Automated irrigation in the palm of his hand
As the only labour units on their farm, Ray and Karmel Thornton use a range of tools to help drive efficiency and ultimately boost yields.
Farming 260 hectares at Yalca in northern Victoria, the Thorntons grow maize over summer, as well as wheat, barley, canola and faba beans over winter, all under surface irrigation.
To help drive efficiency, Ray and Karmel have invested in automated flood outlets and soil moisture probes through funding from the Victorian Government’s Farm Water Program. Ray says this has enabled faster watering times and reduced waterlogging of crops.
“Being the main labour unit on the farm, 50 years of the hard slog that is irrigating manually had worn a bit thin,” Ray says.
“Now I can turn the irrigation on or off and program it using my tablet, smartphone or computer from anywhere, rather than going out and opening outlets manually.”
Ray and Karmel’s old system centred on a four-hour watering period delivered via two 30-centimetre outlets, meaning they would have to go out and open and shut outlet gates, often while in the middle of other farm tasks or trying to sleep.
Ray regularly found he was late to close gates, leading to over-watering.
Now, half of the property is set up on Rubicon Water automated fast-flow control of flood outlets with FarmConnect software. The water is delivered to each 50-metre-wide by 400m-long bay through a single 53cm Padman Stops outlet with each irrigation taking about 1.5 hours with the ability to push through between 12 and 14 megalitres of water per hour.
Two soil moisture probes help Ray to judge water deficits and order water for a bay when it is most needed. Ray believes technology will reach a point where the soil moisture probes will order water and open and close gates automatically.
This year’s winter cropping season will be the Thorntons’ fourth irrigation season with the new system. They have plans to automate another quarter of the property, while a further quarter is on a pipe-and-riser system
“My aim is to be able to grow five crops in three seasons on some of the property but that depends on water availability,” Ray says.
“The rotation for that would be to grow maize over summer, harvest it in autumn then direct-drill beans for winter and harvest them in early December, sow a late maize crop with a long-season variety to harvest in September, then back into summer maize and then faba beans.”
Ray works on average yields of 12 tonnes/ha for maize and says plant population is “king” in achieving yield targets. For this reason, he aims for between 85,000 and 90,000 plants/ha.
“Good soil moisture at sowing is a critical factor in achieving that population,” Ray says. “We need good, even emergence, which is influenced in part by the quality of the seed.”
To further improve maize yields and spread labour, Ray recently bought a strip tiller, which clears the row of previous stubble and bands fertiliser in a separate pass, ahead of planting maize later in spring.
In August, Ray will spray weeds and in September will use the strip tiller to band phosphorus at 7 to 8cm and nitrogen at nearly 30cm below the soil surface, then sow maize later with a ‘pop-up’ or starter fertiliser.
“Strip tilling gives me the ability to spread out the labour a bit more,” Ray says. “If I can get it done in early spring ahead of maize planting and the winter crop harvest, it would be a bonus. I am still on a learning curve with the strip tiller.
“After strip tilling, I pre-water those paddocks, then plant and give the emerging maize some time to get up. I find there are benefits in delaying the first irrigation and letting the plant get to about 60cm high before we do so – even with fast-flow.”
He says much of his ground is fairly tight, making it difficult to direct-drill maize, so pre-fertilising and pre-watering before sowing into a cultivated strip also helps with maize emergence.
Ray says herbicide-resistant ryegrass is an issue for his farm and that summer crops help to break the weed’s cycle.
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