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Good soil management key to sustainable irrigation for award winning Canterbury farmers

Understanding soil types and managing soil biodiversity is key to sustainable irrigation and a successful farming operation, according to Canterbury mixed cropping farmer Angus Aitken.

Angus and his wife Elise are the Supreme Winners of the 2021 Zimmatic® Trailblazer Sustainable Irrigation Awards.

They farm a 550ha mixed cropping property in Waiau that grows a variety of produce, from sweet corn to red clover for lamb finishing.

The Aitken’s have a consent 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 says they are keen to use their win to generate discussion among farmers about sustainable water use.

“We support the 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,” says Angus.

The Aitken’s operation has variable water requirements across crops. They use FieldNET’s variable rate irrigation feature, which allows them to vary application depths by 1-degree sectors. This ensures they direct water where it’s needed most, depending on their soil types, run off 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 Lindsay’s FieldNET™ remote irrigation management system and CropX soil moisture sensors 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,” says Angus.

The technology allows quick, on farm decisions to be made, such as altering the Aitken’s 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,” says Angus.

The Aitken’s employ two full time staff members and the technology allows everyone involved in the farm to be a part of managing the water resource by using the FieldNET™ and CropX Apps available on their phones. These Apps provide real time data about where the water is going and how much is being used.

The Aitken’s operation is 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!” says Angus. “We are only at 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.”

Judges Feedback

Joining the Aitken’s as finalists this year were Richard and Annabelle Subtil (North Otago) and Simon and Lou White (Hawkes Bay).

Head judge and Irrigation NZ Chair Keri Johnston commended all three couples saying their calibre was outstanding and each of them had different strengths.

“We are so fortunate to have such high-quality entrants again this year,” she says. “It was an incredibly close competition and they should all be congratulated. As judges, it is great to have such amazing finalists, but it did make our job that much more challenging! 

Keri says the Aitken’s approach to irrigation was refreshing.

“It was well thought out and they have a willingness to try new things, learn and grow as food producers. They are also motivated to be a part of the greater conversations that need to happen around the future of irrigation in New Zealand and its role in ensuring that we have thriving and resilient communities. 

“They are not afraid of the regulatory challenges that the sector faces, but rather see them as opportunities that are just part of farming. In their view, it’s all about how you look at it. 

“While the Aiken’s are still early on in their journey, they have a sound plan and a vision. As a family, they have a proactive approach and a positive attitude. I am confident they will be great role models for the irrigation sector. Our sincere congratulations to them both.” 

Category Awards

The judges were impressed with the Aitkens use and adoption of technology to manage and schedule irrigation, which is why they were also awarded the Sustainable Irrigation Management Award sponsored by Irricon Resource Solutions.

“They had a great understanding of the science of irrigation and are always open to doing things better,” says Keri. “They are also about to trial an area of sub-surface irrigation and it will be really exciting to see the results of this.” 

Richard and Annabelle Subtil were deserving winners of the Environmental Stewardship and Community Award sponsored by Farmers Weekly. The couple farm fine wool sheep and run beef breeding and fattening operation on Omarama Station, a 12,000 ha High Country property in the Mackenzie Country.

The Subtil’s believe sustainable irrigation management is about implementing a development that increases productivity and profit, without having detrimental downstream effects on local water quality. Environmental stewardship and community involvement have always been a priority. The couple are involved in a variety of water-related projects both on the Station and in the community.

Simon and Lou White were awarded the Opportunities and Diversification Award sponsored by Vantage NZ. They farm Ludlow Farms - 835ha mixed arable cropping, sheep, and beef finishing operation in Otane near Waipawa.

For the White’s, sustainable irrigation management is about future proofing their business for another generational transition. This philosophy has led to the diversification of their business by producing their own brand of hemp. They have invested in technology and advanced machinery to irrigate in the most sustainable way and as a tool for making the best decisions.

Together, Zimmatic and its Awards partners are offering the 2021 finalists a total prize package of more than NZ$22,000. For more information about the Awards visit www.irrigationtrailblazer.com

Angus, Elise and George Aitken