Agriculture has made a significant contribution to the shared economic and heritage value that is the ‘Great Australian Outback’, yet concerns over the impacts of climate change, economic uncertainty and foreign ownership have become increasingly prominent in discussions over the future of farming here in Australia. These challenges formed the basis of the inaugural Digital Rural Futures (DRF) conference last week in Armidale, regional New South Wales, home to the National Broadband Network (NBN) and the University of New England (UNE). With the emergence of the digital economy, agriculture has often been left off the agenda at major industry and government gatherings. The DRF conference provided a national platform to bring together farmers, consultants and researchers to discuss the key challenges and opportunities a digitally connected agricultural sector is likely to face. Agriculture plays an important role in Australian Government plans to increase the value of agriculture and food exports by close to 50 per cent by 2025, driven by the growth of Asia on our doorstep.
The NBN roll-out is seen as a critical link between urban and regional Australia in efforts to digitally enable the whole agribusiness value chain. The conference not only provided a stage for the latest innovations in on-farm technology to be discussed but also an onsite demonstration at the Kirby Smart Farm near Armidale. The farm visit proved invaluable in understanding the challenges currently confronting Australian agricultural growers and producers, highlighting the importance of a holistic approach when developing on-farm solutions and evaluating the potential value of the whole supply chain, from ‘farm gate to plate’. In doing so, the value of the whole system becomes evident, as gross value from agricultural production provided more than $50 billion to the Australian economy this past year and employed about 300,000 people, while the broader agribusiness supply chain employs an estimated 1.3 million people.
Since the widespread adoption of auto-steer technology in farm machinery more than 20 years ago, the uptake of technology within the Australian agricultural industry has slowed with current estimates suggesting only 20 per cent of the sector has adopted precision agriculture technology and practices. Technology includes the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS), satellite and remote sensing as well as Geographic Information System (GIS) hardware and software. The increasing costs of fuel and farm labour compared to other nations are driving a renewed uptake of technology to digitally enable Australian farms. During the conference industry insights from Tim Neale, founder of PrecisionAgriculture.com.au, suggested the role of technology on farms is “not only about making farms more profitable, but also making farmers’ lives a little easier.” This is reflected in the rapid adoption of smartphone and tablet devices on farms that are now used by more than 70 per cent of Australian agribusinesses.
The widespread uptake of technologies needed to support the growth of Australian agribusinesses is dependent on underlying infrastructure that provides the necessary link between urban and regional areas using mobile and wireless networks. According to most recent surveys only two-thirds of Australian agribusinesses have access to the internet for business purposes while less than half are benefiting from the use of broadband. It is envisioned this low level uptake will be alleviated by the rural roll-out of the NBN, bringing high speed fibre to 93 per cent of Australia, as explained during the keynote presentation from Joe Dennis from NBN Co. It is important to highlight that the remaining 7 per cent is mostly made up of remote agricultural growers and producers in Australia. High speed coverage to these regional areas is imperative to farm productivity and will be delivered in the form of fixed wireless or a new satellite network service.
Evidence from around the world has shown the adoption of high speed fibre significantly increases productivity throughout the agribusiness value system. As a result, access to high speed fibre will digitally enable Australian agribusinesses, while the emergence of a new ‘smart services’ sector is seen as a real game changer for the industry. Smart services will essentially connect the technical knowledge and know-how of urban IT and GIS organisations to provide value-adding services to rural Australian farmers in order to solve often complex spatial problems. One of the challenges of deploying large on-farm sensor networks will be how to cope with the large quantities of data that will be created. While farmers may not necessarily have the technical knowledge, computing capacity and experience to manage big data, IT and GIS professionals are well versed in managing and turning large datasets into valuable services for clients. This illustrates an important role IT and GIS organisations could potentially play in providing smart services to Australian farmers, made possible by the rural roll-out of high speed broadband.
While there are currently several local sensor networks deployed on smart farms throughout Australia, an important challenge relates to how to upscale these networks to cover larger geographic areas. The Sense-T program is currently testing the feasibility of this problem in Tasmania in order to scale local sensor networks into a state wide intelligent sensor system where data can be shared and turned into a valuable service for business, government and the public via a web-based portal. The deployment of bio-sensors in the aquaculture industry for example is providing valuable real-time data to model oyster health through heartbeat detection sensors as well as the ability to integrate data from catchment authorities to close off harvest areas during flooding. An exciting part of the DRF conference was seeing all of these innovations in smart farm technology in action during the post-conference visit to the Kirby Smart Farm.
A growing concern to Australian livestock producers is livestock theft, commonly referred to as ‘cattle rustling’. During the most recent national farm crime survey commissioned by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) it was found that livestock theft contributed around $50 million to annual on-farm losses. It is likely the prevalence and value of loss through livestock theft has increased since then and this is supported by high profile stock rustling cases such as the theft of 860 head of cattle in western Queensland worth an estimated $1 million. The ability for farmers to track livestock in real-time and be alerted when cattle move outside a physical or virtual fence is therefore critical to addressing the growing number of stock theft incidents as well as alleviating the negative impact theft can have on farm productivity and economic viability.
For farm managers, the ability to remotely check the location and wellbeing of livestock and workers is seen as a critical step in improving animal welfare and reducing on-farm deaths. Quad bike accidents are still the leading cause of Australian farm deaths today, making up 18 on-farm deaths last year with 90 per cent caused by bike rollover. An innovative project at the Kirby Smart Farm is hoping to address this issue by providing farm managers with an alert on their smartphone device when a quad bike has flipped on the farm. A similar system is also being implemented for tracking livestock movements using the ‘Taggle System’, a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) ear tag, which allows farm managers to monitor livestock location from a smartphone or tablet device. A recent study by the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (IACRC) found that the impact of wild dogs and foxes cost the Australian livestock industry more than $100 million every year. A solution being trialled to address the impact wild dogs and foxes have on sheep and lamb populations involves pairing guardian dogs fitted with GPS collars to track and protect livestock from predation. This will enable shepherds to geo-locate sheep from their smartphone device, be alerted to increased activity as a measure of pest presence, and provide farm managers with better real-time information to minimise stock losses during bushfires or floods.
With the consolidation of farms into larger operating units coupled with a decline in available labour in regional Australia, the DRF conference emphasised how the next generation of Australian farmers will need to be able to remotely monitor their stock. On a property north west of Queensland a Producer Demonstration Site (PDS) funded by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) currently has remote monitoring technology implemented to provide cost and efficiency gains to cattle producers. The Remote Livestock Management System (RLMS) being trialled on the PDS was developed by Precision Pastoral out of Alice Springs and initial results indicate producers could potentially save up to $100,000 per year. The use of walk-over-weighing (WOW) and auto-drafters at the PDS allow cattle producers to select and store animals based on weight classes in order to attain a premium price at market. In the near future a Teppanyaki chef in Japan will be able to demand a specific weight range of Australian Wagyu beef direct from the cattle producer that can then be tracked through the whole agribusiness value chain, bringing new meaning to the notion fresh from ‘paddock-to-plate’. In Australia some of the main providers of remote monitoring camera services for agribusiness include RMTeK, Observant and uSee. These service providers currently work on livestock monitoring, remote irrigation control as well as crop and pest management projects throughout Australia.
Planning and Analysis
During the conference visit to Kirby Smart Farm Professor David Lamb, lead researcher of the UNE Precision Agriculture Research Group, explained how rapid crop biomass scanning technology was being tested using the latest in crop sensor technology known as ‘Raptor’. The Raptor system trialled on the Kirby Smart Farm, by local Armidale-based company Superair, provides enough optical sensing power to fly the sensor four metres and up to 50 metres above the canopy, overcoming previous industry limitations on hilly farm terrain. The advantage of using the Raptor system over traditional satellite aerial imagery is the ability to detect crop vigour during high cloud cover and at night using the latest in multispectral sensors. Mapping vegetative health provides growers and agronomists with valuable information about fluctuations in on-farm productivity that are now being integrated with variable rate nutrient applicators to change the quantity of crop dressing in real-time using information provided by the Raptor system.
While the retrofitting of technology on farm equipment is providing cost efficiency gains the roll out of new smart farm machinery is an exciting prospect for digitally enabling Australian farms. Cotton producers in Queensland are purchasing larger harvesting machinery which can now perform the role of several previous machines, leading to productivity gains through reduced labour and fuel costs. The next generation of farm equipment manufactured by John Deere now has built-in telemetry services, allowing farm managers to remotely connect with a smart harvester to monitor operation efficiency and be alerted when breakdowns occur using the JDLink application from their smartphone device. In the future, a farm machinery mechanic will be able to remotely access and diagnose breakdowns, create a new part using a computer aided design (CAD) program and then send this CAD file of a replacement part via the NBN network to the farmer who can then produce the part using an on-farm 3D printer.
The Digital Rural Futures conference provided valuable insights into the future of farming in Australia and the role GIS technology and services can play in both digitally and spatially enabling smart farms. While sensor networks provide important spatial data to growers, producers and agronomists, they all depend on connectivity to high speed internet, hence why the rural roll out of broadband is seen as critical to the growth of agribusinesses. A connected farm will likely reduce the isolation of agribusiness operations by reconnecting urban centres with rural Australia to provide ‘smart services’ which IT and GIS organisations have the technical and knowledge capacity to support productivity growth. In order for Australia to become the food bowl for Asia, the agribusiness industry will need to embrace new technology and precision agriculture systems to both increase farm outputs and add value across the agribusiness supply chain.
Some food for thought perhaps on the future of farming in Australia?