NZ Irrigation – Part 4

When we reached the next farm couple of kilometres down from Mike’s property we immediately noticed the centre pivot on either side of the driveway. Manager Craig Wellington met us as we got off the bus and immediately blew us away with some incredible production statistics for the 1200ha property.

Each year they finish off 30,000 lambs and 1,000 Friesian bulls while also cropping a variety of high value crops on their 360ha of irrigated cultivation including tomatoes, sweet peas, maize and sweet corn. The tour was just blown away by those statistics and I think it just goes to show how productive New Zealand and Heretaunga Plain can be, along with how well it is managed by Craig.

As the tour group recovered from the shock of those statistics we ventured out into the field to look at one of the swing arm centre pivots. This type of centre pivot works in the same way as most other centre pivots, in that it followers a buried wire to find its way around the field. The main difference is that instead of it being one rigid structure the end section has the ability to bend or turn. The swing arm on the end of the pivot allows the centre pivot to get into the corners of a field and cover more area. This means that instead of getting the classic circle shaped field when using centre pivots you’ll get a rectangle with rounded corners, this allows Craig to use more of the field’s potential and have less wasted land. The other interesting feature of Craig’s centre pivot system was that if it breaks down the pivot would automatically call his mobile phone to let him know something was wrong.

Classic Centre Pivot (Taken near Inverell NSW)

Classic Centre Pivot (Taken near Inverell NSW)

Leaving the centre pivot we walked over to Craig’s dam via the main homestead’s extensive and impressive gardens. The garden just seemed to keep stretching on as we wound our way through it, the sheer variety and volume of plants was just staggering. We left the garden simply stunned by its sheer size and by the thought that there was just one gardener who was able to maintain all of it.

The Swing Arm Centre Pivot

The Swing Arm Centre Pivot

Craig’s dam wasn’t as big as his neighbours but his was built first and was one of the first properties in the area to have a dam constructed and shares a lot of similarities with Mike’s dam. The dam was built before Craig took over as manager and like Mike’s dam it was built out of a need to increase the farms water security to ensure the survival of their high value crops. Craig’s dam is also filled by water that is gravity fed along a channel from the nearby river. Unlike Mike’s dam Craig’s was built onto to side of a hill instead of between two spurs meaning it took more time and cost more to build with about 1km of wall needing to be constructed.  While Craig’s dam may be smaller than  his neighbours it is more than capable of meeting his irrigation needs and has been able to easily see them through their longest water ban so far.

Craig's Dam

Craig’s Dam

Leaving the dam we walked back via another part of the garden and boarded the bus for Napier, this trip had been an incredible experience and it was great to see how things were done across the ditch.

NZ Irrigation – Part 3

The bus continued to motor on through the passing showers to the other side of the Heretaunga Plain, by now the plains area was distinctly a wine region with grape vines as far as the eye could see in every direction. We were here to see Mike Glasbourgh’s (spelling may be wrong) property in particular his dam and his arrangement with “Constellation Wines”.

Mike’s property was right on the edge of the Heretaunga Plain and was made up of both the plains country and the hills that surrounded it. On his property he ran sheep and cattle as well having some cropping and the vineyards that we’ll talk about later, but the main attraction to the property was his dam.

The need for the dam arose from Mike starting to grow more high value crops and need for more water security that came with. My understanding of way NZ irrigation works (I may be wrong) is that you can irrigate from the river as needed without a total limit on how much water you can use, however if the water level in the river drops below a certain point a water ban is called and no one can irrigate from the river. Mike initially looked at sinking a few bores on his property but in the end he decided that a dam would be the way to go.

The large dam (complete with water ski jumps) was built in a shallow gully between the spurs of two different hills, with the dam wall extending about 100m from spur to spur. The dam is gravity fed (without the aid of pump) from the river via channel that runs for a few kilometres, from the river to the dam. While at the time of construction it would have been simple enough to just bring in the bulldozers and set about building the wall Mike decided it had to be done properly, with a geological survey being undertaken first to make sure the site would be stable enough for the dam and that the wall wouldn’t leak.

Mike talking to us about the dam

Mike talking to us about the dam (Notice the ski jumps in the background)

While in size it is somewhat smaller than the dams you would find around Moree it is more than capable of meeting their needs for protection against droughts and frost, with the biggest test so far being a six week water ban last year that only caused the dam to drop to only two thirds its normal level.

The dam has led to some exciting opportunities for Mike including a deal with Constellation Wines who have leased a large area of his property to grow the grapes for their wines. One of things that attracted Constellation Wines to Mike’s property was the water security that it offered due to the dam; the other main attraction was his close proximity to their winery.

As we left the property we were given a demonstration of its frost protection system, like the other farms that we had visited they used water (from the dam) to prevent frost damage and had sprinklers along the vines. Due to a recent harvest there were a few geysers in the field from where the grape harvester had knocked the sprinkler heads off, but for me this only just added to the demonstration showing the amount of pressure in the system.

After watching the demonstration we were off to our fourth and final property just down the road to look at their mixed cattle and cropping property. Hopefully I’ll be able to get the fourth and final part of the tour up a bit quicker than I got this part up.

NZ Irrigation – Part 2

After we finished up at Mark’s Kiwi fruit and Apple farm we were back on the bus and on our way to the next farm. This farm was an all organic vegetable and blueberry farm that belonged to the Lawson family and was run by Scott Lawson. The property is located on some of the newest and most fertile soils on the plain; you can almost draw a line in the dirt where it goes from gravel to this rich fertile soil. Apparently these gravel soils were once home to sheep at really low stocking rates before it was discovered that you could grow NZ’s red wines in them.

In the vineyards there was an array of wind turbines, at first I thought that they were there for power generation but we were soon told that they for frost protection. In a normal frost they use the turbines to stir up the warm inversion layer above the crop and use it to keep the vines warm; however in a polar frost where there is no inversion layer using the turbines would probably just make the effect of the frost worst.


The Blueberry Bushes

The Sign on the driveway read “Lawson’s True Earth Organics” which was their brand and is proudly displayed on all their produce. As the bus trundled up the driveway we noticed that while a few of the fields were all in Lucerne while the others divided up into rows that were only a few metres across. We learnt later that this type on intensive strip cropping was to increase diversity in his fields in order to avoid the creation of a large monoculture, while the fields filled with Lucerne were being spelled and the Lucerne was there to build up the soil, add nitrogen and act as a cover crop.

As we got off the bus we were handed our packed lunches and ran for the cover of the packing shed as the sky’s opened up again. Scott started to give us the run down on the organic farm; they grow a range of vegetables including Pumpkins, Carrots, Potatoes, Onions as well as Blueberry’s and Lucerne hay (while we were there they had pumpkin’s, carrots and onions in the packing shed). Making for a diverse and busy operation.


A Full Packing Shed

Scott said that while the farm is organic they still apply almost anything they need for soil health and pest control as long as they get it from a certified organic source, which it more difficult and expensive to do (eg. Blood and Bone as a natural fertiliser). While selling an organic product does attract a premium the inputs such as fertiliser and seed (organic seed is bought when possible but untreated seed can also be bought) also cost more so there is little gain in cost margins.

The best way to save money is to limit inputs and the best way to limit inputs is to maintain excellent soil health. One of the ways he achieves this is that all his machinery runs on auto steer so his wheels always run in the same tracks and will only create compaction in those tracks. As I mentioned earlier the other thing he does is he spells fields for 2-3 years and grows Lucerne in them while they are being spelled. As Lucerne is a legume it adds nitrogen to the soil which helps to increase the soil fertility, the other method he uses is when he is not cutting the Lucerne for sale he will cut it and mulch it back into the soil to build up organic matter in the soil.

Aside from vegetables Blueberries also play a large role in his operation. So in a brief gap in the rain we walked over to where they grow Blueberries to take a look and listen to Scott explain how they grew their Blueberries.

To increase the growing season he grows two varieties of Blueberry one that has a picking season of October through to December and the other had a picking season of January through to May. Throughout this the Blueberries are picked by hand every two weeks and taken to the packing shed. At the packing shed each berry is individually inspected by hand to make sure it has the right colour and firmness before they’re packed into a punnet and labelled with the “True Earth” label.


Some "True Earth" Carrots

Some “True Earth” Carrots


The blueberries are irrigated from dripper lines that run about 30cm off the ground, irrigation is critical to the blueberries as they only have short fibrous roots unlike other plants. Scott like all the farmers we visited on the tour uses ‘Hydro Services” to monitor soil moisture and determine their irrigation schedule. Drip irrigation was the preferred choice for the blueberries as it is more efficient than sprinklers and won’t trigger the berries to burst. From what I understood of what we were told rain or an excessive amount of water on the berries can cause them to split and burst open.


A Split Berry

Frost was again the main worry in the Blueberries and like the Kiwi Fruit farm they used sprinklers for frost protection.  He also has lights set up around his property that turn on automatically when the conditions are right for a frost, to warn to turn the frost protection system on. The other main problem that they have in the Blueberries is damage from birds; however this problem drops off significantly once the grape vines start fruiting. While obvious solution to keep the birds out is to put up netting over the berries it is very expensive and has to be weighed up against the loss of production (A recently planted section of blueberries has been netted). While he didn’t know exactly how much damage the birds did he did say the believed it was probably greater than realised, but having just heard some advice a few days before he was going to put out water for them so they wouldn’t have to get moisture from his berries.’


The Irrigation Drip Lines

Soon enough the sky’s opened up again and pressed for time we got on the bus and headed off for the next farm. Where we looked at Mike’s dam, his property and how he was leasing part it to “Constellation Wines” to grow their grapes. So keep watching this space for the next part in the NZ farm tour.

NZ Irrigation – Part 1

Yes that’s right I’m out of the country and on the road travelling New Zealand, the weather has been damp but the rain and the drizzle of Napier didn’t stop me going on Irrigation tour of some local farms yesterday.

We boarded the bus by Napier’s board walk and headed out to the Heretaunga Plain just outside Napier, on the way out to the first farm our guide explained a bit about the region’s history and the area’s geology. The Heretaunga Plain has a wide range of soil types from old deep coarse gravel to some new (Couple of hundred year old) highly friable soil.

Our first farm had an Apple orchid and Kiwi Fruit plantation and was run by Mark Ericsson whose family had been farming their block of land for the four generations. When we got off the bus we were straight into the kiwi fruit, which were just about ready for harvest. The vines were set up in a way to increase growth and yield, with this year’s crop being on the lower lateral vines and the following years vines growing up to a stake above the main vine. So when this year’s crop is harvested the vines that the fruit grew on are removed, the new vines are brought down from above to where the old ones were and then the new shoots start to grow up to the steak. This method allowed for only a slight loss in production when he recently changed varieties, he simply grafted the new variety onto the vine and grew it up over the old variety, then when he harvested the current crop he brought them down and continued on as normal.

The vines holding the current crop grow laterally while next seasons vines grow up towards the steak.

The vines holding the current crop grow laterally while next seasons vines grow up towards the steak.

The Kiwi fruit were irrigated from sprinkler system that ran along the base of the vines using bore water, however if a frost was to occur the sprinklers could be moved to the top of the vines and turned on to stop the frost setting in and affecting the plants. (Emphasis on frost mitigation would quickly become a common theme on the tour.) Using “Hydro Services” he is able to measure the vines water usage and the soils moisture profile, helping to reduce the amount of water used in irrigation. Another technique he uses to prevent water losses is that after he has planted a new set of vines he will use a watering schedule that encourages deep root growth so the vines can access water from deep down in the soil profile.

The sprinklers at ground level

The sprinklers at ground level

Pipe reaching up to the canopy that the sprinklers can be placed in for frost protection

Pipe reaching up to the canopy that the sprinklers can be placed in for frost protection

Mark tries to run the property as close to organic as he can in order to minimise inputs and therefore reduce costs but would never go fully certified organic as it would limit his market access to the European market. In order to achieve this all the cut down vines are mulched and then brushed up against the vines to act as mulch that retains water. He is also very mind full of compaction in his fields as it can hinder the soil’s ability to take up and hold water. There are also peacocks that roam the vines mainly for aesthetic purposes but they are also used to help keep the grubs at bay.

Old vines cut off and painted over

Old vines cut off and painted over

As I mentioned earlier Mark said he would never go organic as it would limit his market access to Europe, however his main market for his Kiwi fruit are Japan and South Korea as they prefer yellower colour and high dry matter content of this variety.

While the Kiwi Fruit and apple orchid was interesting and we were soon back on the bus and onto the next farm, so watch this space over the coming days as I write more about the tour.



Old Vines cut off and painted over

Old Vines cut off and painted over

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The sprinklers at ground level

The sprinklers at ground level

Peacocks for aesthetics and grub control

Peacocks for aesthetics and grub control

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Happy New Year

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Unbelievably we’ve had both of these events off this year as we’re running out of water and had to stretch out irrigations. The farms dams were filled in the 2012 floods and helped put in a full crop in the 2012-13 season, unfortunately there hasn’t been significant rain since then and the dams are running. While the farm has six bores they only pump 25 mega litres a day in total which is enough to run a 100 bays at a time which is far from practical as 100 bays is a standard change in a field. While there is just enough water to see out this years crop the 2014-15 season will be very small unless there is a lot of rain between now and then.

The 40 + degree haven’t been helping the water shortage as the plants start to use more water as the days get hotter, the backpackers are also feeling the heat. Having come from Holland where it can get down to -10 this time of year the Aussie sun isn’t being kind to them, at about midday its like the hand break is pulled on and they slow down.

On the lighter side I’ve been working night shift during which keeps me out of the heat but makes the siphons harder to start as the cool air makes them stiff and they don’t bend over the bank, but they don’t burn your hands either. Night shift can get a bit tedious between changes so when I spotted a fox in a supply channel while driving around checking levels I thought I’d try and catch it. I end’d up catching it and got a photo before it bit my hand and got away.

Until next time kick of your next year with a bang.


The Fox that Got Away

Birds Birds Birds

We’ve just completed our first irrigation since planting, where there’s water there’s fish and where there’s fish there’s birds. Once again birds have descended on the fields and channels for a easy meal, as each channel is drained large carp are left behind in the receding water while smaller fish can get sucked through the siphons and into the rows.

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As some dams don’t go and haven’t been dry in years the fish have a large and relatively contestant supply of water allowing their numbers to be able to build up in large numbers. When we start to irrigate the water and the fish are released out of the dam and into the channels, if the channels are drained through the field like some of our are the fish become trapped in the head ditch and become a easy meal. Only certain fields tend to end up with fish in them, they don’t require a lift pump to get the water to the head ditch as they are largely unsuccessful in making through the pump unharmed.

Fish Trapped in The Head Ditch

Fish Trapped in The Head Ditch

Its not just water birds that are attracted to cotton farms, their is a whole range of bird life that make the farm’s fields, bush land, flood plains and nature corridors. In fact there is even a bird guide for cotton growers that has been put out by a group of industry bodies. A PDF copy is available below.

Birds_on_cotton_farms (2)

I’ll leave you with a quick video that I took off my phone while driving along the head ditch, all I can make out in the video is the pelicans. If you work out any more of them Comment Below.


Earth Moving

Since harvest finished we have been levelling out and restoring the slight slope to all the fields that had chickpeas in them, all the fields lose their level and slope over time from irrigation and other farm processes like ploughing. These particular fields were also flooded in the 2012 floods causing a large amount of silt to dumped in various spots over the field destroying the slope.

To restore the slope and level of the field the first step is to go over each field with the grader board to knock out the stubble, level the hills and flatten out all the little bumps and ditches. The grader board goes over each field twice at different angles going across the rows to get the best possible level on it.

The Grader Board in Action

The Grader Board in Action

After the grader board goes though the surveyor enters the field and takes survey heights every 50 metres in the field, these spot heights are then laid out on a map and the slope is worked out. For each height on the map the desired height and the difference is written out on the map to determine whether that height is lower (fill section) than the desired height or if the height is higher (cut section).


Map of Field 9 with All The Spot Heights Marked

The data is then loaded into the laser, the laser is put in the middle of the field and sends a signal to the bucket that tells it to lift or lower the bucket depending on the height it needs to make that area of the field. When the bucket is full they dump it over a fill section to get it to the level that it needs to be at. After the field has been levelled by the laser bucket the grader board goes back over it to give it the final trim and join up sections that may have been levelled to different heights.

While this process sounds pretty quick and simple it took 8 days for the two laser buckets to do the one field in the picture above, for a video of the laser bucket action see below.

Last Round

That’s it we’re done, irrigation is over for another year, so no more walking the rows, no more starting and pulling siphons and no more raking the trash racks, its also my last week for the season before I head off to start uni. But there’ll still be plenty to do in that week between chipping and preparing rigs for ground prep and getting ready to plant winter crops as well as the many other tasks, so we won’t won’t be letting up any time soon.

The last irrigation was finished in record time but it wasn’t with out mishap though, unfortunately we had we blow out on one of the channels two days into the irrigation but it fixed quickly with the loader. We also arrived one morning to find a pump choking on its own air filter, it was blowing smoke so thick that I thought the pump site was on fire when driving up the driveway, but again it was a quick fix with just a simple change of air filter needed.

The cotton is coming along pretty good with all the lower bolls opening up on the plants, the rest should be open very soon with picking predicted to start in about seven weeks. Defoliation will probably start in late February after the top bolls have opened up, defoliation is a process where a chemical is sprayed on the cotton to make the leaves fall off so contamination is reduced during picking. But when picking time comes I’ll explain all of this in more detail.

So that’s what I’ve been up to lately, thanks for reading if you have any questions or want to leave your thoughts please feel free to leave them in the comment section, check out our new page “The Lighter Side” and the new photos on “Farming Photo’s“.

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Flying Along

With a couple of days gap the between irrigation cycles  we were able to have to weekend off, so I decided to try my hand at a bit of water skiing. It was good fun (when you eventually get up on the skis) but it can leave you feeling stiff and sore the next day, plus I think I’m the only person who’s been able to run over themselves on a knee board. But it was back to work Sunday night.

I started back at work Sunday night and we’ve been flying along since then, with four fields on the goon Sunday and then six on the go last night, more than enough to keep us busy all night trying to keep the water up to the paddocks while running around doing the changes. Fortunately even with all the fields going we didn’t blow any channels but we did start to fall behind in the changes and had to leave a couple for day shift to do. Hopefully we’ll be able to get through all paddocks and be done this cycle by Australia Day.

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Checking The Probes

The moisture probes are critical to running of an irrigation property, they tell us how much water is in the soil profile, how much water the crop is using and most important it tells us when we need irrigate the cotton. There are a couple of types of moisture probes about; one type is a electrical probe that works by measuring the conductivity between two wires in the ground, the better the conductivity the more moisture.

The type of moisture probe we use is called a Neutron Moisture Probe we have been using it on the farm for years and find it to be simple and effective method, it works by lowering the probe down a aluminium tube in the ground, the probe then release fast neutrons which lose energy and slow down when they collide with hydrogen the slow neutrons are detected and give a reading. The probe then takes more readings at different depths to give a complete picture of the moisture profile, then once all readings are completed the probe is plugged into the computer which makes up a graph showing the moisture level, usage and how long till irrigation is needed, making managing the crop a whole lot easier. Unfortunately because it uses radiation the operator needs to be accredited so its usually done by the farm agronomist.

If you have any questions on the moisture probes or anything else just leave a comment.

For more amazing sights in the world of farming check out Farming Photo’s

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