17 November 2023

Steve Pilla is a Burdekin sugarcane grower who has become an early adopter of automated furrow irrigation across his whole farm.

For years, Steve followed traditional irrigation practices, routinely watering according to a 12-hour schedule based on assumptions, rather than evidence. Although he has always been curious about automation and attended local field days hosted by other canegrowers in the district, Steve felt he could continue to irrigate manually as he always had in the past.

‘I always thought I was too busy or occupied doing the day-to-day work on farm. One day, I decided that this was something I needed to do. My current practices were unsustainable,’ says Steve.

Steve joined the Burdekin Irrigation Project, a four-year project funded in partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation to support sugarcane farmers to transition to more efficient irrigation practices to reduce run off and deep drainage and improve productivity and profitability.

The project’s baseline assessment enabled evidence-based decisions to inform irrigation practice. Through active participation in the project, Steve says he now understands the importance of record keeping, measuring and monitoring, and using this data to make critical decisions on his farm.

‘I am now regarded as a farmer and businessperson, and I know where I assign value,’ Steve says.

Using the front-end online platform ‘Farm In One’, decisions can be based on live datasets. Steve says understanding how to analyse the data on this platform, combined with the scheduling tool IrrigWeb, helps to inform him when to irrigate, rather than making the decision based on a hunch.

Data analytics tools and decision support systems are often seen by growers as high return on investment AgTech solutions. The AgTech used by Steve has progressed the farm towards achieving best management irrigation practices to improve or maintain yields, reduce electricity and water costs, deliver improved water quality outcomes and implement solutions to other agronomic constraints on his farm.

Steve says the power of the project as a catalyst for AgTech adoption and practice change has been the robust framework and the opportunity to work one on one with local irrigation experts.

‘I continue to be curious and implement new technologies and ways of working. The project has provided access to local products, technical back-up and industry knowledge, with all these contacts right here,’ Steve says.

‘I should have done it years ago.’