Pre­ci­sion Agri­cul­ture

The promised ben­e­fits of dig­i­tal and pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture are numer­ous – but for many farm­ers the bar­ri­ers are just too high. An­drew Hobbs talks with So­ci­ety of Pre­ci­sion Agri­cul­ture Aus­tralia com­mit­tee mem­ber Ro­han Rain­bow about what your next moves sho

Farms & Farm Machinery - - Contents -

Map­ping a new world: Start­ing out with pre­ci­sion ag tech­nol­ogy

If you’re a farmer look­ing at us­ing new tech­nolo­gies to get more out of your land, a lit­tle knowl­edge goes a long way, one of Aus­tralia’s lead­ing ex­perts in the field says.

Ro­han Rain­bow, who was once the So­ci­ety of Pre­ci­sion Agri­cul­ture Aus­tralia’s ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer and to­day is a lead­ing in­dus­try con­sul­tant, told Farms & Farm Ma­chin­ery that an in­vest­ment in dig­i­tal or pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture needs a solid foun­da­tion – and that the com­plex­ity of the field it­self made this dif­fi­cult to come by.

“To make it work well, es­pe­cially for a busi­ness, I would say that some of the best ad­vice I could give is to get some pro­fes­sional help in set­ting it up,” he says.

While a num­ber of ma­chin­ery deal­er­ship net­works are of­fer­ing paid ser­vice pro­vi­sion to ma­chin­ery clients in or­der to make the sys­tems more user-friendly, with­out an un­der­stand­ing of what the data col­lected from these ma­chine ac­tu­ally means, Rain­bow says there’s a chance you could be wast­ing time and money.

“There are a lot of peo­ple be­ing told that we can ac­tu­ally prob­a­bly de­liver much of the ben­e­fits just us­ing high res­o­lu­tion satel­lite imagery,” he says.

“That will kind of tell you where to look, but it won’t help you an­swer the un­der­ly­ing is­sues con­tribut­ing to in-field vari­abil­ity and how your pad­dock will re­spond to dif­fer­ent man­age­ment, such as vari­able rate ap­pli­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy such as fer­tiliser, her­bi­cide and ir­ri­ga­tion.

“You can’t dis­count the value of pre­ci­sion ag 101, and that re­ally is the key mes­sage – there are no short­cuts. You need to do the ba­sics well,” he says.

PRE­CI­SION AG 101

It is not as if Aus­tralian farm­ers are slow mov­ing – pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture tech­nolo­gies, which use pre­cise spa­tial man­age­ment through GPS sys­tems to im­prove farm prac­tices, have been around since the 1990s – and Rain­bow says Aussie broad­acre farm­ers have one of the high­est rates of au­tosteer adop­tion in the world.

“Prob­a­bly one of the big­ger op­por­tu­ni­ties for pro­duc­ers is that while nearly around 60 per cent of pro­duc­ers have yield mon­i­tors on their har­vesters, only about half of those pro­duc­ers are ac­tively col­lect­ing and us­ing yield maps,” he says.

In other words, when the crop is be­ing har­vested, the data isn’t – and com­pli­cated data-gath­er­ing sys­tems and poor in-field data con­nec­tiv­ity ac­cess are largely to blame.

Rain­bow says this isn’t only true for broad­acre farm­ers, telling an au­di­ence at the Fer­tiliser Aus­tralia Ma­chin­ery Field Day 2018 that yield map­ping is also low among wine and sugar pro­duc­ers as well as in the hor­ti­cul­ture and veg­etable-grow­ing in­dus­tries.

“With­out yield maps you re­ally can’t val­i­date the im­pact of the gran­u­lar vari­abil­ity in the fields… it re­ally should be stan­dard prac­tice for any­body do­ing busi­ness and who wants to do

busi­ness in the fu­ture, be­cause you need yield in­for­ma­tion as a val­i­da­tion tool,” he told Farms & Farm Ma­chin­ery.

While many of the ma­chines used for yield map­ping have SIM cards built into them, Rain­bow says poor mo­bile phone data con­nec­tiv­ity means that some farm­ers needed to phys­i­cally trans­fer data from the ma­chine to the of­fice com­puter.

“Peo­ple ba­si­cally run all har­vest and then for­get to down­load it, and a lot of data is lost,” he says.

A low level of dig­i­tal lit­er­acy and poor in-field data con­nec­tiv­ity were key find­ings of a re­port re­leased ear­lier this year by the Cot­ton Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion and jointly funded by 15 ru­ral de­vel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tions and the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment Ru­ral R&D for Profit pro­gram.

En­ti­tled Ac­cel­er­at­ing Pre­ci­sion Agri­cul­ture to De­ci­sion

Agri­cul­ture, the re­port said col­lect­ing and analysing farm data to im­prove de­ci­sion-mak­ing, known as dig­i­tal agri­cul­ture, could boost the value of Aus­tralia’s agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion by 25 per cent – an in­crease of about $20.3 bil­lion per year.

But these op­por­tu­ni­ties were largely be­ing missed by a dig­i­tal ma­tu­rity level that was soundly at the ad hoc stage – not us­ing data to make de­ci­sions on a sys­tem­atic or con­sis­tent ba­sis.

“It is some­thing that is be­ing dis­cussed a lot by in­dus­try as to how that can be im­proved – other­wise we will have a dig­i­tal di­vide in agri­cul­ture and this will present some com­mer­cial chal­lenges to busi­nesses that are able to utilise these tools and ser­vices.”

SEEK­ING A HELP­ING HAND

On top of this, Rain­bow says that when the data is col­lected, it can come in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent for­mats as col­lected by dif­fer­ent ma­chines – with the ma­chines of­ten be­ing un­able to di­rectly con­nect with each other.

To help avoid los­ing more valu­able in­for­ma­tion, Rain­bow says a num­ber of larger grow­ers are us­ing pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture ser­vice provider com­pa­nies to help them – pro­cess­ing data from ma­chines and con­trac­tors’ equip­ment; de­liv­er­ing cleaned and pro­cessed data to pro­duc­ers in a us­able form.

There are moves afoot to de­liver im­proved ma­chin­ery-tosoft­ware in­te­gra­tion through a pro­gram called Ag Gate­way and its soft­ware tool Adapt, he says, while an­other ap­proach gain­ing trac­tion is the Open Ag Data Al­liance, which is tak­ing an open ar­chi­tec­ture ap­proach.

“It is a re­ally im­por­tant ques­tion to ask if you are buy­ing soft­ware or work­ing with a ma­chin­ery hard­ware provider to en­quire about their abil­ity to use ei­ther one of those two plat­forms in the fu­ture,” Rain­bow says.

“If you are not it will be quite dif­fi­cult – not so much now, but in the fu­ture – to re­ally get the max­i­mum value out of the use of dig­i­tal data and also en­able you to go the next step, which is full ma­chine au­to­ma­tion.”

Rain­bow says that ma­chine au­to­ma­tion will even­tu­ally en­able a farmer to take data from their ma­chine and val­i­date this in a data cloud, help­ing the ma­chine make real time de­ci­sions.

“There are a lot of sen­sor and teleme­try sys­tems that are be­ing de­vel­oped that could com­mu­ni­cate with an au­ton­o­mous trac­tor into the fu­ture and give bet­ter con­trol than the vis­ual cues peo­ple get from what they are see­ing with their eyes,” he says.

“I think in the fu­ture all those sys­tems and teleme­try are ac­tu­ally go­ing to im­prove stew­ard­ship of pes­ti­cide use and prac­tices, and ul­ti­mately re­duce the cost and im­prove ef­fi­cien­cies for busi­ness.

“But that is the Achilles heel of the whole thing though – you need full con­nec­tiv­ity to do that, and that prob­a­bly re­quires a lot of dis­cus­sion at a fed­eral pol­icy level about how we can bet­ter en­able that,” he says.

In the mean­time, Rain­bow urges farm­ers not to be dis­cour­aged by the ob­sta­cles in the way at present – but sim­ply to em­brace care­ful plan­ning.

“The first time you ever use a com­puter you think – oh good­ness, how do I do this?” he says. “But over time it just be­comes se­cond na­ture – and it will be the same with pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture and dig­i­tal agri­cul­ture tech­nolo­gies as well.”

Jaco Marais/Foto24/Gallo Images/ Getty Images

Above: Pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture can help en­sure fer­tilis­ers are used ef­fi­ciently and ef­fec­tively. {Jean-Fran­cois Monier/AFP/ Getty Images)In­set above: Ro­han Rain­bowFar left: High res­o­lu­tion satel­lite imagery can de­liver ben­e­fits to farm­ers, but it must be used ef­fec­tively, Ro­han Rain­bow says.

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