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Smartphone technology has changed their lives

Clare sugar cane farmers Don (left) and Heath Salter… automated irrigation on their farm has had a profound effect on the lifestyle of both their families.

Don Salter

PATRIARCH of his Burdekin-based farming family, Don Salter, has always been a great believer in “soil under the fingernails”, rather than “fancy new technology” to run their enterprise.

Little more than 12 months ago, he would have scoffed at the idea of son Heath’s smartphone being the hardest-working tool on the farm.

Nor would he have believed that a smartphone would enable him and wife Sue to have the freedom to be able to leave the farm, sometimes for months at a time.

Or that it would enable them to consider retirement without leaving the beautiful homestead they have built on the farm.

“To me initially, it was pie in the sky,” Don said.

“I really felt that nothing’s perfect and we would get problems with it.”

Fiona and Heath Salter.

Don and Sue Salter.

Heath Salter shares a joke with mum, Sue.

Now, he’s happy to admit he was wrong, the only “problem” being when a battery ran flat, but even then there was an alert on the computer running the system, as well as on Heath’s phone.

“It’s empowering. It really has had a big impact on our lifestyle as well as the running of the farm,” Don said.

“After 50 years of irrigation [he used to irrigate on his father Carle’s dairy farm], to see this happen now, it makes the fire in the belly keep burning.

“We can carry on farming here, and ease back gradually.”

About 12 months ago, Don was tired and burnt out… enough to (briefly) consider selling up. He settled on the idea of bringing in a farm manager, an idea that didn’t sit well with son Heath.

His conscience pricked him to such an extent, he threw in his job as an agronomist at Landmark in Ayr, and he took over farm duties, ostensibly as the manager.

It seemed a natural progression, having been involved in working the farm for almost a decade previously.

The “manager” role lasted for several days… right up until the first management meeting conducted, as always, around the table on the verandah overlooking the homestead garden and lagoon.

When it came down to it, neither of them was sure who was in charge and who should make which decisions, so the “manager” label was quietly binned.

Heath said although he and his father were not partners in the business, they ran the business together, rarely disagreed, and had never had an argument… at least, not about the farm.

“We sit out here on the verandah and, over cups of tea, make wrong decisions together,” he said, grinning.

The Salters (from left) Heath, William, Fiona, Don and Sue on the jetty over the lagoon in front of the family home.

Checking the power used by one of the farm pumps.

It’s a 60km round trip from Heath and wife Fiona’s home in Ayr to the Clare farm, and before the automated irrigation was installed, they would routinely have to pack up the family and move to the farm for a week or so to allow Heath to water the farm.

Don and wife Sue usually spent a couple of months with son Adrian on their Koonoomoo farm in Victoria (near Cobram) which meant Heath and Fiona, an engineer at SunWater, juggling their lives to keep the farm ticking over.

Now, it’s the smartphone that does most of the irrigation “work” and having confidence that the watering side of things is being done, takes a lot of stress away from Don and Heath.

It’s been a long time coming for Don. He grew up on his father Carle’s dairy farm at Katunga near Cobram in Victoria where he first became resigned to the idea of interrupting a good night’s sleep to turn irrigation on or off.

The dairy farm was sold, and the family moved on to Koonoomoo where they farmed crops on a 250 acre block, a property which is now part of Adrian’s 700 acre enterprise growing wheat, canola and barley.

When Don and Sue got the opportunity to buy a block with a cane assignment in North Queensland, they leapt at it and they have run the property for more than 20 years, raising four children – Reece, Adrian, Heath and Haley – building a beautiful homestead along the way.

The homestead began when Don persuaded the men working on the road in front of the property to soften the contours of the deep borrow pits in front of their house site to make a lagoon.

They built a bridge and put the driveway over that, and the dye was cast.

“Coming from Victoria, we were used to lots of trees, so we kept the cane away from the house and left room for a decent house yard,” Don said.

NQ Dry Tropics Sugar Team Leader Luke Malan (right) with Heath (left) and Don Salter.

After a health scare earlier this year, Don has slowed down.

“An average day for me now is a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the afternoon,” he said.

“And I don’t feel at all guilty about having a two-hour lunch every day.”

He describes himself as a FIFO Grandad flitting between Victoria and North Queensland as needs dictate.

“I am not really a consultant, I just get given all those little jobs nobody else wants to do. They’re nitty-gritty jobs that Grandads usually do,” he said, laughing.

The benefits of automating the irrigation are also indisputable from a strictly commercial point of view.

Previously they struggled to pump for long enough to push water through undersized pipes to ensure each block was properly irrigated.

“With automation, we have been able to get back what we lost in friction,” Heath said.

Because it doesn’t matter at what time of the day or night, the pumps start, they have been able to reduce the area being watered in each set, increasing water pressure and flow rate, while at the same time reducing wear and tear.

“Because the pumps are not flogging themselves trying to get pressure out through that undersized pipe, our power costs have come down and that alone is a big saving,” he said.

Heath and Don Salter check on the irrigation.

Although Don remains for the most part a non-participant in anything too technical on the farm, he is now a great believer in the benefits of technology.

He knows, for instance, that unlike his father, it won’t be a faulty heart that ends his days, thanks to technology.

And he predicts that when Heath’s children are in charge, autonomous tractors, sprayers and other vehicles will be doing the paddock work on the farm, probably directed by a mobile phone.

As he and Heath develop the automated irrigation – the next step is to install end-row sensors – the idea of retirement and succession becomes ever-more practical.

They’re not in a hurry. Don remembers seeing his father’s health deteriorate in the two years he lived after moving away from the farm and into town – and he’s keen to ensure the progression is vastly different for him and Sue.

When they decide the time is right, however, the prospect has been made much easier because they know there’s no necessity to vacate the home they built from scratch.

“We will get outside advice about it, an expert to guide us,” Don said.

“But it won’t be too much of an issue.”

NQ Dry Tropics Sugar Team Leader Luke Malan said the Salters’ automation project was partly assisted through the Australian Government’s Reef Alliance Program which aims to reduce dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) reaching the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.

“By automating irrigation systems, we can dramatically reduce runoff that carries DIN through the waterways to the reef,” Luke said.

“That program has ended, but we would love to hear from any growers who are interested in improving their nutrient and irrigation efficiency, so we can look for an opportunity to assist.”

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