Bill Gates caused a stir recently by drinking a glass of water that had, only five minutes earlier, been human waste.
No, Billionaire Bill hadn’t lost a dare. He was actually showcasing his faith in the latest wastewater processing technology – technology that could, if utilised properly, go a long way towards solving the global issue of access to clean drinking water.
Though, it’s not just drinking water that’s in the picture. Imagine, that instead of sipping from a glass of water, Bill was instead quaffing a Barossa Valley red, produced from a vineyard that uses wastewater to irrigate vineyards. It’s an entirely possible scenario (although we’re not sure how often Bill visits Tanunda).
For many, reconditioned wastewater is taboo for consumption, but as Bill so prominently demonstrated, wastewater processing technology is a viable way of both hydrating our planet AND reducing waste.
Which is why we’ve been working with some of Australia’s leading wineries to prove that wastewater can play an important role in wine production.
In a recently released report – Sustainable recycled winery water irrigation - we demonstrate how wineries could reuse their wastewater to safely irrigate their crops. Not only would the reuse of wastewater result in cost savings and better environmental practices, but it could even improve the quality and yield of the crops themselves.
Our lead scientist on the report, Dr Anu Kumar, and her team developed the guidelines after rigorous field, laboratory and glass house trials with participating wineries in the Barossa Valley, Riverina and McLaren Vale regions.
Anu and her team looked at the options for the reuse of wastewater on the vineyards – irrigation, evaporation and disposal – and found that, on the whole, irrigation was the most sustainable.
The study found that wastewater containing less than 60 mg per litre of sodium, 1250 mg per litre of potassium and 625+1084 mg per litre of sodium plus potassium (in combination) was safe for application on grapevines. Of particular interest, the nutrients and organic matter in winery wastewater can even enhance soil productivity, increasing crop growth and yield.
In fact, some of the participating wineries were so satisfied with the results that they have begun implementing our guidelines themselves.
But Anu and her team have been upfront in explaining this isn’t a one size fits all solution. For instance, wastewater can also increase soil salinity, which is bad news for healthy soil.
“It really isn’t a one-approach method,” said Anu. “Individual wineries need to discuss how they use wastewater with experts to ensure that guidelines are being adhered too, as well as the strict regulatory conditions.”
Dr. Kumar and her research team will continue to work with their partners at the University of Adelaide and the Australian Grape and Wine Authority (AGWA) to share these findings with other wineries around Australia.
In a country like Australia that is so susceptible to drought conditions and water shortages, it’s important that we find more efficient and sustainable ways to use what can be such a scarce resource.
Now, to get Bill down to the Barossa for that glass of red…
In conjunction with Dr Kumar and her team, the Australian Grape and Wine Authority has published a useful resource kit which includes more information about winery wastewater management and recycling.
Cattle yards play a huge part in our local farming industry. In fact, with over 28 million head of cattle grazing on our big brown land, there are more cows in Australia than people.
Not only are our cows big in numbers, they are also big in size. Weighing in at up to 450kg, the risk of our bovine friends causing serious injury, and even death, is very real – to the point where cattle handling is one of the most hazardous jobs in the livestock industry.
That’s why this National Farm Safety Week, we’re revisiting a cattle gate which was purpose built to keep our farmers safe.
Designed by NSW farmer Edward Evans, SaferGate swings away from the operator when an animal charges it. This time two years ago we put the gate through rigorous testing. How did we do this? We thought we’d use our very own ‘crash test cow’. See how it went down:
Since our bovine testing rook place in 2012, SaferGate has hit the market and been installed in over 100 cattle fences around the country.
Australian Agricultural Co’s chief operating officer Troy Setter, said his company had installed some SaferGate units last year, which had already prevented potential injury to one of his livestock staff when a beast struck the gate she was attempting to close.
“If it was a normal gate, she would have been hit and possibly seriously injured, however the SaferGate simply folded away,” Mr Setter said. “Stopping just one injury makes the investment worthwhile,” he said.
A tiny mite has been killing honey bees all around the world, and will inevitably reach Australian shores. So what is this destructive mite, and what we can do to protect Australian honey bees?
The Varroa mite, also known as Varroa destructor, is only the size of a pin head but it is the most serious threat to the viability of the Australian honey bee industry.
The mite is parasitic and feeds on the blood of adult and larval honey bees. It also transmits viral and other pathogens, which kill entire bee colonies. Varroa mite is part of the syndrome leading to honey bee declines in many places around the world.
The global invasion heading our way
Varroa mite has been highly invasive. It originated in north Asia in the 1950s and spread to Europe in the 1970s. It then spread to the USA, southeast Asia, South America and Africa. In 2000 it turned up in New Zealand.
Varroa kills honey bees that are managed by beekeepers as well as honey bees living in the wild (known as “feral” bees). Beekeepers need to use chemicals to protect their bees, which increases their costs and yet offers only a partial solution.
Honey bees living in the wild are even more vulnerable, and widespread declines occur. Within four years of the invasion of New Zealand’s North Island, feral bee populations plummeted to about 10% of what they had been.
Australia is one of the last remaining regions in the world still free of Varroa. But it is closer to coming here than ever, having now spread to our neighbours in New Zealand and Indonesia.
Just to complicate matters further, a new Varroa mite has emerged in Papua New Guinea, where a near relative of Varroa destructor has made a similar behavioural jump from the Asian Honey Bee, and now also attacks the European Honey Bee.
Why bees are so crucial to farming
Varroa mite threatens one of our key crop pollinators, just as we have begun to realise that improved pollination is part of the secret to raising agricultural productivity.
Australian agriculture is vulnerable to honey bee declines because a number of our most significant horticultural crops rely on honey bee pollination, and many growers have been accustomed to a high level of free service from feral honey bees.
When free pollination from feral bees declines, horticultural industries will look to managed bees to fill the gap. Unfortunately, beekeepers and their managed bees will be dealing with the same crisis.
Nowhere is this shown better than in the USA, where the mite entered in 1987. After its arrival, the feral honey bee population crashed, managed hives were reduced by about 30% and many beekeepers left the industry.
The decline in managed hives, along with increasing demand from crop growers, has seen a four-fold increase in the cost of hives. Each year, there has been a growing gap between demand for hives and the capacity to supply them.
Better border protection and beyond
Here in Australia, that gap between the supply and demand – the number of bees that beekeepers could supply and how many bees are needed – is where we are most vulnerable.
Our heavy reliance on feral honey bees means there has been a relatively low demand for managed hives. As a consequence, our managed pollination industry is only in the early stages of development.
Given that beekeepers in the USA and NZ have failed to keep pace with demand for crop pollination, Australia may experience an even greater shock to our horticultural industries in future.
The threat of Varroa mite incursion into Australia is real. Any European honey bee swarm arriving on a vessel at an Australian port could be carrying Varroa.
The arrival of Asian honey bees by ship at Australian ports, as occurred at Cairns in North Queensland, provides another pathway for the mite’s incursion.
And it should be noted that the mite managed to slip through New Zealand’s quarantine defences, which are similar to Australia.
In 2007, bio-economic modelling by CSIRO examined the risk to Australian plant industries. It was estimated that the economic risk from Varroa incursion was great enough to justify spending between A$21 million and A$50 million annually over the next thirty years to delay incursion.
Reducing the risk of incursion is sensible, but there must also be a strategy to combat the pest in the likely event that it eventually establishes. This conclusion was reported in the 2008 House of Representatives “More than Honey” inquiry.
Finding local solutions to help the world
Threats to the European honey bee should remind us that reliance on a single species for crop pollination is a risky strategy. There are thousands of other insect species that contribute to crop pollination, and there are strategies available to better support them, and keep them in our production landscapes.
Nevertheless, we still need managed pollinators that can be supplied on demand to supplement wild pollinators. And the European honey bee will continue to be the most important managed pollinator.
Australia is uniquely placed to contribute to the global effort to deal with Varroa mite impacts on honey bees. As long as we keep Varroa out, we can provide the “Varroa free” comparison needed to understand management options for honey bee health.
Further, because the Varroa mite-honey bee relationship evolved in our region (Asia), we are well placed to contribute to the genetic and evolutionary studies that will underpin options for Varroa control.
The Varroa mite has caused problems worldwide, and there is worldwide interest in finding solutions. We need to mobilise the Australian scientists to collaborate globally, in the interests of healthy bees and productive crops.
This article is based on the CSIRO submission to a Senate inquiry into the Future of the beekeeping and pollination service industries in Australia. The Senate committee is holding a public hearing in Brisbane on May 20), and is due to complete its report by June 19.
By John Passioura, Honorary Research Fellow, Plant Industry.
Changing climate, drought and urban expansion threaten the yield of Australia’s wheat. But changes in cropping methods could address reduced water and lead to a jump in yield not seen since the late 1980s.
A history of innovation
The average yield of Australia’s dominant grain crop, wheat, changed little during the 1960s and 1970s. Then, from the mid-1980s to the turn of the century, three changes almost doubled the average wheat yield in south-eastern Australia.
The first of these was the idea of “water-limited yield potential”. A benchmark was set: a crop should produce about 20kg of grain per hectare for every millimetre of water that it used. This idea was rapidly embraced by the farming community for it provided an easily understood benchmark against which farmers could compare the performance of their crops. Average yields were less than half of that and there was much enthusiasm for finding out why.
The second change was canola’s introduction into the cropping system. Farmers soon noticed that the yield of wheat was substantially greater if it was grown after canola, rather than after other crops. The presence of canola roots in the soil greatly diminished the vigour of previously unrecognised root diseases. These root diseases had resulted in unreliable responses to nitrogen fertiliser, which farmers had therefore been loath to apply.
The third change was the increasingly rapid uptake of conservation farming techniques. Thanks to new and effective herbicides, tillage was no longer required to kill weeds. Farmers could sow crops without cultivating the soil, and this meant that sowing could be much more timely. It also left the soil much softer.
These three changes gave farmers a deeper practical insight (backed up by agronomic research) into what was limiting the yield of their wheat crops. This gave them the confidence to aim for higher yields by adding more fertiliser.
Drought a setback, but early sowing stepped in
This period of rapid growth came to an abrupt end during the millennium drought. Nevertheless, the farmers managed to maintain remarkably good yields during this time, except for two very tough years. How did they do it? By innovative management.
Farmers traditionally relied on autumn rainfall; thanks to the drought, there was much less of this. But there was more summer rainfall. Guided by agronomists, farmers conserved as much summer rain in the subsoil as they could.
They did so by meticulously controlling weeds and by retaining the stubble of the previous year’s crop as surface mulch. Controlling the weeds also made sure nitrates – mineralised from soil organic matter during wet periods – stayed in the soil to benefit future crops.
So, when autumn came around farmers had a guaranteed supply of water in the subsoil. But there was still the problem of getting the wheat to germinate and reach the moist subsoil. Farmers were anxious that the sparse autumn rain would provide few opportunities to sow.
Many sowed into dry soil, which, thanks to abandoning frequent cultivation, was now soft. In this they were largely successful.
Early sowing requires wheat varieties that develop slowly, for they must not flower before about late September, after the risk of frost damage has largely abated. Fortunately such varieties were available.
Making more use of less water
The general success of early sowing may benefit farmers as much as the changes of the late 1980s. Farmers might now hope for a much higher water-limited potential yield than in the 1990s, thanks to the capture of summer rainfall (and released nitrate) for use by the following crops, the greater potential yield resulting from the longer period available for developing floral structures that produce grain, and the time available to develop deeper roots for capturing valuable water from deep in the subsoil during grain-filling.
If the crops can use more of the annual rainfall (not just that in the growing season), and get a greater grain yield per millimetre of that extra water, yield could go up by 25%.
This prospect may be reinforced by new cultivars that will let farmers sow seeds much more deeply, deep enough for them to be sown directly into the moist subsoil. The problem with the current cultivars is their short coleoptiles. A coleoptile is the strong tube that emerges from a germinating grass seed and grows towards the soil surface while protecting the soft first leaf within it.
Coleoptiles of current wheat cultivars usually do not grow longer than about 5cm, so the seeds must be sown no deeper than this. New breeding lines have coleoptiles that can grow as long as 15cm.
Other options showing promise are dual purpose cultivars (they can be productively grazed during the winter as well as producing good grain yields); the use of “controlled traffic” so that any soil compaction is restricted to a small area because all machinery uses the same tracks; and precise GPS-guided sowing which lets crop seedlings get better established.
The near doubling of wheat yield during the late 1980s and 1990s was unpredicted, and perhaps unpredictable. But the omens are good for another period of substantial increases in wheat yield despite (and even because of) the recent volatility of weather patterns.
By Adam Harper
You might have heard the song ‘cows with guns’ in the noughties, but that’s old news. These days its cows with lasers! That’s right, lasers.
It might sound like science fiction, but don’t be fooled, it is scientific fact; although the researchers are the ones wielding the weapons this time. Okay so the lasers aren’t really weapons, but they are cutting edge in terms of their ability to measure methane emissions belched out by livestock in the open field.
You see, livestock are responsible for up to 12% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, and contrary to popular belief, that largely comes out of the front end, not the rear. Per day, per cow, that’s about 200-litres of methane. Nobody light a match!
A collaboration of six universities, CSIRO and researchers from Canada is now looking at how to help put a cork in it. The collaboration is called the Livestock Methane Research Cluster (LMRC) and it brings together some of the world’s leading scientific experts to develop accurate and practical methods to measure and reduce livestock methane emissions in northern Australia.
Why just measure the emissions? Well, in order to reduce, minimise and mitigate, you first have to measure. And that’s exactly what’s happening right now at a CSIRO owned test site near Armidale.
Members from all six universities, CSIRO and Canada are testing different types of lasers as well as GPS collars on an unsuspecting herd of 32 beasts. The lasers and measurement equipment is detecting methane emitted from each animal as well as from the entire herd. This information is then used by the Federal Government to help develop a methodology for the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) where farmers can earn carbon credits if they show (using an approved methodology) reduced emissions from their herds – cash cows.
In order to earn credits though, farmers can’t just reduce the number of livestock on their farm, so reducing the amount of methane each animal produces is critical. The process of producing methane in livestock also consumes energy. By reducing that methane production, more energy can be directed to producing meat, milk and wool.
It’s a win-win.
It’s not often our videos go viral but this week our Crash Test Cow clip was watched by over 3,000 people and posted on news sites around the world.
Our 60kg bovine, which was designed to test a new cattle gate called SaferGate, was even deemed more popular than Kylie by the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Forget Kylie, forget Cate, Australia’s newest international superstar is far more impressive – it’s a Crash Test Cow’.
It seems our cow is becoming quite the celebrity so we thought we’d share some behind the scenes footage taken from the perspective of our cow.
A new type of cattle gate aimed at preventing farmer death and injury has completed rigorous testing and development by the CSIRO. SaferGate, designed by farmer and inventor Edward Evans, has been put to the test by a CSIRO-developed ‘crash test cow’.
MEDIA: VNR footage available HERE
Hundreds of farmers and cattle handlers are injured in Australia operating cattle gates. According to latest statistics, 211 farmers were ‘caught, crushed, jammed, or pinched in or between objects’ between 2000 and 2005. Gate incidents also account for 0.5 per cent of deaths among agricultural workers in Australia.
CSIRO’s 60kg test cow, which boasts authentic horns and hide, is designed to simulate the force of a bull or cow charging a cattle gate, used on farms, feedlots, in trucks and abattoirs across Australia.
CSIRO concluded its research last week with a series of simulated crash tests designed to evaluate how SaferGate would perform when charged or kicked by an animal. The tests were conducted by hoisting the cow to a height of five meters before launching it at the gate.
SaferGate is designed by Edward Evans, who had his own leg broken when operating a cattle gate on his farm. Unlike a traditional cattle gate, it swings away from the farmer or operator when a cow charges it, preventing injury or death. This is achieved by a pivot mechanism which splits the gate into two pieces when hit, allowing the part of the gate in front of the operator to fold back on itself and away from them.
In 2011 Mr Evans won the ABC’s New Inventors grand final and was awarded testing and evaluation of the SaferGate by CSIRO. CSIRO scientists have improved the original design by adding a magnet on the SaferGate hinge (the magnetic latch), which allows the gate to remain in a steady position – like a traditional gate – until hit. They have also added a handle on top of the gate that makes it easier for workers on horseback to open the gate.
CSIRO’s improvements have focused on simplifying the gates operation, optimising safety, and ensuring that all parts and mechanisms on the gate can be easily maintained when exposed to harsh weather conditions.
Research Project Leader Peter Westgate, who led the project, said: “We have never been asked to test the performance of a cattle gate before. Our bread and butter is industrial fire, materials and building testing, but knowing how big an issue safety is for farmers and operators made this project as rewarding as it was challenging.
“What our tests have shown us is that the harder and faster the gate is hit, the better it performs, and even though the tests use a 60kg ‘cow’ compared to a real-life 1000kg cow, the result is the same.”
SaferGate inventor and company director Edward Evans said: “With the help of CSIRO, it is great to finally see my vision for SaferGate coming to life. The improvements we have made to the original gate now mean it is even safer and easier operate on foot or on horseback. I hope to see it helping to improve the safety of Australia’s farmers and cattle gate operators very soon.”
SaferGate General Manager Mike Agnew said: “We are very pleased with the work that CSIRO has done and we are now focused on taking their designs forward and getting SaferGate manufactured and on the market. We hope to be selling SaferGate in Australia within the next six months.”
The company is planning to launch the SaferGate initially in Australia and the United States.
Update: If, like us, you were curious to know more about the cow’s role in all of this, then check out this video on what the crash test cow saw.