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Doing more with less

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

At a time when farmers in the drought-ravaged Campaspe district have voted to abandon irrigation and some have made the decision to leave the land altogether, the University of Melbourne has gone back to the farm to find out the best ways to do more with less water. By Gabrielle Murphy.

Post-Kyoto and post-Copenhagen, the debate on climate change continues to rage in the international arena, with commentators differing not about the existence or effect of a changing climate, but what is needed to combat its negative consequences.

In Australia, recent developments have seen the Productivity Commission recommending that the Federal Government abandon the tender process for water buy-back in the Murray Darling Basin and consider, instead, purchasing water entitlements on the open market. Senator Nick Xenaphon has used the report to call for a full federal takeover of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Closer to home, the cost and value of the Victorian Government’s plans to save water in the state’s northern areas through infrastructure upgrades have been the subject of debate.

What is not in dispute is that we all face a future where there will be less water.

Scientists from the University of Melbourne’s Schools of Land and Environment and Engineering, in partnership with UniWater, anticipated the need for long-term data on the relationship between climate, resource use, production and the environment. In September 2007, they finalised a business plan for a Farms, Rivers and Markets (FRM) project to address the specific water challenges faced by dairy farmers.

In June 2008, the FRM initiative received funding by the National Water Commission, the Victorian Water Trust, the University of Melbourne, and the Dookie Farms 2000 Trust.

A central pillar of the proposal was to use the University of Melbourne’s Dookie campus dairy farm as its research laboratory. According to manager, Nick Boyd, the Dookie dairy farm has been a respected, independent source of advice and education for farmers since 1879.

“The Dookie dairy farm is a high production, working farm with a lot of the equipment, environmental assets and farming processes already in place. So the high infrastructure costs required for the FRM were minimised.”

According to David Chapman, Professor of Pasture Science at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Agriculture and Food Systems, “the challenges of water scarcity receive much attention.”

“But the emphasis is on ‘top down’ planning. The Farms Rivers Market project facilitates choice and innovation by working from the bottom up.”

The FRM project therefore draws on local experience and expertise to ensure the greatest possible relevance to producers. Leading farmers in the region are working with researchers including hydrologists, irrigation engineers, forage agronomists, animal nutritionists, soil scientists, simulation modellers, economists, social researchers, milk company supply managers, and dairy farm business management consultants to manage the experiment and interpret the results.

“This initiative builds on one of the traditional strengths of Dookie,” said Professor Chapman, “its close connection to local industries and networks”.

“In fact, it’s this combination of partners, starting with the Dookie dairy farm and drawing from the industry and researchers from several different disciplines which is, perhaps, the most significant innovation in the experimental plan.”

By all accounts the experiment is being well received at the local level. “Not only do we have three new full-time, hardworking research assistants to share the day-to-day farming load,” said Mr Boyd, “but the high-level scientific knowledge of academic experts like David Chapman, whose knowledge of pastures, feeds and cows is second to none in my opinion.”

Redevelopment of the Dookie dairy farm for the FRM project is now nearing completion, with the first data ready to be collected and collated. The experiment has involved the establishment of three “mini-farms”, each milking 48 cows at peak, designed to operate on different scenarios of irrigation water available in hotter and drier climates.

One system will operate with no irrigation water at all, the other two on a variable reduction of irrigation water – approximately 2.5 millilitres, and 5 millilitres per hectare respectively. In each case, the mix of forages grown will need to change to include more annual crops and pastures in order to limit water demand over summer.

The research team has used computer simulation models of plant growth and the dairy farming system to identify the management changes required. The technical challenge is to test the proposition that each of the three experimental farming systems can lead to sustainable dairy farming with good profits and manageable risks.

The overall goal for FRM is to do more with less water both for the farmers and for the health of rivers and catchments. “The key challenge is to coordinate change” said Professor Chapman. “In adapting to more variable water supplies, farmers need to make changes for the better, confident that their investments will pay off, and be supported by ongoing complementary water information, services and markets.”


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