National needs and gaps analysis of on-farm irrigation information tools
M. Chapman, L.Chapman and D.Dore for
Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 2009
- National needs and gaps analysis of on-farm irrigation information tools (PDF - 835 KB)| (RTF- 1,272 KB)
The primary purpose of this report is to provide key findings and make recommendations on the development of irrigation information tools to help irrigators increase productivity and achieve water savings. It discusses investment into priority areas with the aim of enabling and supporting change in irrigation management practices on-farm. This report complements the recent project National Audit of On-farm Irrigation Information Tools.
For the purposes of this project, irrigation information tools refers to an array of tools ranging from the very simple, such as water budgeting spreadsheets, to very complex decision support systems (DSSs).
Please note that publication of this report by the Commonwealth is not intended to represent the commitment of Commonwealth funding towards any investment needs identified in it. The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commonwealth Government, the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts or the Commonwealth Minister for Climate Change and Water.
The analysis has found that irrigation information tools have a significant role to play in improving on-farm WUE. The rate of adoption of tools over the past 20 years has been low or slow and there are many useful lessons that inform the analysis and recommendations. How the tool is developed and targeted dictates its relevance to changing on-farm water management. Successful tool development should be viewed as a participatory process leading to practice change, irrespective of whether or not this involves ongoing tool use.
Information tools are most valuable and effective when (a) targeted at providing support for complicated decisionson-farm; and (b) when combined with the dynamics of human interaction — that is, that the farm manager is interacting with a trusted other such as a commercial supplier, water supplier, public or private consultant.
Investment partnerships are required with agencies and organisations that demonstrate regional and commodity-specific credentials and that prioritise one-on-one as well as group learning processes with irrigators and their advisers.
Water use efficiency (WUE) across commodities can be substantially improved. Every farm irrigation layout, and every farm business, has its own particular set of opportunities for saving water, and its own particular set of challenges to improve WUE. In aggregate, the greatest water savings on-farm can be made by mitigating evaporation and seepage, and by improving field application so that water is precisely matched to plant needs. On-farm irrigation information tools can identify where water can be saved, and provide information to assist in improving water use efficiencies.
The Pragmatic Farmer
The bell-curve of technology adopter 'types' includes the categories of:
- Innovators (technically savvy innovators),
- Early Adopters (visionaries),
- Early Majority (pragmatists),
- Late Majority (conservatives), and
- Laggards (sceptics).
The "early majority" of adopters are generally not innovators, but they are the most important group to target in order to achieve improved water use on-farm. In adoption theory, there is a 'chasm' between early adopters and the early majority, in that they do not reference each other. So seeking to appeal to innovators or early adopters will not have a flow.on effect to the majority of farmers. To achieve change across most farms, it is essential to develop tools and support systems that appeal to the 'early majority' of adopters.
Support systems for Innovators or Early Adopters are quite different to support systems for the Early Majority. Best Management Practice (BMP) guidelines provide a way for the Early Majority of adopters to move forward. It is a set of guidelines that chart the journey and enables the commencement of a continual improvement process.
Much of the extension effort in recent years has been based on group activity which can be useful when benchmarking for continual improvement. However group learning has its limitations and many survey respondents pointed to the requirement for one-on-one support and advice when new tools or management systems are being considered or adopted.
Some public agencies and industry groups have invested in developing BMP guidelines, and in initiatives that provide one-on-one and group services to irrigators. These relationships and structures should be supported and strengthened by investment in addressing information tool needs and gaps. Conversely, whilst some agencies have excellent scientific or other credentials, they do not have strong advisory programs, or a desire to prioritise engagement with end-users.
The Pragmatic Farmer's adviser
There is abundant and overwhelming evidence that information tools are of negligible use without human interaction.
The relationship between the farmer and his/her commercial suppliers, water suppliers, commodity group, extension staff and consultants should be considered in the development of any information tool. Tools may be developed with the farmer as end-user, or with the adviser as end-user; either way the tool will require the addition of advisory services, discussion and on-going support for there to be any change in on-farm management practice.
The survey found frustration amongst irrigation stakeholders that there are insufficient highly skilled private and public consultants in the industry to service growers. There was a strong view that more growers would adopt and effectively use irrigation information tools if the benefits were clearly demonstrated and if there was up to 12 months of support in the selection and bedding-down of the tool. The technical skills available to the irrigator were generally seen to be too limiting and many believed that public consultants in particular lacked knowledge on business related issues such as financial or labour benefits to be able to mount a plausible case to irrigators to invest in change.
It should also be noted that whilst private consultants are now 'the norm' in some industries, most survey respondents believed that the majority of irrigation enterprises would not pay for professional advice on-farm. Whilst this may change over time, most believed that in the medium term, public or industry-funded extension programs were the most likely method for improving water use on-farm. These findings also indicate the expanded role that first-point-of-contact personnel can play. Equipment sales staff, water supplier staff, commodity-funded industry officers and the like are often used for 'free' advice and their potential to assist change processes on-farm is very significant. Their role in assisting irrigators should be acknowledged and valued.
There is a need to increase the uptake of education and training programs aimed at improving the standards and skills of first-point-of-contact irrigation advisers. Consistent and technically accurate messages need to be delivered based on good science and sound productivity arguments. The survey also identified that training and support needed to be strongly relevant to the local industry and region.
Tool needs & gaps
Over 120 tools have been identified for specific on-farm irrigation uses, but very few tools are available to the majority of irrigators to actually assess their whole farm's WUE, or to identify at what points in the on-farm system water is lost. Knowing at what points in the on-farm system water is lost, under-used or wasted is crucial.
An analysis of needs against tools already available has identified gaps in the areas of:
- WUE audit tools
- Data and information management and standards;
- Crop Water Use estimations to support irrigation scheduling and new plant based technologies;
- Acceptable installation, measurement procedures and interpretation standards for various equipment;
- Water allocation and trading decision support tools;
- Cost and benefit evaluation tools to assess proposals for
- changes to water use or irrigation infrastructure;
- Irrigation design tools;
- Performance of water in soils tools; and
- Weather data and forecasting tools.
A cross section of irrigation stakeholders believe that further development to improve existing tools, or new tools, is needed. It is important to work through how some of the essential missing or incomplete information/data for good tool performance can be addressed. Participatory processes are required to design and test, across different regions, a range of tools and critical information needs.
On-going biophysical research is required to improve the quality of information tool input data and the precision of model parameters.
The analysis has identified that investors in a program to dramatically improve on-farm WUE will need to make a long-term funding commitment to overcome the barriers to widespread information tool use by irrigators. The investment will need to focus on achieving a new standard in technical extension services to irrigators, and it will include resourcing capacity building amongst first-point-of-contact advisory personnel in public and private organisations.
The structure of investment should be a healthy costshare arrangement across the Commonwealth, state and commodity organisations to respond to needs and gaps in information tools. The investing agencies should have ownership of basic regional/commodity tool kits to ensure they remain as public domain.