Satellites monitor ecological benefits of northern Basin river flows

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority has started a new satellite monitoring trial to measure ecological benefits of releasing water in the northern Basin.

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The MDBA, working with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH), is now using satellite imagery to check how water for the environment is helping to revive pockets of the drought-affected Macquarie River and Macquarie Marshes and strengthen the resilience of fish, birds and vegetation ahead of expected ongoing dry conditions.

MDBA Chief Executive Phillip Glyde said the satellite images would be combined with on-the-ground data to track water for the environment currently being released from Burrendong Dam into the Macquarie River in northern New South Wales.

“The satellite images will help us measure the speed, flow and spread of the water through the Macquarie River and Macquarie Marshes, and should provide valuable information on how the water is benefitting the local ecology,” Mr Glyde said.

“The trial of the satellite technology follows our success in using satellites to track a major watering event through the Barwon and Darling Rivers earlier in the year, where the images helped ensure the water was not diverted for unauthorised use.”This time, we’ll be using the information to help study how the water is changing the river environment and inundating vegetation as it heads towards the Barwon River.

“The MDBA will use images from the Sentinel satellites operated by the European Space Agency, accessed through Australia’s largest supercomputer the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI), based at TheAustralian National University.

The Macquarie Marshes are one of the largest semi-permanent wetlands of inland Australia, parts of which are internationally-significant Ramsar listed. In wetter years, they are also one of Australia’s largest waterbird breeding sites. The technology will also be used to measure movements of environmental water through the Gwydir Wetlands, in the Mallowa Wetlands, and along the Namoi River in coming months.

The satellite images give a fresh view of the northern Basin every few days, and can detect changes to crops or vegetation as well as changes to water flows. The images will also help strengthen the MDBA’s compliance, reporting and regulatory responsibilities.

Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, Jody Swirepik said the satellite tracking would help monitor and quantify the benefits achieved by water for the environment, especially during the current dry conditions.

“When conditions are dry, there is less water available for the environment, making it crucial that we get the maximum benefit from every drop we use,” Ms Swirepik said. “This watering event will support habitat and food sources for frogs, turtles and waterbirds such as ducks, brolgas and ibis.

“Even at the beginning of the flow reaching parts of the Marshes, the Brolgas had already turned up,” Ms Swirepik said after a recent visit to the area. “We also expect the flow to benefit native fish such as Murray cod and freshwater catfish.

“The water is being delivered to support about 10 percent of the area of Macquarie Marshes to provide a core refuge for plants and animals.

“NSW has installed remote cameras on the ground to record water levels in the Marshes and changes in response to flows, while sound equipment has been set up to record frog and bird calls to keep track of how they respond to the flooding.”

Source: MDBA 2018-10

There’s a hole in our bucket say  Ricegrowers Association of Australia

A severely low rice crop is expected in the Riverina region this year with the blame being laid squarely on the shoulders of water policy makers.

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Mr Morton, who is a rice farmer at Moulamein, said the ‘‘hole’’ in NSW’s bucket of water for irrigation is due to the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement.

He said it is inconceivable and unacceptable that its current water sharing framework has resulted in the share of water in the Murray system being reduced by 40,000 megalitres.

He said this must be recognised and acknowledged by the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council (MinCo) in order for a conversation to start about how the water resources could be shared more equitably.

‘‘In its simplest terms South Australia’s bucket of water has been full since April, the Victorian bucket continues to fill while the New South Wales bucket has a hole in it,’’ Mr Morton said.

‘‘The RGA is convinced that a myriad of small and not so small changes to rules and codifying of water sharing arrangements is significantly impacting the share of the water resource allocated to New South Wales.’’

‘‘The conversation will be a difficult one, but a good starting point is for MinCo to acknowledge that concessions have been made over many decades by new South Wales which have led to this intolerable situation.

‘‘We ask that MinCo commit to renegotiating provisions of the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement to address the inequity of the current water sharing arrangements.

‘‘We’re no closer to an allocation and technically we went backwards with 40,000 megalitres less to New South Wales.’’

Mr Morton said without any improvement to the water sharing rules and water policy soon, the nation’s ability to feed the world will be severely reduced.

SunRice is reluctant to release a tonnage prediction yet, saying it is ‘‘too early to provide an accurate forecast about 2019’’, but did concede it will be a ‘‘significantly lower crop’’ due to drought, low water allocation and high water prices.

Mr Morton said farmers need an irrigation allocation now, ‘‘before it’s too late’’.

‘‘Farmers would usually sow from mid-October to about the first week in November and shorter seasoned varieties can be sown at the end of November, but after that it really starts to risk the yield.

‘‘Farmers are great, they can get a crop in very quickly but the critical thing is getting water into people’s accounts.

‘‘Some people have water from last year or finishing off the winter crops who committed to having a season, but there’s not a whole lot of people in that position.

A SunRice spokesperson said the company is hoping farmers can still take advantage of the extended planting window.

‘‘Short season varieties developed by SunRice offer rice growers the flexibility and options to respond to changing conditions and sow rice as late as the end of November or early December should rain and increased water allocations prevail,’’ the spokesperson said.

‘‘SunRice is prepared for the current drought and is already implementing mitigation strategies to minimise its impacts on our operations and to protect the company.’’ 

Source: Deniliquin Pastoral Times 2018-11

ABARES technological insight into Australian Agriculture

ABARES have released a report on how information, communication and technology (ICT) is used in Australian agriculture.

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The report also identifies the key differences in adoption between agriculture sectors and between small and large farms. The report presents findings from more than 2,200 face-to-face conversations with farmers across Australia.

Key findings:

  • The overwhelming majority (96%) of Australian farmers own and use ICT assets, and are investing in technologies that suit their production systems. 95% are connected to the internet.
  • ICT applications on farms varied between industries, but farmers use ICT for production activities, internet commerce, obtaining information and household purposes. Examples of ICT used on farms range from computers and telephones through to things like GPS guided harvesting equipment. GPS-enabled technologies are widely used on vegetable and grain farms, and electronic identification and herd management tools are commonly used on dairy farms.
  • Larger farms are more likely to invest in and use ICT than their smaller counterparts, eg. on large dairy farms we saw greater investment in sensors and monitoring technology, which is likely to reflect moves towards fully automated milking systems
  • ICT assets represented a relatively small share of total capital assets on most farms – this technology likely performs an enabling role to make other assets more productive and lift overall business efficiency
  • Reported obstacles to adoption of ICT included skills, internet access, cost and availability of useful new technologies. The relative importance of these constraints varied with industry and farm size. Eg. a lack of skills was most commonly reported as an impediment by the owners of small farms, particularly those in the livestock industry.
  • The availability and quality of internet services influences farmers’ access to and use of ICT. Farmers in relatively remote areas using mobile phone or satellite-based internet connections were more likely to report inadequate internet access as an impediment to their use of ICT and to the operation of their businesses more generally.
  • It is evident that new equipment and the data it generates are changing how farms are managed. New ICT will be fundamental to the next wave of productivity growth in Australian agriculture. The use of digital agriculture in Australia has the potential to increase productivity through optimising input use, more timely decision-making, labour savings, and improved market access.

Information and communication technology use in Australian agriculture – A survey of broadacre, dairy and vegetable farms.

Source: ABARES 2018-11

Government seeks feedback on a mandatory dairy code of conduct

The government is seeking your feedback on a mandatory code of conduct for the dairy industry that aims to improve dispute resolutions.

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This follows a number of inquiries into the dairy industry, the most recent by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). This inquiry raised concerns about fairness and transparency in contracts between dairy farmers and processors.

A mandatory code could improve contract negotiations between dairy farmers and processors and include an effective dispute resolution process. The ACCC would regulate a mandatory code.

You can now share your ideas on a mandatory code. In particular, what should be included in a code and how best to address issues, such as:

  • cooling off periods when entering and terminating contracts
  • dispute resolution processes
  • enforcing a mandatory code of conduct
  • limiting exclusive supply clauses between processors and farmers
  • prohibiting retrospective step-downs
  • terminating contracts.

To have your say:

  • read the Dairy industry code of conduct – farmer to processor transaction document
  • talk with our representatives in your region (dates and locations to be confirmed soon)
  • contact us via phone 1300 044 940or email dairycode@agriculture.gov.au

Meetings will be held with dairy stakeholders across the 8 dairying regions. This will happen in November and December 2018. Dates and locations will be published here soon.

Source: Department of Agriculture and Water Resources 2018-11

Australian pork industry reaches crisis with low prices and high costs

Australia’s pork industry is being lashed on two fronts by low prices and exorbitant production costs leading to tough times.

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It’s a crisis that has sent many growers to the wall. Those remaining are in survival mode, and most say it has never been tougher.

Key points:

  • Australia currently has some of the highest-priced grain in the world and drought has made it scarce
  • Production has overtaken pork consumption, leading to a surplus of pigs
  • Australians are eating more and more pork, but the industry is likely to struggle for the next 12 months.

“This would be the toughest sort of period the industry has gone through and probably for 12 months now it has been a big hit on cash reserves,” said Jock Charles of Berrybank Farm, near Ballarat in Victoria. “We’re now in a situation where we’re looking at losses of around $100 per animal.”

The family-run farm usually has a herd of 20,000, but like every one of Australia’s pork producers it has put the brakes on production, stemming its normal breeding program.

The piggery grows its own feed grain and in a normal year yields almost half the required tonnage, but this year, the tightening drought has slashed the winter crop total to its lowest in a decade.

Grain is scarce and exorbitantly costly, around $460 a tonne, for intensive animal industries such as piggeries.

“The pig prices put a lot of people under pressure but it’s likely to be the drought that drives some people out of business,” said Rob van Barneveld of SunPork, the nation’s largest Australian-owned pork producer. “We have some of the highest-priced grain in the world at the moment.”

Feed constitutes 60 to 70 per cent of production costs, and a tonne of crushed mixed grains and seeds currently costs $600.

At their piggery in central Victoria, Daryl and Deb Hancock said they were all too aware of the cost of maintaining their herd.

“We’ve actually nearly stopped production to try and survive,” said Ms Hancock. “Feed costs are through the roof.”

A sudden downturn for the industry

Australia’s pork industry enjoyed three buoyant years, but early last year production overtook consumption.

Too many pigs — a surplus of around 6 per cent — pulled prices down dramatically.

Most Australian-grown fresh pork goes to the domestic market and only 10 per cent goes to export, so from powering forwards, the industry frantically hit reverse gear.

By the middle of this year, the worsening outlook for winter grain crops and high demand for drought fodder saw feed grain prices begin to surge.

Peak industry body Australian Pork Limited (APL) admitted some producers had exited the industry, but is yet to determine how many.

“We think that in the last perhaps six months we’ve lost about 10,000 sows’ worth of production and that’s of a total of about 285,000 [sows] that we started with,” said Andrew Spencer, chief executive officer of APL.

In some ways, the pork industry has been a victim of its own success, as better genetics and animal husbandry delivered quicker growth rates and greater productivity.

But there has been some good news for the industry: Australians are eating more pork.

The average per capita consumption has climbed from eight to 12 kilograms in the past seven years and is still trending upwards.

Pork has now overtaken beef as the nation’s second most eaten red meat.

APL believes the industry’s innovative marketing campaigns have paid dividends, while the Hancocks think cooking shows have helped put more pork on the dinner table.

The couple have invested in a boutique business, where their pigs are slaughtered under contract, before being marketed and sold directly to butcheries across Victoria.

Ms Hancock said she was very thankful their family farming enterprise had diversified — and she was especially glad of high wool and sheep prices.

“I think what will hold us on will be our sheep,” she said. “The pigs normally help the sheep. This year the sheep will help the pigs.”

Mr Charles of Berrybank Farm said he was also thankful his business was not solely reliant on pigs, and also produced prime lambs and a range of garden compost made largely of pig waste.

Pork prices have stabilised in the last few weeks and most feel the industry is coming out of the doldrums, but SunPork’s Dr van Barneveld said he saw the outlook as sobering.

“The fundamental facts are, it’s going to be a long hard road for the next 12 months for a lot of pork producers,” he said.

Source: ABC News 2018-11

Bottling water from fertile plateau angers farmers

Primary producers are mounting a campaign against a proposal that would result in water from an aquifer ending up in plastic bottles.

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“Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner from the 1790s may also be the modern-day lament of farmers on the fertile Alstonville Plateau south-east of Lismore on the New South Wales north coast.

Many of the region’s primary producers are mounting a campaign against a proposal that would result in water from an aquifer ending up in plastic bottles on supermarket shelves.

Michael Hogan, who is several hundred metres from the aquifer, said he was concerned for his farm, which started 20 years ago with him planting avocados and now expanded to custard apples, vanilla bean, and native bees.

“That water will come out of the ground and leave the Alstonville Plateau,” he said. “If they take the maximum amount they are allowed to, which is 100 megalitres a year, and continually taken then God forbid if we go into another drought — that aquifer will not recharge,” Mr Hogan said.

People like Mr Hogan argue the bores were licensed for agricultural use and not for a commercial operation, such as water bottling.

The rich soil of Alstonville supports macadamias, custard apples, vanilla beans, dairy and beef, along with a flower and blueberry farm, which is where the bores are located.

The development application is before the Ballina Shire Council. It has been lodged by the owners of the flower farm, with Victoria-based firm Black Mountain Springwater to carry out the water extraction and bottling.

The bottling company intends to purchase the farm and Tim Carey, who is behind Black Mountain Springwater, argued a hydrological study showed there was not a problem.

“What it showed is there is no effect on the local groundwater users in the area,” he said. “What we are looking for is something that is sustainable.

“We are looking to be there long term. We are certainly looking to continue farming on the property.”

The Black Mountain Springwater-commissioned hydrological study, was questioned by a researcher who also farmed the area and still lived there.

David Huett spent more than 40 years in horticultural research at the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry’s Tropical Fruit Research station at Alstonville. Dr Huett’s research included irrigation efficiency, hydroponics and sustainable water recycling using constructed wetlands.

He also owned and maintained a hydroponic tomato farm on the plateau, which was at times dependent upon the aquifer.

From 1966 to 2010 rainfall was recorded daily, and Dr Huett claimed that there were 17 years when rainfall was less than average.

“Typically most of the rainfall is in late autumn up until early winter. Late winter up until spring is quite dry,” Dr Huett said. “That’s the real killer and if you get a typically dry spring with below-average rainfall, regeneration of aquifers will be very significantly affected.”

While the majority of primary production on the plateau was horticulture-related, it has had a long history of dairy and beef.

Since the late 1890s Peter King’s family had farmed the plateau, which included a dairy. These days he grows macadamias and maintains a commercial beef herd.

He cites the “unreliability” of water and is “concerned about any water” that may be taken away as the bore water is also used domestically by his family.

“The water below the surface is absolutely of dire consequence to me,” Mr King said. “I water my cattle every day with water from a bore.

“I have a creek but in times of drought the amount of water from the creek is known to reduce drastically.”

While continued access to a reliable water source was the major concern, so to was the question of road safety and noise.

Opponents argued that the increase in traffic to cart the water would require large vehicles. Black Mountain Springwater’s Tim Carey claimed the plan was to use 19-metre tankers.

“They were originally designed for the milk industry, so they’re designed specifically for rural roads. We are looking at six loads a day should it all go ahead,” Mr Carey said.

“It is certainly not a material increase in traffic on that road.”

A view not shared by Michael Hogan who, while arguing his case among the avocado trees, pointed to a number of trucks using the road to get to a nearby nursery.

He dismissed Mr Carey’s truck description, and argued they would be more like B-doubles.

“It is a rural road. It is not constructed for 57 B-doubles. It was never constructed for that weight.”

Source: ABC News 2018-11

Sources include: ABC Rural, The Land, The Weekly Times, Stock and Land, Stock Journal, Bloomberg, Farm Online, Queensland Country Life

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