, which is higher than the original designs and led to the earlier failures.

In the 1980s, the research and development was limited in overhead irrigation. At this time, Australia had not seen droughts since Federation times (1895–1902) and there had never been a huge demand on the river systems until the drought of 1982–1983. 

 

The drought in 1991, through to the 1995 El Nino, was the worst drought since 1902. There was an increased demand on rivers and waterways, so irrigation practices had to change from then and into the future, with the increasing need to go to efficient irrigation.

This is when Valmont® Irrigation Australia opened in 1998 and started customizing application rates and delivering product from a warehouse based in Brisbane. It was the first to do so, as all product was directly imported prior to this.

Australian Evaporation Graph

Figure 1: Average Evaporation (2009) Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Overhead irrigation concept 

Through the overhead irrigation concept, water is delivered through a pipeline or structure at a low pressure, normally regulated to 15 PSI or 1.03 bar at the sprinkler. These systems are designed in such a way that low connection pressure is the key, so they are designed with larger supply pipelines to reduce the connection pressures. Also, the pumps are matched at the higher efficiency levels to reduce long-term cost of ownership.

The efficiency of water delivered to the crop is 85 to 92 percent efficient, making this a very efficient way to irrigate.

Labor impacts 

Labor costs are rising and any reduction in labor is a reduction in costs to farmers. Labor and time were not factored in many years ago, but now we have to look at this due to farmer’s families moving off the land and the corporate farmer being the norm for broad acre farming that produce cereals and grain crops. The average age of a farmer is increasing and as of 2011 was 55 years of age (Figure 2).

Overhead irrigation reduces the labor needs and it also reduces the skilled labor required on a farm. The occupational health and safety issues being seen are fatigue caused by long hours in the field and heat stress, so less time in the field for the farmer means a better lifestyle. This is also seen with air conditioned tractors and machinery getting larger and more efficient on the farms.

Age profiles of farmers
Figure 2:Age Profiles of farmers – 1981 and 2011 (Source: ABS Census of Populations and Housing)


Financial costs

One of the greatest costs and increasing costs in the next few years will be energy. This is why with overhead irrigation there will need to be reduced cost of ownership, increased  size of pipelines and an examination of technology in pumping and water spray patterns. There will also be an option of creating on farm power generation systems using methane gas produced through generation units. This technology is being used in Europe and in Australia. There is a cane farmer near Mackay doing a trial with this sort of system, using the stubble and trash in a digester to create the gas used to power a generator. 

Also in the west of Australia, a farmer that grows carrots has wind turbines on his farm for his business' own use and for delivering power to the network. The use of solar technology also will be used on farms.

Technology changes 

There will be adjustments to technology in water application and monitoring of irrigation equipment. These will be more regulated and farmers will make decisions based on this information. 

Advancement in farm technology will give us a guideline to crop yields versus water input, providing us maximum use of the water resource. Monitoring this technology will be via the cloud base technologies that we see today. There will be advancement to sensor technology and this will again give us a measurement of what our irrigation is doing. There will be advancement into the application of water and soil type changes within a field. Soil technology will become a factor in new farming methods, and agronomists will lead to some of these changes with sustainable practices becoming more accepted within farming. The use of technology will reduce time in the field and the final goal is to increase yields. 

Population growth

In Australia by 2030, it is estimated our population will increase by five million people, and worldwide we are looking at an increase from 7 billion in 2012 to 9.1 billion in 2050. We will see an increased demand of all resources and a reduction of water availability throughout Australia, and we will see the changes to more efficient irrigation practices throughout the world. 

Conclusion

As Australia and the world’s population increases, we will have to change our ideas on food and lifestyle to adapt to what can be produced by our farmers. 

The way that the farms use technology is more supplementary at the moment and this will need to change to increase yields and reduce costs. Farmers need to reduce costs, look at what they are doing to the environment for future generations, and think about tomorrow - not just for today.

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