Technology adds value to on-farm management

François Tillard, Craigmore Pod Manager is featured in the Otago Regional Council’s newsletter, Waterlines

Francois Tillard

Waiareka Creek creates some interesting environmental challenges for François Tillard.

He manages two dairy farms in North Otago, and in some places the level of the creek is higher than the paddocks.

This makes it challenging to ensure no runoff enters the creek and degrades water quality from irrigation, spreading effluent, or grazing.

When François came onto the farm at the start of 2014, one of his first steps was re-fencing the low-lying water-logged areas to keep the cattle out. While the animals had no access to the creek, he wanted to prevent the potential environmental impact from pugging and runoff getting into the water.

His environmental approach doesn’t stop at fencing. François embraces technology and believes that the information it provides, combined with farming knowledge and experience, results in better decision making.

“Using the information I get from the technology is better than just saying ‘I know the land; I’ve been farming this way for years,’” he said. “It gives me confidence that the decisions I make will benefit the farm operation as well as the environment.”

The irrigation system on both farms is computerised. Four permanent probes are set at strategic places on the property to measure soil moisture and provide information about how much effluent can be applied through the variable rate irrigation (VRI) system.

Arnmore irrigation

VRI works well on the property, which can have up to 65% variability of water retention capability under the pivots. Not only is irrigation targeted to where it’s needed, but VRI also makes the system more cost-effective.

On the flat there are some areas that don’t need irrigation at all, which is surprising for an area of North Otago that is known for dry summers.

“Not irrigating in some areas means the grass grows better because the soil isn’t waterlogged. It also means the cattle aren’t compacting the ground because wet areas have been eliminated. I know many people who think compaction is a normal part of dairy farming but it isn’t, and it has an economic effect as well as environmental.”

A number of farms use VRI and soil moisture testing, but what sets Francois apart is how well he understands and uses the technology to add value to farming decisions.

“In the past I couldn’t see the use of the information, but now I can see the benefits, especially as the technology has developed and the information you get is more reliable, for soil moisture probes in particular.

“I will always keep my own eye on the irrigation system though,” he said. “I want to make sure there are no problems, and that I have time to stop irrigating if I see something go wrong.”

François has customised several irrigation programmes based on the constantly-changing moisture levels, so he can select the right one for the conditions. He can easily manage this from his smartphone.

“I have seven programmes set up at the moment, and it’s important to know how to use the technology well so it can be effective. If I kept on doing the same thing that was always done, the chances are that we’d have a swamp.

“The soil moisture probes tell the VRI how much effluent to put on, and in time the technology will evolve to the point that the soil moisture readers will be on the pivot, making it even more efficient,” he said.

“We are doing everything we can to protect water quality. With the Waiareka Creek running through our farms, we have a responsibility to look after it.”