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The future of irrigation automation in the Macalister Irrigation District (MID) is being enacted on a dairy farm at Denison. Nine Dethridge wheels have been replaced through the rationalisation program; but on this farm, an integrated WISA system means irrigation can be driven from the farm office, on the tractor, in the dairy or at the football.

For Ash and Lisa Mezenberg, investing $400,000 of their own money to convert to solar powered meters and computer technology has reduced their water volumes by 25 percent.

That has led to more opportunities to irrigate, which means increased pasture production, in an industry where on-farm cost variables are measured by how much grass is grown by a dairy farmer.

Rationalisation and efficiencies

Ash and Lisa Mezenberg operate two dairy farms at Denison in the MID, milking a total 650 cows off 900 irrigated acres, plus a 200 acre leased block. As part of the first phase of MID2030 modernisation, Southern Rural Water introduced the rationalisation program and encouraged farmers to decommission the old-fashioned Dethbridge wheels and modernise their irrigation systems.

Earthworks were undertaken on the Mezenberg farms about four years ago and the automation system installed three years ago. Earthworks included installed siphons, new channels, delvers and doors to optimise water flow. New slipmeters use solar-powered meters and computer technology to order and measure flow and volume. Eight Dethridge wheels were decommissioned on the first farm, with nine wheels decommissioned in total.

On the second farm, modifications included building a 10ML capacity reuse dam. A centre pivot and fixed sprinklers are fed from two bores, irrigating 40 hectares. An additional 220ha is irrigated with flood, with 30ha converted to automated irrigation via a slipmeter.

All the excess irrigation water goes into the reuse dam and is returned into the system for flood irrigation. The reuse dam reduces environmental damage in the MID system by minimising nutrient outflow – all fertiliser and nutrients stay on the farm.

“We graded some paddocks and installed drains and siphons to catch excess water and divert it into the reuse dam.” Ash said. “By undertaking the paddock renovation works and decommissioning the Dethridge wheels, we received a subsidy of about $100,000 from SRW for adopting the rationalisation program.” The farm business contributed $400,000 to complete the work to date. As Ash and Lisa build more equity into the business, they will be able to invest in more irrigation efficiencies.

Invested in WISA

The entire system across both farms is controlled by a WISA automated irrigation system, installed on the farm’s computer and accessible through smart devices.

The Mezenberg dairy business is one of two farm businesses in the MID to be early adopters of the WISA system.

“The WISA system enables us to monitor soil moisture and schedule irrigations,” Ash said. “The software sends alerts to my mobile telephone, so I can be in the office, out on the farm, in the dairy, anywhere; and be able to monitor what’s going on and where.
“Because it’s a fully automated system, we’re consequently using less water per hectare for irrigation. We’ve reduced water volume by 25 percent, so we’re able to increase the number of waterings over the season.”

Automation takes the labour out of the system and makes for a more efficient working day.

“Talking about our experience has encouraged other farmers to install the system,” Ash said.

Improved irrigation, more productivity

Ash Mezenberg’s view is that the improved system has enabled him to grow more grass, which has led to increased herd size and more milk production per cow. So the improved irrigation efficiencies have enabled the couple to grow their business to be a more sustainable enterprise.

Getting rid of so many Dethridge wheels and changing to slipmeters was not without its management challenges. “Slipmeters initially gave us bigger flows, so we had to learn to change the timers to accommodate that,” Ash Mezenberg said. “Now we’ve invested in automation and we water now when we need it. We grow a lot more grass and we’re a lot more productive.”

Soil moisture probes integrated into the system provide Ash with the information he needs to decide when to irrigate; and eliminates the risk of over-watering. Irrigating more efficiently has done more than use less water volume – Ash has also noted reduced water runoff in the paddocks, which means the reuse dam is used less, which has lowered pumping use and maintenance costs.

Benefits produce more than milk

As part of the rationalisation program, Southern Rural Water has been able to continue its environmental water flow commitments while delivering greater efficiencies across the entire system. This enabled more irrigation water volumes to be made available to farmers in the MID, across several auctions.

Ash and Lisa Mezenberg took advantage of the offer and bought additional water parcels, which means the entire farm is now under irrigation. That, too, has increased their production capacity and business sustainability.

In drought and dry weather conditions, such as the district has experienced in 2018, Ash Mezenberg said the ability to apply more irrigation has made the difference to the dairy farm’s production. As well as being able to grow grass, the cheapest form of feed for dairy cows, the farm is still producing all the hay and silage the herd needs.

There are also lifestyle improvements from the improved irrigation system.

“Because I don’t have to get up during the night to turn timers on and off, I get more sleep,” Ash said. “That means I’m not tired and more able and keen to do the work around the farm that needs to be done.”

After 20 years in the dairy industry, he is also able to spend more time with his family. Irrigation is pre-programmed and can be monitored from his iPad while the entire family spends a few hours away from the farm.

  • Interview and case study by Jeanette Severs, for SRW
  • Filming by Spectrum Productions and Matt Stagg, for SRW
  • Production by  Adele Video, for SRW