Cutting water and electricity costs on Burdekin cane farm

A BURDEKIN cane grower used technology to significantly reduce his water usage and in turn-electricity costs in a move that’s paying dividends.

Leon Franchina’s efforts to improve the efficiency of irrigation water has seen his water usage reduce by 140 megalitres a year and cut pumping costs by a third.

Mr Franchina installed scheduling tool Gdots on representative blocks to monitor soil moisture across the farm so irrigation timing could be matched to crop water use and soil type.

He also addressed soil trouble spots on the property by laser leveling and adding ash and mill mud to improve sandy areas in the paddock.

This increased soil water holding capacity has helped to combat deep drainage and improve irrigation efficiency.

As a result Mr Franchina is applying small irrigation volumes more frequently rather than large volumes less often.

“I have significantly reduced water use, from up to four megalitres per hectare to less than one megalitre,” Mr Franchina said.

“I’m also irrigating more efficiently saving two to three days out of an 11-day irrigation cycle.

“This is definitely a more scientific approach to delivering what the crop needs in the way of water. I’m only putting on what the plants need a day.

“Receiving real time information from the GDots means we can make informed decisions around irrigation scheduling, which is also improving business efficiency.”

Mr Franchina said the assistance received through The Reef Alliance Program Phase II had made it possible for him to fast track his irrigation improvements by at least five years.

The program has supported Mr Franchina to develop an irrigation improvement plan, as well as tailored extension and agronomic support.

“Through this project I’ve been able to reduce water usage by 140 megalitres per year and cut my pumping costs by a third,” Mr Franchina said.

NQ Dry Tropics sugar cane project officer Michael Hobbs said the project was helping Mr Franchina to achieve real outcomes on the ground and assisting to implement changes to farming practices faster than growers otherwise would have been able.

“Mr Franchina has been able to improve irrigation efficiency and save water without sacrificing yield,” Mr Hobbs said.

“He has been able to improve irrigation application efficiency by incorporating crop growth measurements and water use data into the irrigation schedule, and adjusting irrigation volumes to suit the amount of water used by the crop since the last irrigation.”

Better distribution of energy to be explored via microgrids

Rather than farmers exporting power and then buying it back down the line, it’s hoped a federal government grant to the Queensland Farmers Federation to look at the flow-on benefits of microgrids for irrigated agriculture will find ways to better distribute energy resources within networks, and save money.

Along the way, unsustainable electricity costs that are eroding the viability and productivity of many agriculture businesses may be able to be minimised.

The QFF has received $654,807 from round one of the federal government’s Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund to assess options for microgrids to offer a more stable network, increase network utilisation, increase the uptake of on-farm solar energy, and cut costs in the rural and irrigation sector.

If they come to fruition, microgrids could deliver a number of benefits to irrigators around the state, decreased costs being chief among them but also clarity for future electrical infrastructure investment decisions, as well as the installation of smart meters to allow for better monitoring of energy.

Mackay and the Pioneer Valley, Stanthorpe, St George, and Bundaberg farming systems are being targeted in Queensland, along with the Hunter Valley in NSW.

QFF project manager Andrew Chamberlin said microgrids offered a new model for the utilisation of energy that would hopefully reduce costs.

“Microgrids are a collection of distributed energy resources and users – pumps and sheds – aggregated behind a meter that can be islanded, or operate independently of the network,” he said.

“They should mean farmers will be able to use more of their own solar power across different assets.

“For example, one could be storing lots of broccoli in a big shed but then they’ve sold it all, so an irrigator down the road can use the solar power he’s generating and not needing.”

Because some days are cloudy, and farmers have full coldrooms on varying days, it’s hard to match consumption with power generation, but it’s expected that microgrids will allow farmers to use power on other infrastructure without losing it to the grid, or enable the farmer next door to use it.

Mr Chamberlin said blockchain technology may have a role in working out how transactions would get paid for.

“The technology is there to have meters on each property, and to work out contract rates too,” he said.

QFF will partner with Cotton Australia, ReAqua and Constructive Energy to deliver the project.

ReAqua has installed Australia’s largest solar diesel hybrid pumping system, in NSW.

Mr Chamberlin said there were a lot of assumptions to test.

“A power line system cost might be replaced with a management system cost for example.”

QFF has two years in which to undertake the project, some of which would be taken up in assessing which farms to include that showcased best practice examples, and installing meters.

Project managers also want to monitor microgrid attributes over a full year to test it across all seasons.

It will use a lot of real-time meters that farmers can access their phones, and see whether they’re saving power or not.

“We’re excited about this,” Mr Chamberlin said.

“This is one of a few things that will help energy issues for farmers.

“Microgrids allow them to optimise their own power, and people’s systems will all be talking to each other.”