Sunday 30 September 2018

Key Learnings from the IrrigationNZ Study Tour to Nebraska

I was part of a 24-person group who went to Nebraska at the start of September 2018.  The tour was organised by IrrigationNZ and was an amazing opportunity to go and see how another part of the world deals with the same issues that we have here.  Below is an overview of my key learnings from the tour.  

Governance of Water
The governance of water in Nebraska is complex. There is Federal legislation, such as the
Endangered Species Act, which the state has to abide by. Alongside this there are also Federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Reclamation that control most of the surface water through storage and diversion infrastructure. The state then sets its own laws around how it will manage its water.

In Nebraska the surface water is manged at state level by the Department of Natural Resources, but groundwater is managed by Natural Resource District’s (NRD) at a local level. For a number of surface water bodies, there are also interstate pacts that determine how much water must remain in the river to reach downstream states.

The NRD’s have a Board that is democratically elected, and are often dominated by rural people including farmers. Despite this, the farmer representatives have been proactive in driving practical change among their peers.  

The NRD system in Nebraska has been very successful in managing groundwater. All takes are controlled through a well permit system that allows for a given number of hectares to be irrigated per well.

Both of the NRD’s that we visited had invested heavily in science to help them better understand their resource. They also look for solutions as both a farm and catchment level, the latter including raising capital to build environmental infrastructure such as that required for augmentation projects.  

Conjunctive Management
‘Conjunctive management’ is a recent development in Nebraska that has largely come about through the management of ground and surface water takes in ‘conjunction’ to achieve interstate pacts. This has involved the NRD’s (the managers of the groundwater) working closely with irrigation districts and the Department of Natural Resources to ensure downstream flows are achieved.

This has included restriction of individual water takes (wells) – controlling any new ones, limiting the irrigated area from existing ones and in some cases placing a seasonal limit on usage. Alongside the implementation of environmental infrastructure such as Managed Aquifer Recharge and Stream Augmentation projects.

Managing Water Quality
Nitrates in groundwater are of significant concern in the heavily irrigated districts of central Nebraska. In some areas over 50% of the land is now under irrigated crop-farming. Historic poor nutrient management (type and timing) and poor irrigation practice resulted in nitrate concentrations being frequently observed over 30ppm – well over the US drinking water standard of 10ppm.

However, in recent years there has been a significant declining trend, with relatively few areas now exceeding 20ppm. This has largely been brought about by a non-regulatory approach.

State law requires the production of water quality and quantity management plans that identify the issues and then require the development of an implementation plan to address them. All the NRD’s have a rule framework, but most of the rules are currently focused on managing water takes and farming practice reporting. Incentives, knowledge and enabling peer to peer learning in combination with environmental infrastructure is currently seen as the way forward for water quality.

The widespread move from surface flood to centre pivot irrigation has been instrumental in reducing nitrate losses to groundwater. This has enabled soils to be irrigated on an ‘as and when’ basis to minimise nitrate leaching. There is now also a push towards the more widespread adoption of fertigation, as it allows ‘as and when’ nutrient applications – significantly reducing the risk of leaching from rainfall events.

Public perception
Despite the widespread use of intensive farming methods, and the water quality and quantity challenges facing Nebraska, the one issue currently not facing farmers at the state level is pressure from the anti-farming lobby or environmental groups.

Of the almost 2 million people living in Nebraska, the majority understand the role of crop farming and ranching in providing for their social-economic well-being. The Nebraskan economy is based on the irrigation of almost 4 million hectares of corn and soy beans and this is widely understood. 

The University of Nebraska research and extension service runs an outreach programme to attract the next generation to agriculture. This currently interacts with one in every three school age children in the state, providing an agriculture ‘101’ and highlighting the exciting career opportunities that exist within it.

Keri Johnston, Irricon
Natural Resources Engineer

Tuesday 18 September 2018

It's starting to get dry...

Other than this slightly cooler snap we've had over the last couple of days you'd have to say spring is well and truly here! And with these nor-west winds (in Canterbury anyway) and warmer days things are starting to dry out and there's not much rain on the horizon. The seasonal weather outlook from NIWA suggests that we're in for a dryer than average season in most places ( and at this point I'd have to say they're about on the money. 

The joys of being a farmer or in the ag industry is that everything you do hinges on the weather, so we get really good (for the most-part) at managing timings and inputs and reading the signs to optimise what we do on farm. Now is no different. Whether you're an irrigated farmer or a dryland one now is the time to be installing your soil moisture probes if you haven't done so already so that you can accurately measure and manage your soil moisture and timings of related inputs on farm. 

Soil moisture probes allow you to know whats going on under your feet and make accurate and timely decisions to set yourself, your farm, your crops and your livestock up to perform to the best of their ability for the coming season. Soil moisture is one of the key drivers for plant growth so it's important that we know where we're currently sitting in terms of soil moisture levels so we can react to it accordingly. Decisions around fertiliser (and other input) timings, timing and amount of irrigation, stock carrying-capacity decisions etc can all be driven by more accurate information regarding soil moisture levels. 

If you want to find out more about some of the leading soil moisture probes in the NZ market have a look here: 

And if you're wanting to get some installed for the coming season please pick up the phone and give the Agri Optics team a call now before you run out of time and you're left carrying a spade in the back of your ute or ruining the tip of your good pocket knife for the upcoming summer. 

All the best for an upcoming and prosperous season ahead! 


Monday 10 September 2018

The Irrigation, Grazing Game - Digging Deeper

Following on from last week our guest contributor Nicole Mesman digs a little deeper into the findings from her research that looked at the effect of grazing and irrigation on soil porosity.

Soil natural capital and soil health may seem like unnecessary concepts, names that you already know the meaning of without having to learn them. However I will outline them briefly and how they relate to my findings so that you are, in turn, able to relate to them if you come across them in environmental plans, legislation or elsewhere in the future.

Soils are referred to as a stock of properties or natural capital which yield a flow of valuable ecosystem goods or services into the future. Both soil health/ quality and natural capital are similar in that they use soil indicators and parameters to determine the state or function of a soil system. However soil natural capital provides a more holistic analysis of the resource as it takes into account not only the state of the soil itself (through soil indicators) but also the effect of this state on the products and services that soils provide and the human needs that are catered for by soils.

In the soil natural capital framework macroporosity is identified as the key physical attribute. This is because macroporosity determines: water flow, solute transport and drainage through soil. As a result macroporosity influences ecosystem services such as flood mitigation and filtering of nutrients. Macroporosity and associated soil physical properties provide important services and it is important for land managers to be aware of the potential to change these properties and the ecosystem services they provide.

Research has been carried out to determine the effect of land use practices on other soil physical properties such as bulk density, aggregate stability, soil carbon and water holding capacity however macroporosity remains the main indicator of soil physical natural capital and health because of its sensitivity to intensification.

My research found that on average for the 0-30 cm increment macroporosity was significantly lower on the Dairy site (9 ± 1%) than both the Sheep farm (19 ± 1%) and the Control site (15 ± 1%). This suggests that intensification is having a significant effect on the Dairy site. Furthermore on the Dairy site the 0-10 cm and 10-20 cm depth increments both have values for macroporosity < 10%. Other researchers have proposed that macroporosity values of > 10% are needed to maintain pasture production near optimum.

Target ranges for macroporosity are given in Table 1 as part of the National Soil Quality Indicator Programme. Here, for soils under pasture, macroporosity values < 8% are considered low and could restrict pasture growth. Macroporosity for the 10-20 cm depth increment on the Dairy site was 7 ± 1%, a level where less than optimum production could be expected. Results from an AgResearch trial found similar values for and changes of macroporosity with stocking intensity.

Table 1 – target values for macroporosity for pasture, cropping & horticulture and forestry
I did not find any changes in water holding capacity within the plant available range with increasing land use intensification. This result in itself was interesting as it shows that intensifying land use practices did not have a measureable impact on the readily available water (RAW, that available to plants) of the soil. In comparison other studies have found that there is a significant decrease in RAW with irrigation and increased compaction.

Finally my study did find that there was an increase in small micropores holding water at suctions too great for the plant to overcome. These findings all highlight the importance of on farm soil testing to determine the RAW of the specific soil textures and under different land uses to increase management efficiency.

Bulk density values were found to be significantly higher on the Dairy site (1.40 ± 0.02 g cm-3) than both the Sheep farm (1.26 gcm-3± 0.02) and the Control site (1.31 ± 0.02 g cm-3), indicating increased compaction on the DF in agreement with macroporosity values. Bulk density is not as sensitive an indicator of compaction as macroporosity and this can be seen by the large target range 0.7–1.4 gcm-3 that has been identified for Pallic soils (Table 2). Therefore it is not recommended as an indicator for determining the effect of land use intensification on soils.
Table 2 – target ranges for bulk density are large indicating that this is not as sensitive an indicator as macroporosity for determining the effect of land use intensification on soils.
Landcare Research has developed a tool which can be used by everyone to determine the quality of their soil based on a number of indicators.

The tool allows you to measure your soil against current understanding of optimal values for: Macroporosity, bulk density, Total N, Total C, Mineraliseable N, pH and Olsen P
It will tell you about the effect each indicator has on soil quality alongside some general management practices that can be used to improve your soil.

In addition to thinking about the effect of these indicators on your soil quality I encourage you to take a step back and also think about the long term effect of the state of these indicators/ properties on your farm’s functions and the importance of each of these functions to your profitability. 

Thanks to Nicole Mesman (BSc (Hons) Soil Science) for the content of this post!