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Variable-rate irrigation is a real game-changer

Publication date: 2 March 2017

Grower profile: Terry Buckley, Buckley Farms, SA

If there’s one thing to know about potato grower Terry Buckley, it’s that he’s not content if he’s not trying something new. “I’m a ‘new idea every three minutes’ kind of person,” he said. “For me, everything’s up for change and everything’s up for question all of the time.”

It’s this drive for change that sees Terry constantly evolving his business, with some of the more recent developments including redeveloped row spacing, new soil practices, and the introduction of variable-rate irrigation. And next up? Drones.

The innovation gene runs strong in Terry’s family. “I’m a fourth-generation potato grower on my father’s side and a fifth-generation grower on my mother’s, and my family has always been very big on ideas. My father is a keen engineer and over the years has built something like six potato harvesters on the farm, including what was potentially the first four-row, self-propelled potato harvester in the world,” Terry said.

As for Terry, with soil sustainability a passion he has changed the business’s cultivation techniques dramatically, moving towards less and less tillage. “I’ve also changed all our row spacings – we don’t grow on standard rows but on six-row beds, which allows us to produce the smaller potatoes that the market wants, without reducing yield.”

The biggest change, however, has been the introduction of variable-rate irrigation.

Terry retrofitted two centre pivots to variable-rate technology three seasons ago. “It’s been the most significant development in my potato-growing career,” he said. “Over the years the industry has seen an improvement in moisture monitoring and knowledge generally, but you weren’t able to do anything with the information. So you could tell with a neutron probe that the water was high in one spot, but if the soil was different just a bit further down the paddock and it was dry there, well what did you do? You just set the pivot on average. Now with variable-rate technology, we can tailor the water we put in to the needs of our variable soil type and highly variable sub-surface clay in different areas.”

Terry is using his two variable-rate irrigators in conjunction with EM soil mapping and capacitance probes for soil-moisture monitoring. “We’ve moved to the new probes, which are now free-standing and have their own solar panels, so you can locate them anywhere. They record moisture every hour, then send the data out to the iPads of our people in the paddock so they know what’s going on and what needs to be done.”

Because Terry doesn’t want to end up with probes all over the place, he said the next logical step is to harness the power of drone technology, which he is just starting on.

“The idea is that you get your moisture readouts and know you have the moisture correct where the probes are. Then you fly your drone over to do infrared mapping. From this you can see what the colour of the infrared picture is where the probes are at and the water is right – so if anything else is a different colour, you’ll know something’s not right there. You’ve pinpointed exactly where to go out and look, so it will be very efficient,” Terry said.

“Really, it’s a pretty exciting time to be in the industry,” he added.  “All of this technology is really great for decision-making on the land. It’s also taking people back to the soil, getting them really looking at what they’re doing with it.”

And things are only going to get better, Terry said. “With variable-rate irrigation, for example, we’re ultimately heading towards remote starting of the centre pivots. To do the irrigation run on our property is anywhere from 60 to 80km. It means you have to leave soon after lunch if you want to get back at a sensible time, which also means you have to start the irrigators up sooner than you’d ideally like. But if we can get to remote starting, we’ll be able to turn them on at the end of the day, from wherever we are, no troubles. What a world.”


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