Irrigated rice is the largest user of precious global water reserves. Adoption of water-saving irrigation practices is limited by the associated increased labor demand compared to flooded rice cultivation. Automated gravity surface irrigation systems have shown the potential to deliver significant labor savings in traditional flooded rice; however, widespread adoption does not seem apparent. Furthermore, previously designed systems have not been capable of irrigation control during both ponded and non-ponded periods. This study aimed to evaluate the performance of an automated irrigation system for rice with features not previously developed, provide direction for future systems and analyze the opportunity cost (the value of other on- or off-farm activities that could be conducted with that time) of time associated with automated irrigation. The automated irrigation system was found to successfully control 23–31 flush-irrigation events per bay per season in a 9-bay border-check aerobic rice field for 2 seasons. In addition, successful water control was achieved in a traditional drill-sown field with 4 flush irrigations followed by 15 weeks of permanent flooding. Labor savings of 82–88% during the flush-irrigation events and 57% during the ponding period were achieved with automation when compared to manual irrigation. However, the opportunity cost of the saved time was found to comprise the greatest benefit. Changing the analysis from using a flat “cash” cost of time to using opportunity cost of time reduced the payback period from seven to four years at the traditional ponded-rice site. In the more labor-intensive aerobic rice site, the payback period was reduced from three years to one year when accounting for the opportunity cost of time as opposed to only the direct costs. Whilst the payback period is site-dependent and cultivation method-dependent, these case studies demonstrate that automated gravity surface irrigation can enable novel water-saving practices in rice and provide substantial economic benefits.