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Rhys Moller

Week #5: USQ Toowoomba and Shepparton City Council

Day #1:The first day of the week was spent at the University of Queensland Toowoomba campus, with an AgTech research group called the NCEA.  I spent all my time meeting the faculty members.  All of this was organized by the organization head Dr. Foley.  The work at USQ was very interesting, and is one of the biggest reasons I’m going to take a few engineering classes.  They do research using drones, build machines for other researchers, and have their arms in almost everything.  One of the coolest faculty I met was Les Zeller, a man who has come up multiple times in my turfgrass studies with Professor Rossi.

Day #2:  Tuesday was when the hard work started.  I went out with one of the Agricultural Engineering students to help him with a research project he was running.  We went to a farm with an overhead irrigator and measured the RPM and flow rates of every three sprinkler heads.  This was miserable work.  It was the coldest day I had in Queensland, probably 40 degrees Fahrenheit, extremely windy, and we were running under the water.  To make things worse, I ended up falling into the irrigation ditch.  For how physically challenging this day was, it was nice to see some applied research.

Day #3: I went back to Shepparton early in the morning, and went right to work with the Shepparton City Council.  I was working with the sports field managers for the Shire, which is the Australian version of a county.  They are basically in charge of taking care of the AFL and Cricket ovals that are built in each small town, village, and city.  Because it was the winter, work was slow, so the tasks we completed were mostly small.  Things like moving the Shepparton football grounds growth cover to an area that had taken a rather large amount or wear.  We reseeded, added a topdressing, and then rolled over the problematic areas.  I was also given a brief tour of most of the surrounding ovals and sports fields in the Shire.

Day #4:  Spent day #4 working more with soccer fields.  The main field at the newly constructed $20 Million AUD sports complex was in very good shape.  We added some topdressing to the sideline where the assistant referees run up and down.  After that we repaired sprinkler heads, and drove to other fields to topdress and sometimes reseed.  Though the work wasn’t the most stimulating at the City Council, it was great to see applied turfgrass management, and how much recent research was actually used by the workers in the field, cause one of the first things I learned on the trip was that there’s a massive gulf between research and the actual applications in Australia.

Day #5: Spent at the office on a very quiet day.  Learned about all the council does, and caught up on blog work.

Week #4: CAF Engineering

Day #1: CAF Engineering is a civil engineering consulting firm.  They do pretty much everything, but have recently been very involved in building the new dairy installments that are a result of the increased investment from Asia into the Australian markets.  I was lucky on my first day to be invited to a meeting that the owners of CAF were having with a farmer who was in charge of updating and automating his dairy, with help from foreign investors.  The firm had just won the contract and were meeting him for the first time.  The meeting itself was very short, but the crew wandered around afterward looking at the current infrastructure to get a good sense of the land, and what they would have to do to rework it.  It was interesting to hear that whatever the first plan they make ends up being, that the end product will not be the same anyway.

Day #2: I spent the second day working with my cousin, who works at CAF Engineering as a project manager for a new dairy installment.  I got to look around and see what onsite management looks like, as well as experience the large gulf in communication between engineers and the people who actually end up building things.  I can now see how important it is to find someone who can bridge the gap between the engineers, who aren’t always very good at communicating their ideas, and the onsite workers, who can be very stubborn and don’t always like engineers.  Around noon I left the site and helped the firm surveyor with plotting new cattle paths and pastures, which was actually something I quite enjoyed and may take up in the future.

Day #3: I spent day #3 in the office, learning how to use the civil designing program called AutoCAD.  This is something that many of the employers said is a very useful skill to know, and that most people who know how to use it end up getting job offers.  Luckily, Cornell has a membership for all undergrad students at Lynda.com, a website that is good for learning practical workplace skills across any career type.

Day #4: the next day I spent learning about how drones are used in surveying fields.  CAF likes to use the drones to measure evapotranspiration rates using NDVI satellite, and field cover among other things.  Brent, the surveyor, showed me very clear examples of how a farmer thought his crop was looking healthy and uniform, but was then showed how wrong he was.  The before and after pictures showed very obvious changes.  I’m not sure how commonly drones are used in American agriculture, but there is definitely a place for them.

 

Day #5: I spent my final day at CAF with the surveyors again.  Our assignment was to go out to a winery that wanted to expand its water catchment area, and help survey the land so that the firm knew what they were working with.  I again very much enjoyed this part of the work experience I had, and hope to look into it more in depth at Cornell

Week #3: Tatura Research Center (DEDJTR)

Week #3: DEDJTR Tatura

Day #1:  I arrived early in the morning.  The first day was mostly spent meeting all the staff of the research facility, and the Murray-Dairy industry research group.  This was one of my favorite places throughout the whole trip.  All the employees were very, very friendly and easy going.  I answered all the usual questions about being American and my opinions on Trump, and then settled into my desk for the week.  The last couple hours of the day were spent learning about, and then using, an online, open-source farm mapping software.

Day #2:  Woke up bright and early for the day I planned on spending with Harriet from Murray-Dairy.  She picked me up somewhere around 7am in the morning, and we then drove three and a half hours to a dairy farm that had some research paddocks.  They also used the Rubicon pipe and riser flood irrigation equipment and software.  We were there to measure the growth rates of about 10-12 paddocks.  We used a cool device that was attached to the front of a golf cart so that when we drove through the paddocks it measured density, height of grass, and possible weight.  The device wasn’t built for ryegrass and clover paddocks though, so with these we had to cut samples each time we took a measurement so we could set a benchmark to work with when the data was analyzed.

Day #3:  On day three I toured the horticulture part of the research center.  I first saw the stone fruit orchards, where they were investigating varied irrigation rates on 3 different propagation systems.  One of which, called the Tatura Open trellis, I had seen used in vineyards across American and Australia before.  It was nice to see where the concept had originated sometime in the 1970’s.  After the stone fruit orchard, I went and saw the pear research plot, where I helped measure shoot growth after the plants were pruned using a wide range of techniques.  I then helped sort and measure those cut shoots for fiber and nutrient content.

Day #4:  Day four was spent organizing data from the research stations weather prediction service.  I had to plot the predicted evapotranspiration and rainfall rates against the actual measurements, in order to see how effective they were.  The evapotranspiration predictions were within an acceptable range, but the predicted rainfall was nowhere near the mark.  I wasn’t surprised knowing how accurate the weathermen usually are.  This was one of the things that I found to be most interesting.  Along with on farm automation, rainfall and transpiration rate prediction are likely to be the future of farming technology for the next 10-15 years, and it’s all happening in Australia.

Day #5:  The last day was the most relaxed.  I spent it with the research station hydrologist, who took me to a farm that fully used both Rubicon flood irrigation systems (flood gate and channel, and pipe and riser).  The whole operation was huge, and I wish I’d had more time to learn about how the whole system was managed.  One of the themes I noticed from the trip, is that the farmers who invested in the Rubicon technology had considerable extra time to focus on other dairy farm related activities, instead of spending all 24 hours of the day focused on irrigating.

Week #2: Cotton in Wee Waa

Day #1:

I arrived in Wee Waa after 9 hours of travel from Sydney, where I’d just spent a week exploring with my brother and friends.  I hadn’t experienced train travel much before, but after the whole experience I’d highly recommend it to anyone.  Tickets were inexpensive, the food wasn’t terrible, and there was a decent amount of leg space available.  I arrived in Wee Waa around 6pm in the dark.  The farmer Mr. David Grellman picked me up at the station.  Before heading to the farm, Mr. Grellman had a Rotary Club meeting to attend, so I tagged along.  The meeting was very interesting.  One of the members was over 90 years old, a member in his 50’s had just invented an important chemical to be used for spraying in the region, and a member in his 30’s was a guy I recognized from the news (his brother was an Australian reporter that was accused or/framed for being a spy in Egypt.  I remember seeing footage from the trial a couple years ago).  After the dinner we headed back to the farm and went to bed

Day #2:

Woke up early in the morning to go to the biggest cotton purchaser in the region called AusCott, which is actually owned by Americans.  They had 4 very large cotton gins in a massive building, hopefully I have the pictures I took.  This particular facility is able to spit out a bale of cotton every 45 seconds, per side of the building.  So it’s actually 2 bales produced per 45 seconds.  What’s mind blowing is the fact that it takes them months to get all of the cotton crop they purchase through the gins.  Another aspect that the particular business struggles with is finding trucks to transport the bales, mostly because Wee Waa is very isolated, much like most towns and villages that aren’t within 2-3 hours of the big coastal cities in Australia.

After AusCott Mr. Grellman (the farmer) and I headed back to the farm for lunch.  On the way over we stopped by the cotton research extension office, where there was a visible IPM trial.  For those who don’t know, IPM stands for integrated pest management.  Integrated pest management is an attempt to make managing pests more economical and environmentally friendly.  In this particular case the researchers are trying to manage a particularly nasty cotton moth.  They do this by planting another plant that the moths like more than the cotton next to the crop load.

Day #3:

The highlight of the third day was the visit to CSD, the cotton seed distributers.  I learned all about the general process of breeding new cotton plants, the timeline from idea conception to actual use in the field, and the many aspects that the manager needs to juggle.  They often have multiple versions of each plant growing at different places around the farm, and each version is being tested in different condition.  Each paddock, or bay, is essentially its own trial, so there are no similar requirements.  The manager also has to take measures to ensure that there isn’t genetic drift of the product into the current varieties.  This is all I’m allowed to include due to confidentiality agreements, but the visit to CSD was in my top 3 favorite experiences for the whole trip.

Day #4:

The next day was spent on Mr. Grellmans second property.  This property was considerably larger than his first one he gave me a tour of.  Not only did he grow cotton on the second farm, but he also had a considerable amount of natural grazing fields that he raised beef cattle on.  We spent the day rounding up the cattle from one of the paddocks to another.  Because it was a natural grazing field, he wasn’t allowed to grow anything on it.  This means that there isn’t always enough food that provides a reasonable amount of nutrients.  The cows weren’t as healthy as Mr. Grellman usually wants them to be, but he had enough feed to get them through the season in a reasonable shape.  After that I had to go and flatten out the dirt roads through the farm and on top of the channel systems.

Australia Week #1: Russell Pell Dairy Farm

My name is Rhys Moller.  I’m heading into my junior year at Cornell University where I’m in the Agricultural Sciences degree.  I’m still not quite sure why I chose to study agriculture, I think mostly it’s because at the time I liked working outside and hated the idea of sitting in an office all day.  I came into university with no knowledge of anything agriculture related, so I decided to contact my uncle in Australia, who works as an irrigation expert at a company called Rubicon Water.  We decided that after sophomore year I should go to Australia for my internship credit, and go on a six week working tour across all kinds of agricultural entities in Melbourne, Brisbane, Shepparton, Sydney, Wee Waa, Echuca, and a handful of small towns in Northern Victoria.
The goals for the internship being to solidify what I’d like to do for a job, identify any classes I should take to be better prepared to enter the workforce, and to get a close up look at how Australian farmers handle the unique issues they face with limited water supply, droughts, extreme flooding, and heavy government regulations on water.  The first stop in this tour was a dairy farm half an hour out of Echuca with a Farmer called Russell Pell.  He’s a very interesting guy.  He started the dairy with his brother in the 70’s, he meets with politicians to discuss water regulations, and is one of the first farmers in his region to start using modern irrigation technology and automation.  I was excited to meet him and spend time on the farm, though having no farm experience what-so-ever, the learning curve was huge.

WEEK #1

Day 1). The first thing you should know about Victoria, a southern state in Australia, is that it can be quite cold.  The first day on the farm there was frost and fog, none of which I was expecting.  I instantly regretted my decision to not bring a winter jacket and for the entire first day I unfortunately wore jeans and a t-shirt, I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold.  To make matters worse, the farm was so large that ATV bikes were the only convenient way to get around.  If there’s one thing you take away from this blog, it should be that going 40-50 kilometers/hour on a ATV in the middle of winter with only a t-shirt is the most miserable thing you can possibly do.  Especially when it’s so foggy that you end up hitting a fence and get launched into the pond nearby.  Learn through experience I guess…  Because it’s winter in Australia, farms are relatively inactive in terms of crop growth.  The farms dry feed had been harvested a few weeks earlier, the irrigation of winter crops had taken place a week before I arrived, and a couple crew members were on vacation.  However, there was still much to do.  The first big job was to cover the dry feed with plastic and tires to prevent pest damage.  It may come as a surprise to Americans, but cockatoos are considered a farm pest.  They have very sharp beaks that damage feed covers, which results in a significant loss.  Because of this farmers are allowed to shoot them, and that alone should say how much of a pest they are since Australia has very, very strict gun laws.  They had started swarming around the dry feed stores, so Russell decided it was time to put the plastic cover and tires over it.  Covering the feed took close to 3 hours of hard work in very muddy and wet conditions.  I was so sore at the end that when I was walking to my ATV my legs gave out from exhaustion and I fell into a large pit of mud.  Luckily it was pitch black so nobody saw a thing.

 

Day #2). This was a very busy day.  We had to first move an excavator that was stuck in one of the irrigation panels.  We drove the big tractor out with a bed to put the excavator on for transport.  The excavator got out from the mud in no time, but when we put it on the trailer it was so heavy that the tractor couldn’t get out of the muddy pathway.  We decided that I was going to have to drive the tractor out of the mud, while Mr. Pell was simultaneously used the escalator, stored on the trailer bed, arm to push the tractor out.  Somehow this worked, and looking back it was actually very unsafe, having never driven a large tractor in my life.  Not to mention the fact that the escalator constantly looked like it was going to fall backwards off the trailer with Mr. Pell in it.  Good times…  After that we had to round up some cattle that had been sold a couple weeks earlier for pickup.  Not much action really, but it was good for me to see the whole loading process.  The rest of the day was spent getting a view of the above ground water transport systems, which in Australia are huge channels of dirt, and the overall farm irrigation plan.  In Australia, the use of flood irrigation is very common, and generally thought of as less expensive that lateral movement irrigators and pivot irrigators.  The problem is that flood irrigation isn’t very efficient with water use.  A farmer has to judge how quickly the water is moving across a field in order to judge when to stop the water flow in, and closing the channels can take time.  Mr. Pell recently invested in automatic rubicon irrigation channel doors (pictured above), that are all connected via the cloud.  Now he can simply use an app to close the channels, and even better, each time he irrigates the data is all collected and eventually averaged out.  This means that he can open the channel doors, and with all the previous irrigation times stored, the doors will close on their own when the field is properly irrigated without wasting as much water as he would have previously.

Day #3). The third day was uneventful.  Russell Pell had to leave for Australia’s capital, Canberra, to meet with politicians to discuss water policy related problems.  While he was over in the capital, I went and did various jobs with the farm hands,  I sat in the tractor with Peter, the head herdsman, and fed the cows.  I went and cleared out the dairy after milking, which smelled awful, and mustered the cows from the dairy all the way across to the other corner of the farm.  Herding the cattle was actually quite fun, even though these cows were obstinate to an extreme level.  The farm hands looked on in laughter as I was standing on my quad bike, waving my arms and making as much noise as possible, attempting to get those cows to move.  They showed me a video afterwards and I looked pretty ridiculous.  Something of note, an immediate difference I noticed from how American dairy cows are raised to Australian cows is that Australian cows are always outside, and are only brought in to structures of any form to be milked.  Though, I will admit that the only reason they can do that is the warm climate.  A result of this is that there is lots of foreign investment and purchasing of Australian dairy products from China, who views Australian dairy products as clean and in much higher standards of quality than most Chinese produced milk.

Day #4). Woke up early again to go and clear the cattle sheds after milking, which ended up being cut short.  One of the water pipes had apparently broken (shown above) and had to be fixed.  It turns out that the original structure wasn’t put together very well, and that particular pipe was only half welded into place, so they’d been leaking water for a couple years without noticing.  It took a couple hours to sort that issue out, mostly because the pipes in this particular dairy are also connected to the wiring, so in order to replace the pipe they had to also remove the wire cords.  Once that whole drama was over, I went to go explore the intake pipes by the river.  Farms in Australia are only allowed a certain amount of water, in Megalitres per year, to draw out of the water.  Their intake is measured by a device placed inside the piping at the intake point.  The first and second sets of pictures have examples of what the intake piping looks like.  The water is drawn up into channels that then spread the water across the farm.  Also present on a typical Australian farm is catchment dams.  These are unregulated, which means that whatever water these dams keep after rainfall is yours to use.  I’ll show some pictures of those in one of the next blog posts from the cotton farm.

Day #5). My last day on the farm was spent learning how to build fences, which is something that I never thought was going to be very difficult.  Having now experienced that, I can comfortably say that it would take lots and lots of practice to finally string up a fence properly.  I really enjoyed the experience on the farm, but I can comfortably say that i will not be pursuing a career as a dairy farmer.  I’m not sure I could handle the constant smell, somewhat monotonous routine, and constant worrying about the international precise of dairy, but in the short term it was a great experience and I learned lots of practical skills for later in life.  So yeah that’s week #1, next week I head to Sydney to go exploring.  Even though I’ve done it too many times to count, I’ll likely do all the typical touristy things around the harbor area, but I’ll also be heading out to the Blue Mountains to explore what is in my opinion one of the most beautiful areas in the whole world, Katoomba.  Next blog post will be from the cotton farm based out in Wee Waa.

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