- Farmers are increasingly relying on technology and spatial information to optimize crop and pasture management.
- Data collection and analysis to inform soil management is fundamental to supporting cropping in the WA Wheatbelt and increasingly important for irrigated agriculture and horticulture.
- Farmers and land managers need training and information to understand the technology and devices that are readily available to them.
- Technological advances that can be applied to soil management and the farming sector are constantly occurring.
In most modern industries, computerisation and the use of technology are critical components to business success. In agriculture, advancements in technology through the application of new tools and methods in soil analysis are having a profound benefit on food production and land management. The term ‘precision agriculture’ describes the use of technology to allow farmers and land managers to improve the health and productivity of their soils.
Precision agriculture uses a range of existing and emerging technologies from satellites, producing infrared images and global positioning information, to miniaturised, interconnected ground sensors that constantly measure soil moisture levels that are then fed to a computer that manages complex farm irrigation systems. Other emerging systems enable multiple farm machines to be operated without drivers, to perform the range of operations that once required a farmer to conduct.
Recently FDI interviewed Frank D’Emden from Precision Agronomics Australia, a company providing technology-based solutions to farmers, consultants and industry groups across Western Australia.
FDI: What services does Precision Agronomics Australia offer?
FD: Precision Agronomics Australia (PAA) principally offers soil mapping services as the core element of the business. Mapping is conducted using geophysical equipment in combination with soil coring and analysis to ‘ground-truth’ the geophysical data. In analysing this data we are particularly looking to identify soil-related factors that are constraining crop growth. The uniqueness of the services we offer also relates to the equipment and methods we use to conduct our mapping and data collection. For instance, we are able to convert a basic soil map into a ‘prescription map’ to be used to apply a particular fertiliser or soil ameliorant (something that helps soil such as lime or gypsum). After entering a prescription into a farmer’s machine, as the farmer traverses his paddock, the machine then distributes product at different rates in different parts of the paddock, according to the previously collated data. This is known as Variable Rate Technology (VRT).
The ‘prescription map’ can be designed to address soil constraints such as acidity or sodicity. Here for example, we are able to target the application of lime or gypsum to different areas, depending on spatial distribution of different soil types. The data contained in the prescription map enables farmers also to apply products such as potassium, phosphorus or nitrogen in particular locations within a paddock where they are most needed and with minimum wastage.
Most modern grain harvesters come equipped with a yield mapping capability. Here PAA is able to ‘clean’ and process the collated data relative to a particular type of machine as well as calibrating the measured yields using the actual delivered tonnages. This is particularly important when multiple harvesters are used in combination on a farmer’s paddock or when less-experienced drivers are operating equipment. The yield mapping is important because it can help farmers avoid over-fertilising in one area or under-fertilising in another part of a paddock and replace the nutrients that have been removed by the crop. As well, we are able to identify the extremities of other constraints previously determined through the PAA data collection process. If we see an area that appears to be suffering (or otherwise constrained), we are able to investigate through our soil mapping to determine causes and work out the most cost-effective treatment. Sometimes this might involve soil renovation, such as deep ripping, clay spreading or spading, or in more serious cases a change of land-use may be the most appropriate action.
PAA’s soil mapping services also apply to irrigated agriculture and assist farmers to best-manage their water resources. For example, in the Harvey region, due to low dam levels this year, farmers are currently restricted to using only 40 per cent of their maximum water allocation. Therefore, it becomes vital for farmers to know and understand how to best use their water allocation by determining the optimum methods of application and irrigation, depending on soil type and other related factors.
FDI: How do these services benefit farmers and land managers?
FD: PAA works mainly in the WA Wheatbelt. Our services benefit farmers and land managers by enabling them to optimise inputs of fertiliser and soil ameliorants to where they are most needed. In the Wheatbelt, over the last 30 years, farms have tended to get bigger, shifting away from mixed cropping and livestock production in smaller paddocks that were fenced according to soil type, to larger-scale paddocks used solely for crop production that may encompass several different soil types that have varying production potential.
Most farmers these days have the building blocks for VRT where a farm machine, for instance, knows its own location, steers itself and can increase or decrease the rates of fertiliser or soil ameliorants. For growers, the technology improves crop yields and soil productivity by optimising the amounts of inputs applied from the machine according to the soil and crop requirements. Through soil-mapping and analysis of biomass and yield maps, we know which areas have a capability for higher or lower production and we can then apply land use management measures that target specific requirements.
In irrigated agriculture, a prescription map also helps farmers to determine watering regimes by enabling them to understand the variation in soil water holding capacity. Even in dryland agriculture, farmers can better govern rates of fertiliser application by reviewing their rainfall records, looking at the medium-range weather forecasts to determine the likelihood of more rain, and varying the amount of nitrogen to even out their risk exposure. These decisions can be supported by data from soil moisture sensors that provide hourly measurements of soil water content that farmers can access from anywhere on their mobile devices.
FDI: What shortfalls, if any, exist in the collection, analysis and processing of information relating to soil management?
FD: Data collection is becoming easier and cheaper. For instance, we can work out the variations in soil type and we are able to determine rates of fuel consumption in tractors in a paddock. We can also map topography and its effect on crops. The cost of soil analysis is a constraint as the geophysical data needs to be ‘ground-truthed’ against soil samples. This can represent up to 30 per cent of the costs associated with soil mapping.
We are working towards having the capability to conduct ‘in-situ’ soil analysis by taking an instrument into the field and determining exactly the physical and chemical properties of soil. There are instruments now that will determine the level of surface pH (a measurement of acidity) and there are other, vehicle-mounted prototype instruments for conducting soil analysis in the field, but these need to be calibrated to differing soil types. For these reasons, PAA is looking towards instruments that use near- and mid-infrared soil analysis techniques as those sorts of instruments can now be operated under field conditions.
Currently a significant constraint is amount of manual ‘data wrangling’ involved in turning raw data into robust and usable information that in turn enables farmers and land managers to make decisions. We are also conscious that there a many ‘hidden gems’ in the data we collect, so data mining techniques are of particular interest to us. The interpretation of geophysical data at difference scales and in different regions is an area where we are constantly learning.
Sometimes we have a situation where there is really solid data and good interpretation and the barrier is in being able to implement a solution. This is often the case in irrigated agriculture and horticulture where there is fixed irrigation infrastructure and the costs of renovating it to enable variable rate irrigation are prohibitive. In these cases there are often still gains to be made from using weather, soil moisture and crop growth data to optimise irrigation decisions. In many cases where water is cheap, growers are happy to overwater to ensure even crop growth and ripening, factors which far outweigh the costs of irrigation. But we are increasingly seeing growers of lower value irrigated crops (e.g. dairy pastures) wanting to optimise their irrigation due to the energy costs of pumping the water. So you can see that there is a whole raft of inter-related economic factors that influence the decision to adopt precision agriculture technology.
The physical and the biological aspects of soil management are areas that are possibly under-represented in terms of our understanding of how they vary throughout the landscape. Soil compaction, for example, is a sleeping issue, and only recently are people coming to realise the severity of subsoil compaction across the WA wheatbelt. ‘Decompaction’ allows crops roots to explore the full profile for moisture and nutrients, and in doing to so, effectively recharge the subsoil with carbon and its associated biology. Effectively it gives earthworms, termites and other soil fauna a much better chance to actively mix and change soil structure. Once these foundations are right, you can start to add the chemistry on top to ensure nutrients, pH and associated aspects are correct. To a certain extent, as an industry we’ve been blind-sided by these physical and biological issues in our focus on soil nutrition and chemistry.
To a certain extent, the role that microbiology plays in soil management is not well-understood by the broader industry, and is sometimes not given due consideration in pesticide application decisions. This may be due to soil biology being ‘out of sight out mind’, and the fact that soil biology cycles tend to be longer term and growers are, for good reason, focussed on the here-and-now of crop management decisions.
There has been some excellent local research into soil biology, particularly in relation to soil fungi and nitrogen fixing bacteria, as discussed in previous FDI feature interviews. Another area where research is needed relates to soil fertility in WA in terms of the best analytical methods to determine the optimum levels of potassium relative to soil type, and how the soil’s natural supply of potassium becomes available to the plant in different soil types.
FDI: What needs to be done to meet these shortfalls?
FD: Education and training are needed for consultants, farmers and land managers about the practical aspects of implementing precision agriculture and how they can benefit from its applications. Also, across WA, for example, there is an incredible diversity of climate, landform and geology which means that the decision rules for VRT vary enormously depending where you are and what you’re growing. Growers and consultants in WA should seek to understand the aspects of soil management most important to them, as well as about soil variations and changes in inputs to manage those soils and their crops and pastures. This knowledge will build their understanding on how all of those factors work, thus enabling them to be more confident about their decisions to use VRT for fertilisers, soil ameliorants and even herbicides, pesticides and fungicides.
From a technical perspective, there is also a need for a degree of training that relates to computers, digitisation, electronics, interpreting data as well as data management software that is incorporated in delivering precision agriculture. Making it easier to access and interpret spatial data to help in decision making is certainly a priority, with industry pundits now calling on a movement from precision agriculture to ‘decision agriculture’. Good practitioners of precision agriculture have always known that it’s about confidence in making the right decision. I guess they’re just trying to make a point that having lots of data is useless unless you know how to make a decision from it.
FDI: What is the future for data collection services in the agricultural sector? What are the emerging technologies that might have an impact?
FD: New sensors are becoming available that will enable infrared analysis of soil which is exciting. Miniaturisation of analytical instruments through a technology known as microelectromechanical systems (or MEMS for short) is showing a lot of promise for environmental sensing. New satellites are collecting visual data of the Earth’s surface at greater time frequency and at high resolution, providing very high-quality images which aid in crop assessment and pasture management. The satellites are also capable of taking images across different spectral bands, such as near-infrared and short-wave infrared which can detect moisture, temperature and crop stress.
Un-manned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are platforms where associated measuring instruments and cameras can be mounted to collect high-resolution images. These machines are in increasing use in farming and land management. UAVs can also be fitted with devices that measure surface temperatures, or the temperature in a crop canopy, as an indicator of whether a crop is stressed through a lack of water, disease or insect infestation. UAV are affordable and can be easily operated by one person.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming increasingly important to farming practice. Applied to precision agriculture, IoT can link field located devices that collect data in real time to be included in decision-support systems available to farmers and contractors. Examples are small, cheap, WiFi capable devices that use telemetry to transmit monitoring data such as soil moisture, water usage and soil chemistry to determine fertiliser requirements.
However, it is the ability to process and analyse all this data that really lies at the heart of making it useful to farmers. A lot of the work being done needs to ‘get out of the lab’ so to speak to really understand how it can be applied in real-world situations. This is what Precision Agronomics specialises in, taking the latest research and technology and applying it to real-world agricultural situations that can help farmers be more profitable, reduce their risk and reduce their impact on the environment.
About the Interviewee:
Frank D’Emden works at Precision Agronomics Australia. Frank’s career in agriculture began at an early age working as a farmhand on a broadacre farm in the Esperance district. After graduating with a Science degree with honours in Natural Resource Management in 2000 and a Masters of Agriculture Science in 2005 (both from the University of Western Australia), Frank worked for the Department of Agriculture and Food WA from 2006 to 2009, joining Precision Agronomics Australia in October 2009.
Frank’s role as Technology Development Manager involves undertaking research and development in all aspects of precision agriculture, with a focus on using electromagnetics and gamma radiation data to create high-resolution soil and prescription maps for variable rate applications. Frank has also led a number of R&D projects in conjunction with government agencies and grower-funded organisations.