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Driving better vegetable irrigation through profitable practice change

Henderson, C. (2011) Driving better vegetable irrigation through profitable practice change. Project Report. Queensland Government.

PDF (Final Report for HAL Project VG07023)


The availability and quality of irrigation water has become an issue limiting productivity in many Australian vegetable regions. Production is also under competitive pressure from supply chain forces. Producers look to new technologies, including changing irrigation infrastructure, exploring new water sources, and more complex irrigation management, to survive these stresses. Often there is little objective information investigating which improvements could improve outcomes for vegetable producers, and external communities (e.g. meeting NRM targets). This has led to investment in inappropriate technologies, and costly repetition of errors, as business independently discover the worth of technologies by personal experience.

In our project, we investigated technology improvements for vegetable irrigation. Through engagement with industry and other researchers, we identified technologies most applicable to growers, particularly those that addressed priority issues. We developed analytical tools for ‘what if’ scenario testing of technologies.

We conducted nine detailed experiments in the Lockyer Valley and Riverina vegetable growing districts, as well as case studies on grower properties in southern Queensland. We investigated root zone monitoring tools (FullStop™ wetting front detectors and Soil Solution Extraction
Tubes - SSET), drip system layout, fertigation equipment, and altering planting arrangements. Our project team developed and validated models for broccoli, sweet corn, green beans and lettuce, and spreadsheets for evaluating economic risks associated with new technologies. We presented project outcomes at over 100 extension events, including irrigation showcases, conferences, field days, farm walks and workshops.

The FullStops™ were excellent for monitoring root zone conditions (EC, nitrate levels), and managing irrigation with poor quality water. They were easier to interpret than the SSET. The SSET were simpler to install, but required wet soil to be reliable. SSET were an option for monitoring deeper soil zones, unsuitable for FullStop™ installations. Because these root zone tools require expertise, and are labour intensive, we recommend they be used to address specific problems, or as a periodic auditing strategy, not for routine monitoring. In our research, we routinely found high residual N in horticultural soils, with subsequently little crop yield response to additional nitrogen fertiliser. With improved irrigation efficiency (and less leaching), it may be timely to re-examine nitrogen budgets and recommendations for vegetable crops.

Where the drip irrigation tube was located close to the crop row (i.e. within 5-8 cm), management of irrigation was easier. It improved nitrogen uptake, water use efficiency, and reduced the risk of poor crop performance through moisture stress, particularly in the early crop establishment phases. Close proximity of the drip tube to the crop row gives the producer more options for managing salty water, and more flexibility in taking risks with forecast rain. In many vegetable crops, proximate drip systems may not be cost-effective. The next best alternative is to push crop rows closer to the drip tube (leading to an asymmetric row structure).

The vegetable crop models are good at predicting crop phenology (development stages, time to harvest), input use (water, fertiliser), environmental impacts (nutrient, salt movement) and total yields. The two immediate applications for the models are understanding/predicting/manipulating harvest dates and nitrogen movements in vegetable cropping systems.

From the economic tools, the major influences on accumulated profit are price and yield. In doing ‘what if’ analyses, it is very important to be as accurate as possible in ascertaining what the assumed yield and price ranges are. In most vegetable production systems, lowering the required inputs (e.g. irrigation requirement, fertiliser requirement) is unlikely to have a major influence on accumulated profit. However, if a resource is constraining (e.g. available irrigation water), it is usually most profitable to maximise return per unit of that resource.

Item Type:Monograph (Project Report)
Subjects:Plant culture > Irrigation farming
Agriculture > Agriculture (General) > Agricultural education > Research. Experimentation
Agriculture > Agriculture (General) > Improvement, reclamation, fertilisation, irrigation etc., of lands (Melioration)
Plant culture > Horticulture. Horticultural crops
Agriculture > Agriculture (General) > Fertilisers
Plant culture > Vegetables
Agriculture > Agriculture (General) > Methods and systems of culture. Cropping systems
Agriculture > Agriculture (General) > Agricultural education > Agricultural extension work
Agriculture > Agriculture (General) > Farm economics. Farm management. Agricultural mathematics
Live Archive:11 Mar 2013 05:52
Last Modified:03 Sep 2021 16:49

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