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 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.”
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