Growing Innovation: Issue 11, July 13, 2016

Study tour puts spotlight on precision agriculture for Aussie growers

In a 10-day study tour of New Zealand’s north island, Australian vegetable growers have taken a closer look at the precision agriculture (PA) techniques and technologies being used by our Kiwi neighbours.

The tour was a chance for growers on both sides of the Tasman to share key information, experiences and troubleshooting when it comes to implementing PA, and for the 16 Australian growers to come back with ideas and inspiration.

An evolving area that’s presenting new opportunities and challenges, at its heart PA is about using data and technology to closely manage the land based on soil and crop differences within and between fields. Variable rate irrigation (VRI) is one such application the growers were particularly interested to learn about when they visited Massey University as part of the tour, which was co-funded by Hort Innovation, the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and the Australian Government.

While in Australia VRI is yet to really take off, in New Zealand many growers are using it. At the university, researchers are looking at improving its use, including how sensors can be used to feed a whole range of data back to the central pivot irrigator in real time to affect immediate changes in the irrigation rate to different parts of the field.

The growers also attended New Zealand’s annual LandWISE conference as part of the tour, where hyperspectral technology was a hot topic. “It stood out as a real ‘watch this space’ area,” said tour attendee Robbie Tole, from Greenvale Pastoral in Tasmania.

“At the moment NDVI uses two light spectrums to give us just one bit of data – whether there’s green vegetation in an area – but with hyperspectral imaging technology you can use multiple light spectrums to get a lot of different data from an image, such as pH, crop stress and so much more,” Robbie said. “We also learnt about how it might be used in the future to cover big areas. This is the way of the future – ultimately I think one day just one plane will go up to cover a whole region, and you’d then be able to purchase the data you need from one central point.”

Field demonstrations on the tour included seeing helicopters and tractor-mounted NDVI sensors in action, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). “It really opened my eyes to how drone use doesn’t need to be complicated too,” Robbie said. “We heard from Dan Bloomer, who’s been using drones as a simple technique to take birds’-eye photos and video of the land to see what’s going on in specific areas. This changed my way of thinking, to the point where we’ve just purchased our first drone last week.”

Also visiting several New Zealand growers on their properties, among many things the Australian group saw EM38 soil mapping put to use (and shared their own troubles in getting the most accurate data to zone land this way); discussed the benefits of minimum tillage for soil health; and observed the payoffs of R&D through innovations such as robotic sorting technology, disease-resistant crop varieties and more.

One of the biggest takeaways, though, was that Australia is already doing a good job when it comes to on-farm adoption of PA – and the future is looking pretty bright. The way forward, they agreed, is for growers to come together to share problems and opportunities, as they were able to do during the tour.

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