Australia’s farmers are recognised as being among the most efficient in the world – producing more with less – but just 25 per cent are accurately tracking their water-related costs, a new study has found.
The lack of an integrated system to link financial, soil and climate information has stymied our irrigators for years, according to University of South Australia researcher Dr Joanne Tingey-Holyoak, but this is set to change.
Dr Tingey-Holyoak is leading a world-first project with sensing company Sentek Pty Ltd to develop a farm water accounting tool which links water-related costs to soil moisture and climate data.
“Not only are water prices skyrocketing, but there are a lot of non-water costs involved in irrigating, including pumping and labour,” Dr Tingey-Holyoak says.
“It sounds simple but there are also water-related costs that are hidden – owner time, quality treatment, interest and insurance. Most are not being captured due to the inability of accounting systems to integrate this data. These costs end up eroding profits without farmers being aware of it.”
The water accounting and management expert based in UniSA’s School of Business is trialling a tool called WaterLink, with three South Australian producers – a potato farmer in the Murraylands and viticulturists in the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale.
“We found that while factors such as the effects of plant stress, disease and frost can be visually detected, the damage has often been done. By linking sensing, climate and financial information, the farmer can be alerted to plant stress much earlier and take the necessary action to save a crop.”
While farmers are embracing technology and becoming more efficient, the existing accounting systems are not sophisticated enough to allow growers to analyse water use, loss and productivity, Dr Tingey-Holyoak says.
“There are a lot of amazing soil moisture tools and climate forecasting technology to help farmers these days, but these need to be integrated with the full suite of water-related costs to get a true picture of how a producer is faring.”
The WaterLink tool identified hidden water-related costs of 20 per cent in the case of a 28-hectare Lower Murray potato crop and 40 per cent across a seven-hectare shiraz block.
Soil moisture, drainage, evapotranspiration, rainfall, and forecasting information were integrated with the full costs of irrigation in both case studies.
“This tool not only exposes the full cost of irrigating to identify areas where costs can be shaved, and productivity improved, but also integrates energy market costs and weather forecasting to provide cost informed alerts and forecasting.”
Dr Tingey-Holyoak is working with expert agronomist and R&D Manager at Sentek, Peter Buss, engineering and legal experts, including Associate Professor John Pisaniello, and UniSA’s School of IT and Mathematical Sciences researchers to refine the software which will soon be commercialised through Sentek.
“There has never been a greater need for better informed irrigation decision making than right now, with farmers facing a prolonged drought and increased costs and pressures,” Dr Tingey-Holyoak says.
“This tool enables irrigators to be acutely aware of their costs, where improvements can be made, whether to diversify their crop, to forego a season on a particular area of land or to invest in different infrastructure which could improve their bottom line.
“An unexpected bonus is that the new generation of farmers and farm managers coming through who don’t have years of experience behind them, can rely on this tool to make better informed irrigation decisions.”
Details of the case studies and the water accounting tool have been published in Outlook on Agriculture.
For a copy of the paper, titled “Water productivity accounting in Australian agriculture: the need for cost-informed decision making