NZ a leader in smart use of water
It doesn’t take long talking to Steve Breneger to realize that he’s a firm believer in New Zealand’s ability to lead the world in the smart use of water for agriculture.
Given that he’s spent the last five years as the Technical Manager for Irrigation New Zealand, educating and problem solving with farmers all round the country on their behalf, he knows what he’s talking about.
“I guess the misconception is that farmers are irrigating the way they’ve been doing it since the 1930’s,” Steve says. “People don’t realize we’re at the forefront of what’s happening globally. We have the big companies coming here once every eighteen months to two years to look at what the crazy Kiwis are doing to their equipment.”
By big companies he means the likes of Valley and Zammatic, the two biggest manufacturers of centre pivots and lateral moves in the world, and by crazy Kiwis he means the problem solvers whose innovations can be found all over the world. The driving force behind their innovation is the farmers’ need to deal with challenges specific to New Zealand .
As Steve explains: “In Australia and China and America they have great swags of open fl at land so they just farm there. Apart from most of the Canterbury plains, everywhere you go in New Zealand is not ideal in terms of topography.
It’s challenging to do things at world’s best practice and yet we still do it,” he says. “That’s why one big US-based pump manufacturing business have said ’If we can make our pumps work in New Zealand they’ll work anywhere in the world.’”
Unlike most other countries New Zealand is water rich and land poor. We’re nevertheless rated third in the world for being water efficient, beaten only by Israel and Saudi Arabia. According to Steve this is the result of being at the bottom of the world.
“Everywhere is distant so we have to run our agricultural systems with tight cost controls. People don’t realize that the average cost in Canterbury for example is about $1000 a day to pump water in the peak of the season. So a 5% or 10% saving across a season is serious money.”
New Zealand soils by nature are not deep, thick and easily irrigated. They have to be irrigated in a targeted way to make sure they get what they need without excess which is where the smart systems promoted by Irrigation NZ come in. They’re designed to maintain a water balance, based on losing 5mls/ day or 35 mls across a week, with finely tuned irrigating.
They do it by crunching detailed data collected around soil moisture and putting that together with information about soil types and profiles, weather forecasting and crop demand and turning that into smart irrigating decisions.
“Farmers don’t want data, they want insight into that data,” explains Steve. “So I help them look to information technologies that takes their data and feeds it back to them in a way that makes sense for their particular situation. It can be pretty complicated.” New Zealand is the proving ground, if not the birth place for many of these smart technologies.
The upside of having one of the most heavily regulated farming industries in the world is that in terms of irrigation New Zealand is world class. “We’re making good decisions based on science and technology and now we have to wait for the environment to catch up,” explains Steve.”
We’re looking to fix problems coming out of 50 years of agriculture and it’s going to take longer than a change of government, but we’re doing good stuff and it’s happening, slowly but surely.”
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