With the agricultural sector contributing 3 per cent of Australia’s total gross domestic product (GDP), it is crucial our farmers stay competitive. Not only do farmers need to produce more with less, but they also need to ensure they can cope with an ever-growing, ever-hungry human population.
The high costs of labour, fertilisers, herbicides, diesel and machinery in Australia make it difficult for farmers to stay ahead of the game, however. “Many farming businesses are not competitive at the moment,” claims NSW Farmers’ general manager, research and development, David Eyre.
Increasing foreign investment in agriculture in Australia is also raising the bar for local farmers to get their foot in overseas markets.
“There’s nothing in our policy framework to stop [foreign investors] from setting up their own much more efficient systems where they produce product here and sell it directly into their own market,” Eyre says. “They can use their own staff and they don’t necessarily need to involve [agents] in the Australian economy at all.”
Colin Griffith, director of the Australian Centre for Broadband Innovation with the CSIRO, forecasts Australia’s food exports to Asia will double over the coming decade. To keep up with future demand, farmers will need to work in smarter ways to increase productivity.
Precision agriculture is being touted as the way to do go about that. This data-driven approach to farming uses technologies such as sensors and GPS to assists farmers in making better decisions around operations and management of crops and livestock in order to increase productivity.
Demonstration farms have been set up for the purpose of testing how different precision agriculture technologies can be used to achieve better results in farming, ranging from soil mapping to wireless tracking of cattle.
These include the University of New England’s Kirby ‘smart farm’ in Armidale, NSW; the CSIRO’s sensor network across Tasmania called SenseT; and ‘digital homestead’ in Townsville, Queensland.
Here, we check out several examples of precision agriculture and how it’s changing the face of farming.
David Lamb from the Precision Agriculture Research Group at the University of New England says soil mapping has doubled the yield of crops per mega-litre of water for a cotton farmer in Moree, NSW and reduced fertiliser by a third for a wheat farmer near Gilgandra, NSW.
The idea of soil mapping is to move away from taking a blanket approach to managing crops and treating a paddock as a single unit of land. Lamb says there can be significant differences in soils across a paddock in the order of tens of metres; it can vary from clay to sand, and even paleochannels (remnants of ancient water rivers or streams) underfoot.
Eyre says having technology that can measure and map out different levels of soil quality across a paddock means farmers can better determine where they need to apply more or less fertiliser on their crops.
“You can tell your machinery to apply the fertiliser for the optimal amount per unit of land,” he says. “If it’s a relatively poor piece of soil you put more fertiliser in and vice versa.
“Or you may find particular parts of the paddock where you should not be cropping at all because the soil is so poor; every year when you do your yield you might find you are getting a terrible yield from a particular part of the paddock.”
Eyre is also working with the University of Sydney in a precision agriculture model that can not only measure soil type and fertility, but also carbon and nitrogen levels. “We are seeing how that relates to the yield and whether we can get a change in soil carbon and nitrogen by changing the specific agricultural practices.”
Continues over page
Wireless tracking of cattle
Tracking cattle around a farm provides more advantages to farmers than just simply keeping a watch over their livestock. It can monitor an animal’s behaviour, eating patterns, health and wellbeing, helping to determine how to best cultivate the land to ensure cattle grow as strong as possible.
Lamb is using Taggle’s first generation ear tag tracking technology for cattle on the Kirby smart farm to determine where and when they are grazing the most.
“You can look at where the animal was during certain time windows of the day, and if those time windows were associated with grazing. If you subset all those logs down to 10am to 12pm and 2pm to 4pm in the day, those particular locations are likely to be where they were grazing, which means you can create a grazing history map,” he explains.
“By creating that map you can start to think about where they are taking majority of their biomass and if you need to put more nutrients out in the ground to promote more growth, or put in place a water point of feed supplements to improve the value of the pasture consumed during grazing.”
CSIRO’s Griffith says farmers can also be sent mobile device alerts when tracking technology picks up unusual movements of an animal such as drifting outside paddock boundaries, being still for a long period of time, or moving at remarkably fast speed. Each can indicate something unusual such as a death, attack or an animal is wandering lost or is being stolen.
“Going forward we are looking at potentially much more sensitive, more accurate sensors. So being able to diagnose animal behaviour such as a cow giving birth or if there’s some sort of incident that then can be sent as an alert to a farmer,” he adds.
“So rather than having to drive around the entire farm checking the cows are all right, being able to get alerts if something was to happen saves time.”
Robots are also making their way into precision agriculture. The head of Queensland University of Technology’s Farm Robotics project, Gordon Wyeth, is developing robotic weeding vehicles estimated to save the Australian wheat industry alone $620 million a year in herbicide and diesel costs.
The Australian Research Council funded project has seen development of a prototype called AgBot that sprays weeds along large fields autonomously while using software and a camera to differentiate from crops and avoid hitting into livestock, ditches and other obstacles.
“Because you have a very controlled method of herbicide delivery, you can use much less herbicide. Reducing the amount of herbicide that’s used has obvious cost and environmental advantages,” Wyeth says.
“Also, farmers spend a lot of money on diesel for tractors. These [robotic] vehicles are electric and one of the things we are working on is to make them solar powered, either using solar panels that might be situated somewhere on the farm where the vehicles go to recharge, or on the vehicle itself. So there’s no diesel costs, and no emissions.”
Wyeth adds robotic vehicles have been built to be much lighter than tractors or traditional crop harvesting machines, reducing soil compaction and preserving the existing soil quality. The on-board camera also captures data on crop conditions as it moves through the fields. This can help the farmer pick up on any growth abnormalities or if there is a pest problem, for example.
The University of Sydney’s professor of robotics and intelligent systems, Salah Sukkarieh, has also developed an advanced prototype of an unmanned aerial vehicle that can fly over a paddock and asses the health of crops, as well as map out weed coverage and water distribution.
Different types of sensors – such as vision, laser infared, thermal and multispectral – are attached onto the small robotic plane for capturing data such as the shape and size of a crop, the level of humidity, and so on.
Algorithms then churn all of the data into information that can be used to determine yield estimates, whether a particular part of the land needs more irrigation or fertiliser, or detect a disease outbreak early.
The NBN’s role in farming
Implementing precision agriculture technologies is one thing but being able to interpret and use the data generated is another. This is where a high-speed Internet connection provided by the National Broadband Network (NBN) comes into play.
“A lot of the technologies we are testing and demonstrating out there are creating complicated data and information,” Lamb says. “That data and information is actually [moved] off the farm to people who understand it and know how to make it work. Then what we do is we connect the farm to those people through the NBN.
“Video telephony is the key here. If I were a farmer, I could have a service provider to look after all of that [information] and every week I’d sit down in my lounge room and have a video chat to them while they show me all the data that is coming off my farm. I could get a lot more sense in say half an hour with external help rather than spend hours a week trying to keep my own technology alive and working.”
NSW Farmers’ Eyre says the NBN is crucial to enabling farmers to tap into the expertise of technologists remotely, and sees more employment opportunities opening in regional Australia for people with IT backgrounds with have an understanding of the agribusiness industry.
“We have many farmers who have a lot of data sitting in their tractors, headers and so on that they are not using because they don’t have anyone to process it and they don’t have the time themselves,” he says.
“That’s where there’s a need for more training and a bit more collaboration across industry groups to get the digital economy really working in regional Australia. And our parties in the supply chain have to co-operate on things like data models; we need to collaborate in order to have effective IT systems across supply chains and agree on rules and processes.”