Darrell Fiddler, 2021 SunRice Grower of the Year pushes the boundaries in water use efficiency.

13 August 2021

Keeping a close eye on the latest in RD&E is what sets Darrell Fiddler apart from other rice growers and earnt him the accolade of 2021 SunRice Grower of the Year. 

Darrell is committed to seeking out new information and the best advice from a wide range of operators and experts, which he uses to drive a profitable farm business while balancing the need for sustainability. 

Darrell started working with De Bortoli in 2008 as a backhoe driver and he now leads an exceptional farming operation. As Farm Manager for De Bortoli Wines, Darrell is responsible for 2,860ha at Bilbul and Benerembah, where rice is grown as a part of a rotation with other irrigated summer crops and winter cereals. 

Darrell is not afraid to seek advice to bridge any gaps in his knowledge and uses his network to deepen his understanding of the farming system. He then modifies what he learns to suit his own farming goals. Darrell is heavily involved in industry trials and demonstrations. He attributes a lot of his own innovations to inspiration from industry-wide rice R&D efforts. For example, Darrell hosts a site that is part of trials run by Deakin University on irrigation automation. 

“I would encourage all growers to get more involved in these research efforts to learn and be involved in rice R&D,” Darrell said.

Planning for productivity and profit
Being prepared and being on time is key to the success of Darrell’s operations.  

Transitioning to controlled traffic farming, based on multiples of 8 metre permanent tracks for spraying and spreading, has helped improve timeliness of operations. Double or triple cropping with winter cereals after rice is common, and Darrell says that being on time is really important for rice and all of our operations because of the impact it has on the current and following crop growth. He also attributes forward planning as key to the success of double or triple cropping. 

“We always aim for the four p’s, which is planning to prevent poor performance. With a lot going on across the business, planning just helps us stay on track and become more efficient with our time,” he said.

Savvy business management
In-depth budgeting ensures the profitability of each crop. Darrell uses an accountancy package that can attribute a minimum of 92% of his operational and input costs to each crop grown. This enables the business to have highly accurate production costs. Budgets are completed in June every year and then revised monthly to stay on track. With this level of attention to detail, Darrell can make informed and timely management decisions to ensure the profitability of each enterprise. 

Pushing boundaries for water use efficiency
Darrell has demonstrated a strong focus on improving water productivity through management. While Darrell consistently grows strong yields, he says that their real focus is return per megalitre. 

“The rice industry has set a water use target of 1.5 t/ML and that is what we all should be striving for. Our transition to delayed permanent water has reduced water use by 3 ML/ha when compared to our aerial sown crops. This season we averaged 1.28 t/ML for 130 ha of Reiziq.”  

Last season Darrell worked with Matt Champness from Deakin University to successfully automate the irrigation for an aerobic Viand crop using Padman Automation. The decision to trial an aerobic rice crop evolved from Darrell wanting to push the boundaries to increase water productivity. Darrell used IoT (internet of things) soil moisture sensors to initiate irrigation events and in-field water height sensors to control outlets during the irrigation event. The in-field soil moisture and water height sensors communicated with the Padman mobile app and portable auto winches via a LoRAWAN gateway. Automated irrigation enabled Darrell to complete other on-farm activities, while irrigation was managed in the background. 

“The water savings throughout the season were achieved by automatically changing supply to the bay as watering finished, rather than waiting for people to change it. In turn, you see a percentage of water being saved every time. There is also a huge labour saving by not relying on people to go change the water when it’s ready.”

Focusing on sustainability

Darrell’s ability to implement a full chemical program in the midst of a diverse agricultural area impressed the judges.  

“When we saw spray drift become an increasing concern, we organised an Advanced Spray Course for myself and the other spray rig operators to get skilled up. You just need to be ready adjust and act so that you can still deliver a chemical program on time without impacting our neighbours,” Darrell said.

Other sustainable practices are also at the forefront of the farming program with winter cereals used as cover cropping. 
“We don’t tend to irrigate our winter wheat, we instead plant the crop as a ‘tillage tool’ to help crack open the soil at depth and get some deeper roots into the system. Maintaining cover also reduces our need for herbicide before we go back into summer crop.”

“We have incorporated our drainage systems within existing native shelter belts to help with on farm biodiversity, which in turn our reducing chemical requirements. 

The full package
The third year of the Rice Industry Awards continues to showcase and champion our innovative growers who are leading the industry in production, water use efficiency and innovation. Darrell Fiddler impressed judges through his active pursuit of adapting the latest science and technologies to suit his farm business to drive profitable returns. As all good cooks say, the proof is in the pudding, and for the 2021–22 season, Darrell averaged 1.28 t/ML water use growing 130 ha of Reiziq. 

The SunRice Grower of the Year Field Day will be held on Thursday 24 February 2022 at Bilbul, NSW to showcase Darrell’s farming practices. You can register to attend here.