Thursday, November 30, 2023

Understanding soil key to award-winning Canty farm

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Good soil management is at the heart of the Aitken family’s sustainable irrigation farm operation.
Angus and Elise Aitken with their children and family dog on their Waiau farm. The farming couple are keen to use their win to generate discussion among farmers about sustainable water use.
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A Canterbury-based farmer believes understanding soil types and managing soil biodiversity is key to sustainable irrigation and a successful farming operation.

Angus Aitken and his wife Elise were named the Supreme Winners of the New Zealand 2021 Zimmatic™ Trailblazer Sustainable Irrigation Awards. They farm a 550ha mixed cropping property in Waiau, about 120km north of Christchurch, that grows a variety of produce, from sweet corn to red clover for lamb finishing. 

The Aitkens have a consent from their regional council 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,” Angus said.

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

“We support New Zealand’s 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 the FieldNET™ basic variable rate irrigation function, 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 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 their 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 are 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,” he said. “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.”

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