Thursday, 16 March 2017

Farm Environment Plans

There are a lot of buzz words floating around at the moment – nutrient management, nitrogen baseline, change in land use, Overseer, nutrient budget, and the topic of this article – farm environmental plans.

So what is a Farm Environmental Plan, or FEP as we like to call it?  It is a tool that guides farmers through an assessment of a farms environmental risks or issues, and is a written plan outlining how those risks or issues will be managed.  Because no two farms are alike, no two FEP’s will be alike either.  Each farm is unique in terms of its landscape, natural resources, farming practises and goals.

FEP’s are being used as a means for farmers to meet water quality objectives and outcomes, or limits set in regional plans.  In Canterbury for example, nearly every farm will be required to have and implement a FEP by 2017.  

The process in preparing a FEP is the same for all farms, and is really simple.  There are five easy steps.

1. Assessment

What and where are the environmental risks or issues on farm?  The farm specific environmental issues or risks include poorly drained soil, streams, waterways, wetlands, springs, steep or rolling topography, but this also refers to practices being carried out on farm.  Do you store fertiliser on farm?  How is it stored?  How is fertiliser spread and when?  Is the farm irrigated, and if so, how do you determine when to irrigate?  Cultivation practices, location of silage pits…

The second part of this is to consider what has already been accomplished.  Have you already fenced off waterways, carried out riparian planting, swapped to a GPS certified fertiliser spreader, installed soil moisture monitoring probes to determine when to irrigate, only make or purchase balage rather than pit silage?

The third part is the Overseer component. What are the losses that are occurring from your farm now?  How do they compare with any proposed catchment limits being talked about?  If your losses are high, then what changes can you make to reduce these?

2. Response

Now that you have identified the environmental issues or risks, and worked out what you have already accomplished, it’s time to fill the gaps. What else can be done?

3. Plan

What, how, where, when and how much?  Fencing off waterways for example – your assessment may have shown that there is 10km of fencing that needs to be completed.  There may be financial constraints that mean that all 10km cannot be fenced off in one go, but plan to do 2.5km per year for the next four years, and identify the areas that will be done each year – there may be a section that really needs to be done sooner rather than later as the environmental risk is higher (for example, a section where stock access several times a year as opposed to once a year), and this gets done in year one.

Any plan has to be reasonable and achievable – no point in making a plan that will never be able to be carried out – that defeats the whole purpose!

4. Implement

Carry out your plan.  Monitor what you do and record progress.  This is really important as FEP’s are subject to annual audits by independent people, therefore, you want to be able to show any auditor exactly what you have done, and whether it has achieved the environmental outcome you expected it too.

5. Review

Review your progress annually.  This can be part of the annual audit.  Reviewing your progress is important.  Have you noticed that some of your responses have worked really well, but others seem to be of very little environmental benefit at all?  A FEP is a living document, and as you learn what works and what doesn’t, then your FEP needs to be updated accordingly.

The most important thing to remember is that a FEP is for you and your farm, and it should be written this way.   It should not be an onerous task, nor viewed as a way to “trip you up”.    Use the opportunity to have a good look at the way you do things on farm, and why you do what you do. There are many other benefits too – not just environmental.  There are also financial gains to be made as things like water efficiency increase (less pumping costs), nutrient and fertiliser management practices change (less applied = less purchased).

There are many resources available to assist with preparing a FEP including toolkits and templates. But sometimes, you just need someone to point you in the right direction, and this is where we (Irricon) can help.    We are farmers too, and are going through the same process.  We are also learning as we go – I cannot stress enough that a FEP is not stuck in time – once it’s prepared, that’s it, end of story, but it is a living document, and as we learn, we are passing that knowledge on, as are many others. Therefore, don’t hesitate to seek advice and support from those in the know.

By Keri Johnston - Irricon Resource Solutions Limited.

Keri’s expertise is in the field of natural resources engineering and resource management, primarily in water resources, irrigation and nutrient management. As well as doing this, she farms with her husband and two girls at Geraldine.

Phone: (027) 2202425

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Introducing: KERI JOHNSTON

As today is International Women’s day it seems fitting to be introducing our new inspirational H2Grow contributor - Keri Johnston director of Irricon Resource Solutions. Irricon won the Rural Women New Zealand’s Enterprising Rural Women Award in 2014 and Keri was a finalist in the Women of Influence Awards in the Rural category in 2015. Not surprisingly the H2Grow team are bubbling with excitement to have Keri sharing her great depth of knowledge and expertise with us all!

Keri Johnston

Hello everyone, and thank you to H2Grow for having me.  So, a little bit about me.  I was born and bred on a North Otago sheep and beef farm.  After leaving school I completed a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Natural Resources, specialising in water and land management.   I wanted a job that meant I wasn’t going to be stuck inside all the time, and I hate the sight of blood, so doctor or vet was off the table. While the degree starts at Canterbury University, the last two years were spent at Lincoln University. During this time, I met and fell in love with my now husband, who was dairy farming on Banks Peninsula at the time.  

Keri Johnston
As a new graduate I began my career working for Meridian Energy at Manapouri power station and was then based at Twizel working on dam safety.  I turned down a transfer to Wellington to get married and go dairy farming in Canterbury- I didn’t fancy the idea of a long-distance marriage!  

In Canterbury I took a job with the Regional Council working on consents. A job ironically, I disliked, but one that has stood me in good stead as it gave me real insight into the resource consent process and requirements.

I then moved within the organisation to a role carrying out the environmental management of river works.   At the same time, I had two children, and we were continuing to grow their farming business by moving to increasingly larger farming operations.  It has been a continual drift south, starting in Banks Peninsula and via several farms now settled in Geraldine, on our own 80ha dairy support and beef block near Geraldine.

In 2007, whilst on the drift south, I started Irricon Resource Solutions, an environmental consultancy. Irricon now has 15 staff stretching from North Canterbury to Duntroon and a head office in Timaru.  I still work mostly from home, around kids and the farm.  It also means I can sneak in a lunchtime horse ride or YouTube yoga session!  

I am passionate about what I do.  Helping farmers work out how all these new regulations affect them and trying to get them involved in the limit setting process early on.  This stuff is not going away, and you are better off to be at the table having the discussions.   After all, if you’re not at the table, chances are, you’ll be on the menu.  

Friday, 3 March 2017

EM surveying - Knowledge is Power... (and Potential profit!)

An Electromagnetic Survey is one of the key layers required on the precision farming journey. Precise location and understanding of soil types is a key piece of information in driving decisions around water use and nutrient placement. Not only can an EM survey be used to reduce water inputs it can form the basis of other decisions related to plant health, production and nutrient uptake. Turning the pretty maps into useful data requires some powerful software. That is where VA Gateway comes in. Gateway allows for in depth analysis of multiple layers, including Yield and EM. All Agri Optics customers have access to VA Gateway and AgCloud the online version.

With the software we create reports on the various layers of data collected. Clients get information on two EM soil profiles, one measuring the conductivity in the top 0-50 cm of soil and the other looking at changes in the top 0-125cm of your soil profile. Our report explains our findings on each layer with an explanation of what you are seeing. Depending on the variability arising from the survey, we then create different management zones based on the range in EM units. These zoned maps can then be imported into your variable rate irrigation (VRI) software if they are used for irrigation or into your VR seed drilling control box if you are using it for variable rate seeding based on your soils.

Figure 1. Top left is a shallow EM map and to the right of it a zoned map of that layer. Below is the same but for the deeper EM (0-125cm).
We also report on topography features. As we log the EM data at 2cm accuracy we are also mapping these features. This data set in its own right is very useful and gives you the surface characteristics of the area surveyed in the form of six additional maps, slope, elevation, landscape change, aspect, any depressions and witness index (which way water will move in a rain or irrigation event). This data can be a powerful management tool. The water movement models can help highlight potential areas of issue, so they can be addressed, be it nutrient movement or run off.

Figure 2. Gateway software generates water movement models based on the topography data.
The elevation data can also be used to create contour maps that can be used in the design stage of your centre pivot system, e.g. when calculating tower spacing's or to help with budgeting for any required earth works.

Figure 3. Gateway software can be used to create 3D contour maps.
We can also create moisture probe placement maps based on your EM and elevation data to find your optimum site within each management zone. These sites can also be used as ground-truthing sites with HydroServices neutron probe to put actual specific values to the different zones water holding capacities and then convert the EM map into a water holding capacity map.

A further report can be created to gauge the likely payback time from the installation of VRI based on your soil variability, the crop you are growing, its value per unit and the cost of your VRI system. This is proving very helpful for those who are unsure as to whether they have enough variability in the surveyed area to warrant VRI.

All our data is collected using strict protocols, with the highest standards in continuity and quality every time. This ensures our clients have powerful, solution-focused information. For more details check out our website

Post credit to Chris Smith.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Tips for Capturing Yield Data this Harvest

Do you have a yield monitor in your header? Do you use it? Do you want help to extract value from the data? These are some of the first questions we are asking growers this time of year. With the mad rush on to get the crop off the paddock the yield monitor is one thing that is easily forgotten and seldom used to its full potential. Many growers have paid for the technology but aren’t able to harness the power of the information that it provides.
Yield monitor showing real time recordings
One of the key points that isn’t stressed enough to growers that have yield monitors is that they should capture the data regardless if they want to use it or not. Having multiple years of data is immensely more useful than one year of data. Multiple years of data means results that have seasonality factors removed. This process is call normalisation. Data is put into a relative scale and is compared across the years. Once data is normalised then we are able to identify common zones or production areas. These zones can be marked for future management decisions.
The difference between raw and processed data. 
Processing or “cleaning” the data is the key to successfully utilising the captured data. Raw yield points have a large amount of errors and “noise” that can significantly impact on the results. With these noisy bits removed and tidied up the data becomes more representative of the paddock. Some of the factors that impact on the data accuracy are cut width, flow delay and travel distance errors.

A processed yield map
Yield data can also be useful for identifying problems during the actual harvest of the crop. In one example a grower saw the results of him harvesting grass seed in the hottest part of the day. He was able to spot the mistake as recorded yield dropped in the swaths that he completed in the hottest temperatures. Ultimately the yield information informed him that the decision had cost him.

Some tips to consider

  • Make sure that the paddock names and IDs are correct on the monitor before you start the paddock.
  • Utilise labels or tags to help identify different operations.
  • Avoid overwriting data from previous years. Make sure that the data is separated by year.
  • Back up the data regularly! Utilise the free cloud services such as Dropbox or Google Drive to save a copy. 

Yield data is the final measure of a seasons worth of effort. Yield data allows for insights into different management practices and the old adage “what gets measured gets managed” comes to mind.  

Post by Nick.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Why my soil moisture sensor might be lying to me?

After choosing the type of moisture sensor you are going to invest in, the most crucial thing is to get the installation correct. It goes back to the old adage; rubbish in rubbish out, if you don’t get the installation correct everything that follows will at best be very marginal data.

Most probes are measuring a very small volume of soil within 10-20mm of the sensor itself, so good soil contact is imperative as well as a crop cover around the probe that is representative of the rest of the field being monitored.

If you are looking at installing a probe for next season or looking at maintenance on an existing probe then read on! These few basic does and don’ts will be of good use!


  • Don't leave the excess cables on the ground – it is an accident waiting to happen!
  • Don’t leave exposed cables for wildlife that want to see how tasty it is!
  • Don’t site the probe on a ridge or in a hollow!
  • Don’t site the probe in bare soil. Is there a crop growing over the probe site to give you a true representation of what is happening in the rest of the field? 
  • Don’t site under the fence line
Don't leave cables on the ground

  • Ensure you use good consistency of slurry around the probe to ensure good soil contact.
  • Ensure you know the soil type your moisture sensor is located in and how that compares to the rest of the area you are monitoring.
  • Make sure any tramlines or irrigation tracks miss the probe site by metres rather than millimetres!
  • If your probe is near an electric fence, do ensure any metalwork is earthed.
  • Do install the probe as early in the season as you can, so it has time to bed in and the crop over the top of it time to establish like the rest of the field.
  • Do ensure a competent and trained person installs the probe with the right equipment to do so!
  • If checking an old installation make sure there are no cracks around the probe site, the soil around the probe hasn’t sunk and the wires are in good order.

AquaLINK telemetry unit, away from AquaCheck probe out in the paddock
If you have any doubts about the site or installation of your probe, by installing it as early in the season as you can means that it can be moved and still have the winter to bed in again.
AquaCheck WEB, induvial sensor graph responding to irrigation and rain events.
Monitor your probe data and its response to rain or irrigation events, the beauty of the capacitance probes is that moving them is not an issue.

This article contains information from a post previously written by HydroServices but has been updated to include the experience from the Agri Optics team installing AquaCheck probes.