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Cutting water with a laser

As our agricultural regions experience hotter and drier weather, farmers are turning to an unexpected tool to help them adapt – lasers.

Here’s what happens when farmers use lasers: Water consumption and runoff, energy consumption and irrigation time, all reduce. The area of land available for planting increases, as does farm productivity.

So, how does it work? On any farm, even those that appear to be flat, a certain amount of water runs off before it’s had a chance to soak into the soil and be absorbed by plant roots.

Numerous research studies around the world have shown that farms that are truly flat are more productive than those with even the slightest slope.

This is where lasers come into the picture. A laser beam is cast across a farm, revealing minor undulations. These are then graded until the farm’s surface is uniformly flat.

One study conducted over three years in India revealed serious gains versus unlevelled fields. Farmers who laser level their farms could:

  • Cut irrigation water by 21%
  • Cut energy use by 31%
  • Increase crop yields by up to 11%
  • Cut irrigation time by up to 20%
  • Use water 49% more efficiently than an unlevelled field
  • Increase water productivity by up to 33%
  • Increase annual net income by up to 24%

The farms levelled as part of the study grew rice, wheat and sugar cane – three crops traditionally grown on flat land.

The process is simple. A laser transmitter is set up on a tripod. Its signal is picked up by a receiver on top of a grader towed behind a tractor. The grader adjusts height and gradient until the land is flat.

Farmers in some of our richest agricultural land have used laser levelling to gain the advantages listed above.

Unfortunately, their work is sometimes undermined – literally – by things like coal seam gas drilling.

There are currently around 9,000 natural gas wells dotted around Queensland’s Cecil Plains. By 2030, it’s predicted there’ll be 22,000 of them.

Worried about the impact on their farms, some farmers refuse access to gas companies. Gas companies like Arrow Energy responded with a technique called deviating drilling. Rather than drill down vertically, they drill at an angle, sometimes under and land of farmers who refused them access.

The result of this drilling is that the farmland above is subsiding. The advantages of laser levelling are negated. One local farmer has seen productivity fall by 10%. His only recourse is to level the field yet again.

Last year, Arrow Energy was fined $1,000,000 by the Queensland Government for deviating from drilling. Arrow called its drilling a mistake.

Levelling isn’t the only way lasers are used to boost farm productivity.

Lasers assist with precision seeding. This improves germination rate, crop growth and yield.

Lasers are also being used to deter birds. This is especially valuable in crops such as grapes, and also in aquaculture.

Today’s farmers are tech-savvy in ways that were unimaginable a generation back. Many of the farmers with whom IIF has partnered are at the cutting edge of this new technology. They have been early adopters of new techniques, and have even developed their own breakthrough tech.

Supporting these innovative farmers is easy using the IIF app. IIF puts a farm in our members’ pockets.

Sources: Science Direct, ResearchGate, The Guardian

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