Learning how to use our irrigation and manage our farm has really made a difference for us
Written By Bob Freebairn
BOGGABRI cotton growers Andrew and Heike Watson – who have reduced their water usage while increasing their yield – were today awarded the 2014 Brownhill Cup during a ceremony at Commonwealth Bank AgQuip in Gunnedah, NSW.
The Brownhill Cup is one of Australia’s most prestigious agricultural awards and is announced annually in recognition of innovative farming practices that improve sustainability, productivity and profitability in agriculture.
The Watsons were acknowledged for their commitment to ecological and economic sustainability, which includes initiatives ranging from on-farm research and development, to involvement in the Climate Champions program.
The Cup was presented by NSW general manager Regional and Agribusiness Banking, Commonwealth Bank, Tim Harvey, who congratulated the Watsons on combining business and farming innovation.
“Andrew and Heike Watson, their family and the team maintain a focus on ongoing practice improvement to help ensure the success not only of their own business, but of the cotton industry,” Mr Harvey said.
“The Watsons recognise the connection between environmental sustainability, innovation in farming and a strong agricultural economy. By sharing their learnings with the wider farming community they are helping to create a positive future for the industry.”
Mr Watson said managing water usage is a challenging issue and has been central to the success of his family’s 3000 hectare operation.
“Evaporation and seepage are always challenges whenever you store water. Learning how to use our irrigation and manage our farm has really made a difference for us. We have increased the frequency of our watering cycles, which sounds like it should use more water, but it doesn’t. Our water usage has reduced by about 20 per cent over the past 11 years, while our yield is up by about 30 per cent,” he said.
Mr Watson is using moisture sensors and crop canopy heat sensors to help determine when and how much to water the crop. Lateral move irrigation systems, which can increase pasture and crop production while using less water, have also been introduced.
At the same time, the Watsons focus on ‘soft’ chemistry and pest management methods.
“We’ll tolerate a little damage in return for not having to spray so much, and we trust predatory insects to help us control pests,” said Mr Watson.
Trees have been planted and vegetation belts developed to promote predatory insects and insect counts are conducted every week.
All new initiatives on the Watson property are trialled before being fully rolled out, and results are shared with the cotton growing community.
Currently, four fertiliser trials are underway, and work is being conducted to find the right balance between organic and chemical fertilisers.
Brownhill Cup founder David Brownhill commended the Watsons on their achievements.
“Andrew and his team have made a considerable contribution to agriculture, and especially to the cotton sector. Their field trials and on-farm research have contributed to the industry’s understanding of best practice, and they have set the bar high for innovative and sustainable farming practices,” said Mr Brownhill.
This year the perpetual cup was accompanied by a $2000 prize from Commonwealth Bank and the Brownhill family that will allow Andrew Watson to participate in an industry event that aligns with the goals of the Brownhill Cup.
ALWAYS AIM FOR IMPROVEMENT: AWARD RECIPIENT FOCUS
David Browhhill, Merrilong Pastoral Company Spring Ridge, one of the patrons of the Brownhill cup, and Andrew Watson “Kilmarnock” Boggabri, the 2014 awardee, checking a recently acquired lateral irrigator. Continually improving water use efficiency and striving for higher paying crops are important focuses of the “Kilmarnock” business.
“Never be satisfied with one’s farm performance, in all it components”, is a key message from awardee of the 2014 Brownhill trophy, Andrew Watson “Kilmarnock” Boggabri. Another key tenet of their operation is “Learn from others mistakes, focus on looking at any applicable research, and if not available, do the research ourselves”.
Mr Watson, his family and employees, run a highly efficient cotton business, mainly irrigation but also dryland, as well as winter cropping and beef cattle (on separate non crop land). Over his 16 years with the business Andrew and his family have aimed to improve crop performance annually and believe there are many avenues for future gains, combined with aspects like soil improvement and improved profitability.
In recent years irrigation cotton has seen average yield on their property rise by around 22 percent, from just below nine bales/ha to around 11 bales/ha. In the same period the amount of water required to grow the crop has decreased on average by around 15 percent or nearly one mgl/ha. These figures vary greatly from year to year depending on rainfall and temperature but are a definite long term trend.
However Andrew Watson stresses that individual paddock yields by other farmers as well as themselves have been as high as 16 bales/ha. His immediate aim is to average this type of yield across the farm provided it can be done at improved gross margin.
Properly conducted trials (randomised replicated and statistically analysed) looking at ways to improve crop performance, crop efficiency and as well improved soil quality is a major part of the farm business, and integrates with research conducted by the Cotton Research and Development Corporation, other researchers and private companies. For example ongoing research is focusing on improved correction of current and likely future nutrient deficiencies like potassium and phosphorus.
Testing a range of products to address deficiencies is also being researched. For example, while more expensive, potassium nitrate is proving far more profitable than other fertiliser forms of potassium. Chicken manure is showing a lot of promise in addressing deficiencies as well as possibly improving soil quality. Trials are sometimes ongoing for several years to measure long as well as short term effect.
A lot of effort goes into improving irrigation water use efficiency. For example the Watson’s have like several innovative cotton irrigation growers replaced or are replacing furrow irrigation with lateral sprinklers.
Andrew Watson says on their around 550/ha annual irrigation cotton crop careful use of laterals (for example frequent applications) is 20 percent (for some neighbours up to 50 percent) more water use efficient, as well as better for the crop, than furrow watering. Water logging is a lesser problem and cotton uses deep as well as top soil water more effectively. Monitoring soil water is important with new heat seekers (that assess heat within the crop and therefore detect likely water stress) being trialled.
Other water savings are being made such as using “harvested” water when available as soon as possible, even if this means for building soil reserve levels in the fallow phase, and reducing water storage and channel losses.
Andrew Watson and father John have for 30 years conducted variety trials for CSD, The sole Australian cotton breeder. These and other trials give them a close look at new varieties and a role in liaising with breeders for the type of plant growers require.
Mr Watson credits new cotton varieties with 50 percent of yield gains. Improved technology and management changes contribute the other 50 percent gains. Carefully understanding each variety is very important and has agronomic and management of water consequences. For example a very high yielding variety can be lower in seeding vigour and needs great care with sowing depth and management of seedling disease.
Bob Freebairn is an agricultural consultant based at Coonabarabran. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact (0428) 752 149.