Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Good soil management the key to sustainable irrigation

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Canterbury farmer Angus Aitken believes understanding soil types and managing soil biodiversity is key to sustainable irrigation and a successful farming operation.
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Canterbury farmer Angus Aitken believes understanding soil types and managing soil biodiversity is key to sustainable irrigation and a successful farming operation.

Aitken and wife Elise, who have been named the Supreme Winners of the 2021 Zimmatic Trailblazer Sustainable Irrigation awards, farm a 550ha mixed cropping property in Waiau that grows a variety of produce, from sweet corn to red clover for lamb finishing.

The Aitkens have a consent to draw water from a nearby Waiau River tributary to irrigate the property and they use a small storage dam and a two-pump shed system. While technology plays a large part in sustainably managing their irrigation system, Angus says they are also focused on managing their soils and soil structure through methods like no till farming.

“I think for a long time the focus has been on what’s above ground and what you can see on the surface of your paddocks. But we are learning that understanding your soil characteristics and protecting the biodiversity in your soils can also help with water infiltration, crop performance and sustainable water use,” Aitken said.

He says they are keen to use their win to generate discussion among farmers about sustainable water use. 

“We support the national policy on protecting our waterways. While we don’t own the water, we have a right to use it responsibly. It’s for everyone’s benefit that we use it sustainably to produce food,” he said.

The Aitkens’ operation has variable water requirements across crops. They use FieldNET’s variable rate irrigation feature, which allows them to vary application depths by one-degree sectors. This ensures they direct water where it’s needed most, depending on their soil types, runoff and drainage areas, and crop growth stages. In the future they plan to invest in Zimmatic Precision VRI technology for individual sprinkler control and EM survey the property to map soil variability.

They use soil moisture sensors and Lindsay’s FieldNET remote irrigation management system to measure and understand the constantly changing conditions and variability on their land.

“It’s one of the reasons I see a bright future for farming. The technology is continuing to improve all the time and it’s only helping us be more efficient and more sustainable,” he said.

The technology allows quick, on-farm decisions to be made, such as altering the Aitkens’ water application depth or shutting down irrigation pivots straight away to avoid a fault.

“We can prioritise crops such as corn that need more water,and pull back on watering crops such as red clover, which can handle dryer conditions. Our farming model and soil type allow us to extract the most out of our limited water resource and make strategic decisions on where to direct the water,” he said. 

The Aitkens employ two full-time staff members and the technology allows everyone involved in the farm to be a part of managing the water resource by using apps available on their phones. These apps provide real-time data about where the water is going and how much is being used.

Their operation is part of an irrigation collective in the Waiau area. The collective is audited by independent assessors every year to ensure they have current farm environment plans and are employing good management practices.

“We are certainly not perfect. We are only at the beginning of our journey and have a lot more to learn. We’re not the only farmers trying to change things, but together over time I’m confident we can demonstrate that it is possible to run profitable and productive farming operations, while protecting our waterways,” he said.

Joining the Aitken’s as finalists this year were Simon and Lou White, Hawke’s Bay, and Richard and Annabelle Subtil, North Otago.

Head judge and Irrigation NZ chair Keri Johnston commended all three couples saying their calibre was outstanding and each of them had different strengths.

“We are so fortunate to have such high-quality entrants again this year,” Johnston said. “It was an incredibly close competition and they should all be congratulated. As judges, it is great to have such amazing finalists, but it did make our job that much more challenging.”

Johnston says the Aitkens’ approach to irrigation was refreshing.

“It was well thought out and they have a willingness to try new things, learn and grow as food producers. They are also motivated to be a part of the greater conversations that need to happen around the future of irrigation in New Zealand and its role in ensuring that we have thriving and resilient communities,” she said.

“They are not afraid of the regulatory challenges that the sector faces, but rather see them as opportunities that are just part of farming. In their view, it’s all about how you look at it.

“While the Aikens are still early on in their journey, they have a sound plan and a vision. As a family, they have a proactive approach and a positive attitude. I am confident they will be great role models for the irrigation sector. Our sincere congratulations to them both.”

The judges were impressed with the Aitkens use and adoption of technology to manage and schedule irrigation, which is why they were also awarded the Irricon Resource Solutions – Sustainable Irrigation Management award.

“They have a great understanding of the science of irrigation and are always open to doing things better,” she said. 

“They are also about to trial an area of sub-surface irrigation and it will be really exciting to see the results of this.”

The 2021 category winners are: Irricon Resource Solutions – Sustainable Irrigation Management award: Angus and Elise Aitken; Farmers Weekly – Environmental Stewardship and Community award: Richard and Annabelle Subtil; and Vantage NZ – Opportunities & Diversification award: Simon and Lou White.

Together, Zimmatic and its awards partners are offering the 2021 finalists a total prize package of more than $22,000. For more information about the awards visit

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